What have we learned from London councils’ response to COVID-19?

By Rebecca Eligon et al | 03 June 2020

Overall, as transformation leaders in London local authorities we feel hopeful.  Whilst there are undeniable and very major concerns about increasing inequalities, increased demand for local public services coupled with a likely economic recession and further austerity which may hit the capital hardest, our mood remains positive.

In the main, our reflections of the last few months are ones of deep pride, and that local government has really stepped up.  One of us reflected that ‘as transformation professionals, we often talk about collaboration working well when you put your user at the heart and bring in elements of disruption to help embed change’. This is one of the positives to come out of our COVID-19 experiences, because council responses have centred around people’s lives.

Collaboration and the pace at which it has accelerated is a strong theme in our learning, and one which we are all keen to maintain. Collaboration across council siloes and departments, collaboration with commissioned organisations, statutory partners and most importantly collaboration with residents through faith and voluntary and community sector organisations and new community-based mutual aid groups have all been critical to our COVID-19 responses. All of us agreed wholeheartedly that ‘whatever the ‘new normal’ (or normals) looks like, it needs to ensure the diverse voices, values and needs [of communities] are at the forefront’.

Whilst some London local authorities had strong relationships on which to move forward, for others the positive consequence of COVID-19 has been the need to let go of past difficulties and to move quickly into a new world with a real shift in power from the council to other agencies and the community. This shift has fundamentally been about recognising the different skills and assets that different agencies bring to the table.  For many of us, this shift is something, as transformation leads, we have been trying to push forward for years.

Many of us reflect that having a shared purpose across all sectors in a local area and a singular focus on the pandemic response in our boroughs meant that governance and risk appetites have also shifted rapidly. Our approach, driven by need to make change happened quickly, enabled us to move away from bureaucracy that wasn’t adding value and to take risk-aware as opposed to risk-averse decisions.  The immediate need for a practical response in local areas means that Local Authorities were able to set up new community support services in a matter of days, something which ordinarily might take years going through traditional council decision-making processes. As one of our Local Authority Leads commented, this has been a real positive consequence of COVID-19, moving from traditional 'service hierarchies and structures, which have sometimes inhibited working at pace...the way we have collaborated is making us reflect and revisit how we worked previously'.

At a practical level, many of the programmes we have been working on over several years to carefully transition council staff to more agile and remote ways of working have been accelerated. and there is a keen desire to maintain these new ways of working. As one of our Local Authority leads pointed out, the sustained period of working remotely during lockdown has 'driven straight through the heart' of thinking around presentism and need to be in an office to deliver. There is a keen desire to maintain these new ways of working especially taking into consideration factors such as the climate emergency and quality of life - put simply by one of our Local Authority leads, ‘why wouldn’t we continue this way of working?’

However, we also know how exhausting this has been for our workforce. Taking our staff with us on this journey of change will be critical to help them build the resilience needed to adapt to this ‘new normal’, delivering and supporting services from their front room! We know the future is uncertain, and we will need to anticipate and act quickly to address the emerging challenges. If the emergency response has taught us anything, it’s that everyone has skills and ideas to develop solutions quickly to problems as they emerge, whatever their job titles. If we can continue to create the spaces for collaboration and work with the energy of our frontline staff and communities, transformation can be something that everyone can feel they own.

This article sets out the learning of 18 London local authority transformation leads who came together in May to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on their organisations. It has been co-authored by Rebecca Elgion and other members of the Pan-London Transformation Network.  If you wish to join the network please email PLTN@southwark.gov.uk

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