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A Defining Moment for Local Government: A New Normal

There is no mistaking that this is a defining moment for local government; the COVID-19 crisis will change the way Councils operate and how they engage with residents. Indeed, it has already. Chris Barrow, Consultant in our Executive Search function, interviews his network of transformation experts to get their perspective.

Service Transformation

‘Transformation’ is not a new concept for local authorities, but the last seven weeks have completely changed its definition and the speed at which it’s required. This is particularly true of services that have traditionally operated face-to-face. Sanjay Mackintosh, who is currently working for Haringey Council, highlights Adult Learning as a prime example of this:

“The lockdown has been an absolute ‘game changer’; they shifted to 100% of learning online in weeks without dropping any of their service offer, distributing phones and tablets and ensuring the infrastructure was in place to make it all happen – it’s truly remarkable.”

Of Haringey’s 2,300 employees, 1800 are now working from home – staff have had to adapt overnight and carry out their essential jobs remotely.

These examples alone conjure up some interesting questions, both now and beyond the crisis. Will online services become the new norm for residents who have now gained the skillsets to utilise them? Will Councils downsize expensive office space and embrace an increased scale of remote working?

It’s interesting food for thought, particularly given the ongoing budget challenges local government faces as a sector.

A ‘new normal’ with partners

The need for a new level of agility is also replicated in how Councils work with partners. The unprecedented circumstances created by the crisis means there is no time for long, drawn out processes to get a project off the ground. Councils, alongside their partners, are able tackle challenges as they arise, not three months down the line when circumstances and need have often changed.

Historically, Local Government as a sector has been very federated, making it difficult to share information and have a complete picture of the communities they serve. Red tape and process have a nasty habit of suffocating collaboration and innovation. Over the last two months there has been a significant increase in data sharing across not just internal boundaries but organisations and sectors, the likes of which have never been seen before. The statement made in March by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been a significant help in this regard, essentially telling public bodies that if they need to do something, then do it! For David Murray, an experienced Director of Communities, it has made Councils re-evaluate how they share resources and optimize them:

“Working with partners is all about negotiation and this crisis is forcing organisations to set aside egos and historical disputes. It is also making it abundantly clear that Councils are one of many partners and can help others do amazing things.”

A great example of Councils working with and enabling others is a project in Haringey focused on the distribution of food and other essential items to residents in need during the COVID-19 crisis. The Council sprang into action and partnered with a range of voluntary and community based organisations, including Edible London, a fantastic local community interest organisation who work against food poverty through sustainability.

The project has been an incredible success, delivering thousands of packages to those who need them most. As Sanjay highlights, it has “given us the widest possible view - we now know more about some of the most vulnerable people in the community from a single database than we have in decades.”

Providing credit on someone’s phone may seem like a small act, but the benefits to their quality of life can be huge. It allows them to contact other vital services such as housing or simply stay in touch with loved ones to feel less isolated.

What now?

So, what now? Do the laws go back? Do infrastructures and policies revert?

We can’t and must not go back. As Sanjay stresses:

“The crisis has forced the country to act quickly. Law and policy changed overnight, which has enabled all kinds of support to be provided to individuals, communities and businesses. We cannot simply return to what we had before – the crisis has brought us closer to each other and our communities – and we need to use that knowledge and the relationships we have built to move forward together.

There needs to be a renewed focus to look at how people actually live their lives not just how others perceive them. Local government must reflect on what’s been possible and reframe the relationship they have with their residents, and, in turn, what relationship they want with their Council. They must place people, communities and the stories they have to tell at the heart of their corporate strategies and build out from there.

We have no doubt that talent will be attracted to this new normal.

Executive search at Penna

Whether it’s across the private or public sector, we’ve got an excellent record for placing the right people in the right roles. In fact, we’re leaders in the industry. And even if we’re just placing someone for the short-term, we’ll get to know you inside out. We’ll get you ready for now, and the future. So you’ll enjoy a lovely, long-term effect.

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