A new public service

By Martin Esom | 02 November 2020

At the start of the year none of us could have predicted that our priority would become supporting our communities through a pandemic.

It is all but impossible to move on from COVID. It is very likely that we need to plan our service provision and organisations with COVID at the heart for another year. This leads to two realities. Firstly, our organisations need to change for the longer-term to support our new responsibilities – we can no longer cope with short-term rejigs. And secondly, we need to act now to plan for a future beyond the pandemic.

The effects of the pandemic are more serious than anything else I have experienced in my career. This crisis and the way we react to it will define the next decade at least, so the priorities of even eight months ago simply can’t take us forward. Our actions now and in the coming months will decide what the recovery will look like in every corner of the country.

During the pandemic, the actions of local authorities and communities made the difference. For some, it was a reminder of the competence and importance of local authorities. For those of us in the sector, it came as no surprise that the attempt to deliver through extreme centralisation at the beginning of the pandemic is now giving way to a – sadly belated – realisation that local bodies are the best positioned delivery vehicle.

Amid the trauma and injustice during this crisis, there remains a great deal of hope in the way in which people came together, have taken responsibility and acted. The extraordinary mobilisation of civic and community action alongside public service providers and often overlooked private sector roles demonstrated that public service can happen everywhere, every day. We believe that public service is not about who does it, or indeed the bureaucracy in how it is delivered. In Waltham Forest we see public service as the act itself.

This spirit of public service has been a constant source of inspiration to us, and we cannot lose this extraordinary mobilisation by retreating behind old roles. So when we put together our new corporate strategy, it was with the belief the extraordinary response to the pandemic should be understood and celebrated as public service, and that this sense of collective action had to be the basis of future plans.

Too often ‘public service’ is used interchangeably with the phrase ‘public sector’. The crisis has shown us how outmoded this is. Public service must be recognised and appreciated in everyone we rely on from supermarket workers to volunteers to our nurses and our shielders. Everyone played a role in keeping our borough going throughout the crisis. The pandemic has shown how important it is to think of public service as the privilege of helping. We want to recognise and capture this through our approach to recovery and our new corporate strategy. The council and our public sector partners must be under no illusion that more responsibility, not less, will be required.

We must step up and continue to demonstrate strong leadership. We will also need to challenge our thinking and broaden our approaches, to work in a more innovative, responsive and open way. Our partnerships will need to be focused on solving problems during uncertainty and we must not allow ourselves to fall back into the habit of following established rules within fixed boundaries. We also have to listen and deliberate with people to shape the decisions that impact on their lives. To make these approaches possible, we want to focus as much on the strengths of our communities as on their needs.

That is why we built our strategy on some of the broadest ranging research and engagement we have ever undertaken. More than 11,000 people took part in quantitative research and many others in focus and research groups, and our work is based in their experience. We are continuing our community involvement with a 75-strong representative citizens panel guiding our decisions and interventions for the coming year.

Our new strategy brings together four priorities and unites them under the banner of public service: connecting local people with jobs; ensuring residents can live safe, healthy lives; creating 15-minute neighbourhoods where most people’s needs are met in their local areas; and building confidence in our future. Every priority has the urgent need to respond to the climate emergency and ensuring we are working with our communities woven into the actions.

Those priorities mean that the council is focusing on the most pressing shared challenges, while acting now for a future beyond the pandemic. Balancing the immediate needs of the pandemic while planning for the long-term is a challenge we all face – joining with our communities in a new spirit of public service is what will help us achieve it.

Martin Esom is chief executive of Waltham Forest LBC

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