Ten days that changed everything

By Ian Fytche | 23 March 2020

Just a few weeks ago, local government was focused on finalising the budget, devolution, responding to the climate emergency, the future of the high street and sustainable economic growth.

Now, everything has changed. Our whole focus has shifted onto the biggest public health emergency any of us has ever witnessed. The budgets and strategies approved by our councils less than a month ago are no longer relevant. It’s the biggest leadership challenge of our generation, and for now, it’s eclipsed everything else.

In the last 10 days, North Kesteven DC has developed and implemented a new operating model. Three simple objectives guide everything we do…to delay and suppress the spread of the virus, to protect vulnerable people and to maintain essential local services.

We have moved immediately to maximise home working, maintaining an office base with fewer than 30 people remaining on site. Only those essential to maintaining a dispersed network of home-based workers remain office-based. The office is a secure sealed environment, with enhanced cleaning regimes and strict protocols to maintain social distance.

Managers and supervisors have a conversation every day with every member of their team to agree objectives, maintain contact and protect wellbeing. Their goal is to facilitate a virtual team meeting every week. We have issued guidance on how to maintain health and wellbeing for colleagues and their families based at home. The management team connects virtually every day, with a new reporting structure under development.

We have implemented a new customer contact protocol, designed to facilitate delivery of essential services in a way which protects the health and wellbeing of customers and colleagues...for a wide range of statutory services including waste collection, housing repairs, environmental health, environmental protection and dangerous structures.

We are redeploying resources to protect organisational resilience and to engage in emergency response and business continuity. Partnership includes, amongst others, the county council, neighbouring districts, the NHS and blue light services, operating to shared objectives through the Lincolnshire resilience forum. We are connecting with a wide range of community groups, faith groups and individuals activating community support programmes and we are reshaping services to support them. There are real heroes in our communities and it brings a tear to the eye.

We have closed leisure centres, arts venues and a theatre, museums, nature parks, digital hubs and all office bases…everything must be done to suppress the virus.

Behind the scenes, we are developing new finance strategies to manage risks to cash flow, adjust for loss of income, contemplate project delays and cancellations and anticipate significant risks to contractors and contract performance. We are making our best assessment of the likely impact of government programmes designed to protect employment, the local economy and fund public services.

Council members have been advised to stay at home. The Leader of the Council is playing a critical role as the public face of the organisation, providing information and advice daily to all members, connecting with fellow leaders and the government. In time, we will design ways to build the systems for virtual decision-making and member engagement.

Ten days in, it’s very early days, and yet every day is vital to ensure we play our part in what is a major national effort. There are many things we will not yet have anticipated. We are moving at pace and what seems relevant today may not be tomorrow. We are in uncharted territory beyond the edge of the map, designing methods of navigation as we go.

One thing is absolutely certain…we have some amazing people in local government. I cannot say enough about the leadership, focus, commitment and selfless attitude of colleagues across our organisation. When the book gets written and the film gets made, there will be some incredible stories to tell. I see similar things happening everywhere and I am full of admiration for colleagues leading councils and council teams through this period. I am sure I have a lot to learn from all of you.

Many challenges lie ahead of us, but we are determined to delay, protect and maintain. Along the way, we will no doubt re-imagine ways of doing things that make a difference for people across North Kesteven.

Ian Fytche is chief executive of North Kesteven DC

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