Local government has long identified resilience as an essential skill for effective 21st century leadership – the mental and physical toughness not just to sustain focus but the capacity to recover quickly from adversity. Though the sector could not have predicted the current scenario in which resilience would be so tested, we have seen this quality demonstrated by local authority leaders in abundance. As leadership get to grips with the web of complex issues now presenting, at a relentless pace, the legacy of their response will stretch beyond local, regional and even national boundaries and will be felt on a global scale.
Across the last decade, the challenges have been many and, at times, the odds seem stacked against local government – be that balancing the books to deliver more for less; facilitating collaborative and whole system approaches to deliver increasingly complex services; or coping with the escalating diversification of community needs, bringing place-based demand to near breaking point. Resilience is tested every day. For many, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a lifetime challenge that will test leadership capabilities to their limit. The recovery from crisis is likely to be more sustained and more demanding than the initial focus upon containment and local government will play a central role. In the words of Henry Kissinger: ‘The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future.’
Looking back to the spread of the global pandemic, it was clear that the UK would have to take drastic steps to protect the NHS and save lives of the most vulnerable. The UK was put into lockdown on 23 March in an unprecedented step and the Prime Minister’s evening announcement, led to local authority leaders triggering action plans out of hours. Now was the time to test the robustness of emergency teams and plans and the speed at which they could be implemented.
The immediate commitment from public sector workers to keeping the UK safe was evident. Transformation programmes still in development, especially those focusing on digital and technology and due to be completed some months ahead (or longer), were effectively rolled out in a matter of weeks. In this fast-moving environment, strong, clear leadership and the well-rehearsed plans were critical in ensuring that local authorities were fully prepared to continue delivering vital services, albeit sometimes in an alternative way, with the focus on looking after the most vulnerable in their communities. Staff were redeployed to assist with front line service delivery and partnerships with a range of key stakeholders coming to the fore, to create a united team ready to meet this period of unprecedented disruption and challenge. In just one local authority, a request for employees to participate in their redeployment programme to support vital services during COVID-19 resulted in over 1000 colleagues signing up. Redeploying staff to support front line key workers has opened up new learning opportunities and a chance to harmonise relationships with colleagues that may not have normally worked together. This results in a mutual respect and the blending of skills, demonstrating that skilled people are highly adaptable and not just specialists in a single area. Capturing this learning throughout the organisation and identifying this talent, will improve the way forward, assist in developing the talent pipeline and provide opportunities for employees.
While strong leadership has driven this dramatic transformation in local authority services, many leaders will have been working at such pace and for excessively long hours, that they have yet to realise the impact it will have had on their own wellbeing. Many local authorities have regularly posted messages on social media stressing the importance of mental health and wellbeing for residents, signposting key charitable organisations who are available to provide support and advice. Leaders too should make themselves aware of this information and reach out to an internal mental health first aider or an external organisation for support and advice if necessary. Local authorities will also need to ensure that the people exposed to these extraordinary demands have an opportunity to recharge their batteries and return to a balanced life, having compromised their own wellbeing and personal commitments. We have already seen a number of local authorities bring their senior leadership team together to discuss lessons learned and to openly share their experiences, building upon that resilient leadership, providing a platform to off load concerns and issues and forging plans for a sustainable future and the ‘new norm’.
I am extremely privileged in my role to hear the remarkable stories across the sector, many of which you too will have seen proudly shared on social media. Several examples include food hubs, quickly sprung up with staff volunteering to distribute emergency parcels across communities. These food hubs attracted support from local suppliers and community groups and in many cases are now being co-ordinated by community volunteers, taking the pressure off the council and allowing its staff to return to other roles within the organisation. Players from local elite football clubs have been calling key workers to thank them for their hard work. Partnerships with local businesses have accelerated and new ones established, as they assist with food deliveries and preparation, mental health and money advice. City councils have supplied hundreds of boxes of food to local charities to ensure that people in their city don’t go hungry. Officers have delivered food and essential supplies to the homeless living in hotels. Staff have taken on new roles to support the coronavirus response – for example, a library assistant working with a team distributing PPE packs, supported by the transport team.
Amidst this international pandemic, managers have continued to focus on improving practice, identifying ways to adapt and work differently. One fantastic example is Somerset CC, which has been singled out for national praise as a result of their exemplary support of communities and care providers, its willingness to pioneer change and its response during the current coronavirus pandemic – congratulations to all involved.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rewritten the rules of upheaval in modern times. Having responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19, leaders are now facing the recovery phase, reviewing lessons learned, seizing the opportunity to grow and innovate and building a sustainable organisation for the future. In many ways, this is where the hard work begins. Leadership psychology needs to shift from a primarily reactive mode to the reinvention of the organisation and leaders should seize the opportunity to energise their teams by pioneering a vision and modus operandi for this successful future.
Dawn Faulkner is a senior consultant with GatenbySanderson’s local government executive search practice