Councils vs coronavirus: the future starts now

By Tom Davies | 28 April 2020

It’s 1991 and South Africa is about to undertake one of the most successful transitions to democracy in history. But for Nelson Mandela and outgoing president de Klerk, the future is anything but certain.

Predictions of social conflict and forecasts of economic doom stoked divisive tensions. What they needed was a different way of thinking about the future. A process that would allow them to explore the different worlds they might inadvertently find themselves in. They turned to scenario planning.

Scenario planning

It’s a long way from Cape Town to Coventry or Gateshead, and from post-apartheid social upheavals to the Covid crisis in the UK. But at times of extraordinary change and uncertainty, some rules stay the same: the challenges are epic, decisions are irreversible, and traditional planning tools aren’t up to the job.

Scenario planning helps us to check our assumptions and imagine that radically different futures are possible and plausible.  This is critical because the decisions made now need to reflect that uncertainty. If not we risk entering the future with ideas and biases that no longer belong.

Scenarios were a key feature of Cold War game theory, used by Shell to map climate futures and by the Singaporean government for strategic planning. The UK Government Office for Science has developed a range of toolkits and scenario methods, and US-based Innovation Labs has developed 16 coronavirus scenarios for the global economy and national governments.

Councils vs Coronavirus

Councils are on the front line in the fight against coronavirus. They are keeping social care going, preserving essential services, supporting vulnerable groups, and responding to hardship among residents and businesses. Seizing positive opportunities to learn lessons and adapting to work differently in future will prove vital.

Can future scenario planning used by the military, multi-nationals and governments help councils navigate a way through the uncertainties over the coming weeks and months?

We thought we’d try to find out. So, we brought together colleagues with operational and policy experience in health, children’s services, employment, domestic abuse, international development, digital, and strategy to run a scenario planning exercise over several days.

This team explored areas impacted by COVID-19, considered key drivers of change, and identified uncertainties that could have the greatest impact on the future of local systems.

Mapping the impacts of Covid-19 on some parts of local government.

Four scenarios, four different worlds

We developed four scenarios around two major uncertainties that are likely to impact the shape and nature of local government’s response over the next 12 months:

  1. Responsibility – whether the crisis response and recovery is directed by central government, or whether leadership and decision-making is driven by localities.
  2. Transformation – whether councils use the crisis to radically transform their operating models versus pressure to quickly return to more familiar practice and restore a sense of normality.

By mapping these uncertainties onto a matrix, we were able to outline four quite different but plausible futures.


To boldly go…

What makes scenario planning powerful is not just its ability to open minds to a range of possible futures. It’s the impact it can have on the decisions that need to be taken here and now.

Here are just three examples from our exercise of issues that will play out differently in each scenario:

  • Emerging demand: areas preparing now for future demand once social restrictions lift will be on the front foot. People-facing services (early help, children’s and adults social care, domestic abuse, homelessness, SEND etc.) and local health systems could see secondary waves of demand overwhelm capacity. Councils may find themselves focusing on core services or pushing their remit to help and prevent wider vulnerability.

To watch: Does government try to direct local activity or allow local flexibility to meet new needs as they differ from place to place?

  • National v local priorities: central government may come under enormous pressure to launch large social and economic ‘quick-fix’ initiatives over the next 6-12 months. The impact and delivery could soak-up significant local resources, or, cut across and undermine local schemes put in place by authorities.

To watch: Can local government leadership lobby for policy and funding with a coherent voice or will local differences and political criticism embolden a top-down approach from Whitehall?

  • Workforce: staff that can quickly learn and adapt will make a huge difference but could experience burn-out. There will be tough decisions about whether to implement ‘easements’ to statutory requirements, close some services, and practical challenges about virtual ways of working and communicating with residents. Change fatigue may set in and some staff could find their skills and capabilities challenged by the new normal.

To watch: will senior management have a strategy to support staff in new ways of working and partnerships, and the capability to enable more distributed forms of decision making?

What next?

Many council teams are working round the clock to meet unprecedented needs, leaving little time to make sense of what might come next. We hope these scenarios are an initial contribution to help colleagues in local government keep one eye on the future and better define their role in shaping that new normal.

We will publish more detail about the scenarios and their implications in the coming days. If you have any questions, feedback, or would like to test them in your locality or for a specific service area please get in touch.

Tom Davies is a manager at Social Finance

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