Covid-19: The aftermath and local government’s reaction
I am sharing an article I wrote for BetterGov. I look forward to your comments.
Covid-19 changed the world. Nearly every individual, every organisation (whether in the public or private sector) was affected. The impact was significant and, fair to say, heavily negative. In the United Kingdom, like most other countries, individuals were put through various lockdowns, and we were only allowed to leave our homes for tasks such as essential shopping. Each child who attended a school was forced to stay at home and be taught by their parents / guardians. Many organisations furloughed their staff or reduced their hours to counter the impact. All in all, not great. But now the majority of the population are immunised and Covid, like the Spanish flu, is something we deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Local Government played a supporting, but I would say, significant role; one that was positive and purposeful.
In this article I want to express three views of how I feel local government reacted positively to the Covid-19 epidemic. Their story, always shrouded by the front line, is not always told.
Local Government, its fair to say, stood-up and was counted. It supported the NHS and delivered a proficient and robust social care service. It helped deliver loans to businesses on behalf of central government. Each service kept going, and that is a lot to be proud of.
I would argue that, two-and-a-quarter years later, local government is in a much stronger place. I appreciate there are still issues with some Councils not delivering what they had stated or are in financial difficulty (e.g. The London Borough of Croydon), but these problems occur in all spheres.
Local government has an identity, a gravitas. It has a ‘can-do attitude’, instead of a ‘we can do it, but it will take time’. You can see this in the innovative services that are now delivered, especially within digital services. More and more Councils have taken the lead from the Government Digital Service (GDS), implementing DDaT (Digital, Data and Technology) philosophy e.g. how many times do we hear Authorities stating how important the customer experience is for residents. This would have happened, even if Covid had not occurred, but I would state the footprint is deeper and steadier.
If we thought data was important before the Covid-19 epidemic, then it is extremely significant now! I, and I would say you, the reader, too lost count of the number of figures, graphs, statistics the Government pushed out during the pandemic.
Data now drives every decision (and you could argue, always has), whether you are a local authority or a global brand. It allows the organisation in question to flex and pivot, enabling them to seek a solution to deliver their outcomes, more effectively and efficiently!
More needs to be done here admittedly. Its great talking about data but the solutions local authorities implement has to be able to gather data (meeting legal compliance), ensure it is the right data (important and often overlooked), and then, be able to act on it. Gone are the days (well it should!) that a siloed database or spreadsheet collates important financial information.
This is where a cloud-first / digital-first strategy comes into its own. Again, most Authorities are heading in this direction, which is again a positive.
3. Hybrid / Remote Working
One of the most notable takeaways for local government (and any other organisation) has been the rapid change of where people work.
Before 2019, organisations were being more progressive about where ‘we’ worked, and the need for people always being in the office. Back in 2010, when I worked for The London Borough of Lewisham (I am a stickler for a full name of an organisation) I worked from home, two-days-a-week. So, I would argue, it is not uncommon. The speed for when we all had to do it, across all services, was tremendous. A massive scramble to get devices out the door, both to officers and members was swift. They did it. There was pain (“sorry James, you’re on mute”), but, with the help of solutions, such as Microsoft and Google, services kept running. Major decisions were undertaken, all of which had the right scrutiny.
Council Meetings still took place remotely and were successful even if the media concentrated itself around Handforth Parish Council and ‘Mrs Weaver’.
Now, authorities are working more within the DDaT sphere, being more ‘agile’, and working generally where the purpose lays i.e. if officers need to be in the office, meeting other colleagues in person they will, but, if they can work remotely, from home, and the outcome is still the same, then that will happen too.
As you can see, local government has been at the forefront of the public sector’s (positive!) reaction to Covid-19, always ensuring it delivers for its residents/citizens. It will continue to be confident; data driven and will flex where necessary. There will always be the issue of Government funding, and savings that are required, but, if the sector continues to be innovative, embrace digital transformation then, as you can see, it will continue to be an outcome-based service and thus, one we will embrace and enjoy.