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Designing a new local normal

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Graham Catlin considers how local public services might reset, reform and recover after coronavirus

As unprecedented lockdown measures appear to be successfully flattening the curve of coronavirus infection, thoughts inevitably turn to the shape of life after the pandemic. The language of a ‘new normal’ or ‘reset’ has entered the lexicon.

However, resetting the way in which local public services are provided and managed will involve lasting reform of working practices and service delivery approaches to enable residents, communities and businesses to recover across the UK’s diverse range of localities.

Digital technology has already played an enormous role in helping society maintain a simulacrum of the past normal, enabling some level of social interaction as well as remote working and home schooling for many. We can expect many new challenges for digital practitioners in the public sector as we grapple with designing the new normal. However, adversity and the resulting difficult times lead to innovation and opportunity. Urgency requires that decisions and choices are made quickly with little time for reflection, and even at a time of great loss and disruption there are likely to be unexpected collateral benefits.

In the haste to emerge from lockdown, it is important not only to reflect on the positive outcomes achieved during this period of change but also to consider how, as a sector, we can reset and reform as we recover from the pandemic. The key questions to ask are: which changes to working practices should we hold on to? And what should change?

Accountability and engagement

By adopting the policy of lockdown, the UK government – in common with many others – has removed rights of free unhindered assembly and movement, what the prime minister referred to as “ancient rights and freedoms”. By and large people responded positively to the clear message of “stay at home protect the NHS and save lives”. However, there is no guarantee that this will continue, given generally low levels of public trust in politics and politicians in recent years.

For the government and the wider public sector to retain current support when continuing to ask the public to make great sacrifices, transparency is essential. This consistency in engagement with the public to facilitate good communication, clear messaging and clarity around expectations, both in terms of behaviour in the short-term and in the long run.

The use of remote meeting technology by local public authorities is a way to rebuild transparency and perhaps trust by improving the nature of public discourse.

There is an opportunity to make virtual meetings part of normal practice, where it is important to build in an interactive element of public participation. This may also engage different sectors of the community who may be disinclined or unable to visit formal meetings.

Sustainability

In looking to reduce controls and allow people to return to work, the government and public sector will need to ensure that plans are sustainable. On a basic level, this means doing things that are unlikely to cause significant increases in new infections. But it also means considering privacy, how staff work and organisations’ need for office space.

As lockdown is loosened, coronavirus will still be in the community at some level. In the absence of a vaccine, the UK government is planning to use track and trace technology implemented through a smartphone app. Adequate take up of this app will require detailed consideration of the ethics of tracking, data sharing and privacy. There must be no suspicion that personal data might be harvested. This will require transparency and communication to ensure that the public benefit of the app and track and trace system behind it is understood, with a role for the Information Commissioner’s Office in promoting a clear code of conduct.

Homeworking has enabled councils to transact much day-to-day business with workers based at home, while video and audio conferencing is enabling formal communication and informal team meetings. There is some evidence, including from Alison Hughes, chief information officer of Liverpool City Council, that the productivity of contact centre staff has increased dramatically through being home-based, so that now they are taking more time to deal with complex cases.

Staff may be better able to balance the competing demands of family and job when homeworking, while still achieving more. However, we need to consider their wellbeing, particularly how to shape a new attitude to work-life balance when it is not actually necessary to log off and leave the office.

Homeworking may make a lighter management style more appropriate. More broadly, changes have been implemented in local public services in a dramatic and rapid way, with different delivery models harnessing cloud based services at a pace and penetration not seen before. This has demonstrated that with a clear outcome in mind, staff can be trusted to take risks and radically change the way that they work without an overbearing bureaucracy and management style.

It also raises the question of whether local public services need all the buildings they currently occupy. There could be an opportunity to turn some of the surplus into co-working spaces for creative and independent workers, helping to support the local economy, or to establish more shared services that bring together different elements of government and partner organisations to deliver seamless services.

“Which changes to working practices should we hold on to? And what should change?”

Collaboration and leadership

The pandemic has seen a spike in cross-sector collaboration, working across organisational and geographical boundaries and with the voluntary sector. Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities have established a shared dashboard based on the NHS operational pressures system, which flags information about care homes facing particular issues relating to coronavirus outbreaks or the availability of personal protection equipment, enabling other organisations to help.

The future could involve more sharing of resources, expertise and information, with public bodies able to trust the data and the insights they receive. It would make sense to consider how local public services can share data in a more proactive way given recent experiences, building on the current positive attitude and considering whether there have been any barriers. This could also include pushing for the use of data insight in evidence-based decision making to address problems and opportunities.

Organisations also need to consider how they can equip their senior leaders and politicians to continue extending current ways of working into the future in a sustainable and transparent manner. They are likely to need additional support and input to lead and manage in a virtual capacity, which may require governance and performance management models to help facilitate and meet these requirements. This could include guidance on workforce management, managing through measuring outcomes, what tools managers need, how to help staff remain connected and how to conduct virtual meetings.

The pandemic has seen local public services implement some complex strategies at a very fast pace. The agility and approach taken by some organisations is truly astonishing. We need to retain those qualities as we build a new normal.

Graham Catlin worked for 30 years in local government IT, including as IT service improvement manager at Cheshire County Council and technical change manager at Cheshire Shared Services

This is an article in issue 19 of In our View. Read the whole issue here: https://socitm.net/download/higher-marks-for-homeworking-issue-19/