Throwing out ‘business as usual’

By Seb Chapleau | 08 February 2021

Throughout this blog series, we’ve looked at how Greater Manchester rapidly adapted its ways of working to meet people’s needs in its communities and within its own workforce.

Throwing out  ‘business as usual’ in favour of ‘whatever it takes’ is not an easy shift. With an urgency to act, Greater Manchester, along with authorities up and down the country, took the brave and necessary decision to discard bureaucracy, standard procedures and the restrictions of role profiles to simply deliver what was needed.

Early on, ‘the way we’ve always done things’ potentially threatened the emergency response. Some colleagues worried about KPIs, budgets and sharing data and information. Once the shift was made, there were a few inevitable bumps but not the chaos, corruption or failure that were feared.

In Innovation Unit and GMCA’s Public Service Reform Team’s learning project, run from May to September 2020, we spoke to more than 100 people from public services and voluntary and community groups across the 10 authorities about their experiences of change during the pandemic. We heard about innovation on the frontline and we heard loud and clear that there was a reluctance to return to ‘business as usual’.

Our findings are based on participants’ views about what should be kept, amplified, discarded and created for the future.

Giving people permission to act

Through necessity, regulation, inspection, commissioning and funding methods which had been designed to manage quality, risk and resources were quickly replaced with ‘makeshift’ solutions to get the job done. Decisions were devolved to local teams rather than through usual hierarchies, and managers quickly approved new and nimble accountability methods. 

Just as resources were shared locally so was the risk. GM colleagues worked across health providers, voluntary and community groups as well as residents to solve problems, often by sharing and combining data and intelligence to spot who needed help. The risk of censure for sharing data was weighed against the risk to people’s health and wellbeing. 

In Oldham, regular meetings were held between headteachers and senior officials from the NHS, police and council to share information and make immediate decisions on what measures had to be put in place to best meet the needs of families. Headteachers, who knew their families and communities well, helped shape the agenda and get commitments from officials there and then, particularly around safeguarding concerns, without the need to push decisions up the chain.

In GM’s homeless response, increased funding and staff and a rapid roll back of bureaucracy got people into accommodation quickly. Community hubs helped officials identify homeless individuals while providers were willing to work swiftly to renegotiate contracts to meet new circumstances.

Changing perceptions of communities

As staff moved to the frontline and new relationships were formed with volunteers and residents, GM colleagues realised the way the system conceived communities and neighbourhoods needed to be updated. Colleagues found the way people thought about their own localities did not always match formal, geographic or administrative boundaries. 

As Dave Kelly, GMCA’s head of reform, explains: ‘The emergence of a whole host of mutual aid groups, some officially identifying themselves as such and others performing an ad hoc style of ‘guerrilla care’ in individual streets, challenged existing authority perceptions of neighbourhood boundaries. 

‘Traditional lines drawn by the council didn’t really mean as much as before, help went where help was needed. There is a lesson here in over-prescribing - the humanitarian response allowed people to define what they needed themselves and formal services had to work with this new framework.’

What to keep, amplify and create for the future?

Colleagues were keen to keep the easing of the hierarchical and bureaucratic structures and processes which had limited their ability to take decisions within teams or had slowed decision-making down. Instead, they wanted increased freedoms to be creative and increased trust to make the right choices at a local level.

Colleagues also talked about wanting to keep the sense of urgency, particularly with fewer meetings. They wanted to broaden and deepen their work with community teams, building on their new relationships to create new ways of working together, which included improved data and information sharing.

These requests for new permissions, freedoms and means of accountability would fundamentally change the context in which public servants and voluntary organisations work, for the benefit of communities. There is undeniable risk to ‘designing forward differently’ and embedding greater local autonomy and flexibility as standard. On the flip side, it is certain that if we do not, most of the gains from COVID-driven innovation will be lost.

Seb Chapleau is a senior associate, Innovation Unit

You can read the full report here and you can follow Innovation Unit on Twitter @innovation_unit

To talk to Innovation Unit, contact

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