It is said that local government is at its best in a crisis, and having worked in the sector for the past 20 years, I know it is true. I’ve witnessed creativity, energy, courage, decisiveness, sheer bloody-mindedness, courtesy and determination come to the fore during myriad crises over the years. From what I’ve seen so far, the immediate response to the current crisis is similarly inspiring.
However, I want to look beyond the very short term because this crisis is of a different type. Floods, riots and other disasters are ultimately time-limited, and when the immediate disaster response only lasts one or two weeks, adrenaline can get you through the long hours and lack of weekends. But this crisis may last for up to six months, has more complexity to navigate and will potentially result in profound changes to local authorities and to the community landscape.
A few months back we published our book, The EDGEWORK Manifesto, which breaks down the ‘leadership in complexity’ challenge into two fundamental aspects: knowing when to act; and working out what actions to take. Right now, it is clear that the sector must respond immediately in order to save lives, and the actions needed are being dictated by central government. But what happens after this initial period of the crisis?
With levels of uncertainty higher than ever, I offer five recommendations for public sector leaders who are able to take a moment to look beyond the next hour, conference call with the Secretary of State, or Prime Ministerial broadcast.
- Work on your call to action for next week. If the barrage of instructions coming from central government starts to subside, what is your strategic message to the organisation? Can you imagine what this might be for next week, and the week after that? These will change to respond to circumstances, but mapping out a first draft for yourself is a good use of 30 minutes.
- Model sustainability in your personal work patterns. Your workforce will be down on capacity from illness and forced isolation, potentially by up to 20%. The remaining staff face potential mental health and productivity challenges while being stretched to cover additional tasks. Clearly signalling your focus on sustainability over the coming months, and modelling regular breaks, exercise, down time and rest, will be vital.
- Make sure people are aware that you’re backing them. Get your direct reports to ask for help. Be pushy - you may need to ask three or four times. Many people feel embarrassed to ask for help publicly, so ensure you create a safe space for them to articulate what they need.
- Throw resources and behavioural science at your external communications. This is the time to really strip back your crowded website to the very basics. Make sure you’re properly listening to the calls and messages coming in, and that you have a smart system for capturing concerns and responding in as close to real time as you can. If possible, double up on communications and contact centre capacity, and have a team working on capturing data and insight so that you can track trends.
- Designate a senior colleague to spend half of their time on an organisational recovery plan and a community recovery plan - starting now. Have them report weekly to you, with updates on the sustainability of the organisation’s workforce and on the state of play in the community, such as the status of local volunteering activity, and other ‘end of crisis’ metrics such as tracking service demand.
Other crises did not change normality after they had finished. This one might do. Public sector leaders should prepare the ground now to face both the challenge and the opportunity that the end of the crisis will create for your organisation and your community.
Jon Ainger is director of IMPOWER