Assessing the big events in our lives takes more time and reflection than life often allows, especially when the biggest event we have ever faced is the global pandemic of a relentless, invisible killer.
In thinking about the scale of the challenge local government is facing and how our human resources (HR) and organisation directors (OD) professionals have been responding, the initial impulse is to default to the ‘u’ word – unprecedented. But unprecedented is overused now and the reality is that this global pandemic is only unprecedented for us. It has happened before, albeit in a time mercifully free of social media, opinion columnists and armchair generals.
Local government is used to ‘big’ stuff. Whether it be reform, regeneration, devolution, budgetary decimation, etc. But this experience isn’t just about the size of a challenge. COVID-19 is what passes for clear and present danger and its collective peril. Its threat is what binds all of us, the governing, the servants and those served.
It is helpful therefore to reflect on the ‘how’ aspect of our response. We are witnessing and are participating in a collective ‘fierce urgency of now’, the phrase used so eloquently by Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The fierce urgency of this particular ‘now’ has catalysed this proud sector – as well as colleagues in broader public services, and those in the private, voluntary and care sectors – to commission think tank papers and write business cases in ways we only used to dream of.
I am proud to say that my HR and OD colleagues have played an enormous part in this whole system effort.
Existing HR policy and process has been turned on its head overnight (collective hurrahs all round).
Workforce planning activity that usually should take months has taken weeks; we have redeployed people and for some we have given them new opportunities and we have implemented remote and agile working in record speed. HR and OD colleagues have been involved in creating local COVID-19 testing centres; they have mobilised resources from across organisations to create new care homes to create capacity for under pressure acute hospitals; and they have led the creation of humanitarian and community hubs. The relentless focus has been on serving the most vulnerable and ensuring the rest of us can contribute to that. That focus has helped us smash barriers that used to seem insurmountable.
This fierce urgency of now has been our friend in the present as it has brought us to the end of a beginning of sorts. There are signs that the work we have done is contributing to flattening the curve. But we can’t be under any illusions about what will come next for those in government, us public servants and those we serve.
Inevitably, just as initial shock has worn off for those who aren’t in the scorching fire of the arena, the impulse to prognosticate about the future has set in. And this has been far from helpful.
The fierce urgency of now for the prognosticators will become the enemy of our future if we rush to judgement about post-COVID- 19 without reconciling as a minimum the emotional impact for everyone – especially our frontline colleagues. Wellbeing is already an immediate and increasing priority for HR and OD colleagues.
This quote from Louis Gomez, who is professor of education and information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles encapsulates the challenge to all of us in the arena and beyond:
‘We must act with all due alacrity, yet also with the thoughtfulness and seriousness of purpose appropriate to meaningful action.’
In the short-term we have to start thinking about post-lockdown. But we must ask the right questions if the existing fault lines that COVID-19 has amplified are to be reckoned with.
The changes already wrought on society are too deep, too seared on our souls for us to go back to what was. Developing a common language about our purpose as public servants will be key to that.
In defining this we can’t just think about local government in isolation, we genuinely need to think whole system and we will need all partners fully engaged in that.
We must create new futures with the humanity, compassion, commitment and kindness that we have seen magnified in these last weeks.
All of us have a stake in that conversation and those of us in HR and OD are looking forward to playing our part with vigour.
Karen Grave is president of the PPMA