Life after the pandemic will never be quite the same again, but for the participants at The MJ/Capita round table debate on service resilience, the challenge is to keep the best of what they learned from the last dramatic two years without slipping back to old ways.
As one participant said: ‘We’re excited about getting back to normal and slightly daunted as well as to what it means. A lot of people are tired, it’s been a tough couple of years. In the thick of it you’re alive and full of energy but as soon as you’re finished it you’re exhausted and that’s how I would describe it across the council and across the sector as well.’
Another explained how the pandemic broke down traditional professional barriers. ‘At the height of the pandemic we were close to realising an ideal model as staff became employees to support people and their job descriptions dropped down the list. We became organisers, deliverers, project managers rather than solicitors or environmental health officers. Our aspiration is getting back to the best elements of that.’
The pandemic also cut red tape, with one chief saying: ‘Don’t let us re-introduce bureaucracy as we put a line through swathes of it during the pandemic and staff liked the freedom to do the job rather than being told. We must make sure we don’t lay on loads of governance.’
One solution to service resilience, as ever, is technology but even here Government red tape can stifle innovation.
Planners, for example, are expected to do time-consuming site visits to determine applications. As one participant said: ‘We developed a secure system using telecoms technology to allow evidence to be gathered remotely. So long as the person determining the application has sufficient evidence then that is the key objective, not the tick in the box because that is “how we’ve always done things”. We can save 30% of time by not going on site. We’ve got guys in Belfast doing applications in Brighton. It works, but we’re under pressure to go back to the way it was.’
Another added: ‘What is important as a sector is to make sure colleagues get the support from both local and central Government – and I do stress central – because I think they need to recognise us more than they choose.’
One added: ‘We’ve got to make sure central Government doesn’t make us undo things we’ve put in so well. There’s a real risk we get encouragement to go back rather than forward.’
Another participant felt local government had been overshadowed during the peak of COVID-19 saying: ‘The pandemic helped us to be more agile and work outside normal hours. Local authorities have done amazingly well but I think that’s been overlooked. Everyone rightly praises the skill of the NHS but throughout the pandemic we were still emptying the bins and had fantastic staff with great commitment.’
A particular concern in discussing how to maintain service resilience was recruiting and retaining staff. As one participant said: ‘The sector is under more pressure than ever before. We can see the same old roles are in high demand, planners, environmental health officers, social workers. People are leaving the sector, retiring or moving to the private sector and they’re not being replaced or at least not being replaced at the same rate as before.’
However, agile working, developed during the past two years, has changed for the better how employees view their working week. A chief executive added: ‘The future of public services is a good deal more fluid and a good environmental health officer supports teams across the piece. We’ve invested a lot in agility and the challenge is to grow that.’
The pandemic has also made the public sector more attractive. As one participant said: ‘One of the positives, a solution to the recruitment challenge, has been a marked shift of interest in the last year in people wanting to leave private sector careers and find new meaning in the public sector. The pandemic has had a transformative effect for some people who have reconsidered the value they get from the nine-to-five routine. For us, it’s something powerful in that we’re at the cutting edge of making a difference to people’s lives at a practical and meaningful level. One of the best ways of solving wider recruitment problems is helping people understand how amazingly fulfilling the opportunities are in our space. We’ve done that locally and it’s generated a surprising amount of success.’
Another added: ‘We have to make ourselves far more flexible about hours and how we work. People like working for us because it’s a good cause but they also want flexibility.’
There are practical issues, not least the concern that frontline workers who cannot work from home will feel separated from those who can. As one said: ‘Where a public health consultant or lawyer lives doesn’t really matter. But if you’re a refuse collector, you probably do need to live in the borough, as you start at 6am while travelling a long distance to work is expensive.’ Another added: ‘We’re heavily reliant on team leader social workers, and they’re out of borough as we’re paying them through agencies a lot more than we should but have to, and they’ll rock up on Monday, stay overnight till Wednesday, then go home.’
Many councils also want to employ local labour to create jobs. As one participant said: ‘The whole reason we’re here is to be relevant to our place and focus on the locality. We have resisted casting the net too far wide as there is tension in having people outside of the place working here. You come to work to be part of the place. The ideal balance is a fluid blend between a day at home, one or two in the office and one or two in the field. We’re keen for staff not to lose connection with the place.’
One participant said: ‘If you can find people from your place, then happy days, but the whole point is we can’t find them.’
Relations with private sector partners have also improved. As one said: ‘We continue to look at significant cost and capacity pressures, so sharing services is important though it might be more complex to manage. We have a revenues partnership that spans one geography and procurement another. It’s a fluid approach, but that’s the nature of public sector leadership.’ Another chief said: ‘We now have a dialogue and partnership and ask the private sector to help us understand what our place needs. They’ve responded positively and say they want to play a role in a shared aspiration for the place.’
Inevitably budgets remain a challenge. One chief said: ‘Our net budget is £157m next year, a huge amount of money. We need to look at what we all collectively spend which is why I embrace the health agenda.’
Another added: ‘Budgets are tighter. We’ve got to take out £23m over next three years. That will be some difficult conversations with elected members and getting into reducing care packages. Social care levy just pays for bread and butter services, not anything extra.’
Another added: ‘When adult social care sneezes everyone gets a cold. The self-funder cap is a massive issue for us.’
And levelling up? It is of little use for councils that are neither rich or poor. As one participant said: ‘It’s a case of moving round the deckchairs.’ On that sunny note our virtual round table ended its hour-long discussion.
Attendees at The MJ/Capita round table
Susie Kemp, chief executive, Swindon BC
Nigel Lynn, chief executive, West Berkshire Council
Andrew Holdsworth, assistant director, economy and growth, Breckland Council
Andy Foster, market development director, Capita Local Public Services
Michael Burton, editorial director (The MJ)
COMMENT: Andy Foster, market development director, Capita
Service resilience for local authorities continues to be a key challenge and what was evident from the discussion is that a number of crucial success factors were on display from our contributors. All will be needed to be successful during the next chapter of public sector leadership, but the round table left me with three key takeaways:
Be even more courageous: Above all, public sector leaders (and your private sector partners) need to be brave. The disruption of the last couple of years has shown the best of how councils can act with agility to respond to the issues that matter most. We should not be returning to how things used to be but challenging each other to look at how things can be done differently, at pace and more effectively – creating better outcomes for those we serve. And for some of the bigger issues, we will need a collective voice to garner central government support to enable such change.
Share risks with partners: Councils have shown they can operate with a ‘start-up’ mindset and be prepared to try new ways of doing things; not everything will work first time but that’s OK; we need to get comfortable with trying and testing so long as we find out what works and what doesn’t fast. Working with your partners in the private sector, many of whom will have already experienced these challenges, can help – and testing new ways of working together will mean we get things right quicker.
Develop your eco-system: Gone are the days when councils try to do everything themselves and we have seen a mixed economy of collaborators from the private or third sector work together to provide resilient services. Local economic considerations mean that there sometimes needs to be a trade-off between waiting a long time for that to happen with the pragmatism of having a UK wide or even global workforce that will help solve service failures immediately. The key to service resilience will be a balancing act between pragmatism and idealism.