A fresh start for the sector?

The resilience of local government has been tested immensely over the past decade – initially due to austerity – despite rising service demands, and more recently COVID-19. The scale and suddenness of the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges.

Local authorities had to change the way they operate to deliver on the challenges that the pandemic presented, working at speed while dealing with increased pressures on public services. We saw a shared sense of purpose across the sector, bringing local authorities, the NHS, businesses, communities, and partners together. Working in more agile ways to respond quickly to demand.

As we move out of the crisis towards the recovery stage of the COVID-19 response, local government is at a key moment of transition. The ability to hold on to these changes is dependent on capacity to overcome upcoming challenges, these include financial difficulties, the pull towards reverting back to business-as-usual and the challenges communities will face in the years to come.

The pandemic has accelerated a shift towards local authorities embedding new operating models. We saw some councils developing new models based on a refreshed understanding of local government’s role and purpose. Despite strides towards these new operating models, most organisations were not at the stage where this was business as usual. The pandemic accelerated this process of adoption, showcasing the sheer potential of local government.

Responding to the pandemic saw local authorities bring the mindset, principles and values of new operating models to the forefront. There were significant improvements in collaboration with partners and communities, more agile working, leading to the empowerment of staff, more flexibility and a heightened sense of togetherness across the sector. 

The foundations for the various responses of local government were in place before the pandemic hit, allowing quick access to collaborative provision of support for their communities. And local government’s responses matched collaborative and systematic approaches outlined in the New Operating Models Framework in a number of ways:

• A shared sense of purpose and focus on the citizen/community

• Collaborative approaches to the crisis response

• Empowering communities, staff and partners

• Creating learning cultures and practices

• Adaptive and agile working

• Learning from the crisis

As organisations begin to move out of the crisis towards more of a ‘recovery stage’, the ability to consolidate on the progress made when nearer the beginning of the pandemic will be key. This will be dependent on upcoming challenges. There is also a need to ensure there is not a pull back towards the pre-COVID ways of working, or at least not those behaviours we wish to move away from.

In the coming months, and years, it will be important that organisations do not lose the momentum behind the changes that were taking place, while also ensuring the unity of purpose stays strong throughout. As councils are slowly moving away from multidisciplinary response teams it is important that the progress made in the last year is not lost.

With streamlined bureaucracy allowing councils to be flexible and responsive to new systems and processes, there will be a hope that these processes are not refined with further rules and pathways that potentially hamper responsiveness moving forward. It is imperative that when moving further into ‘recovery mode’ further bureaucracy does not affect the ease at which communities can access important services, while ensuring those people who need council help the most do not slip through the cracks.

It will be a challenging time for local authorities to ensure they do not allow instinctive organisational muscle memory to kick in, and resist the urge to cling onto old ways of working. This will be even more of a challenge as the reality of financial situations become clear, Let’s hope that financial security considerations do not take precedent over the positive changes gained.

This will be a task for strategic leaders across the country, taking into account the challenges faced by communities and thus impacting how local authorities plan for the future. Inequality, employment, and poverty challenges will be even greater post-COVID, with the pandemic further highlighting existing inequalities. New operating models must take note of the successes during the pandemic and hold on to the pace, passion and productivity achieved.

Josh Bembridge is a consultant at Penna

To discuss these issues and hear from some of the new unitary authorities about how ‘redesign and reshape’ is improving outcomes, we are holding a Future Delivery Models Webinar on 2 June at 12pm – for more information, please contact Joshua.Bembridge@Penna.com

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