Taking those first steps back from crisis

By Darra Singh and Aidan Rave | 02 June 2020

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has sent a seismic shockwave through society which in a relatively short period of time, has had a profound effect on almost every aspect of our lives.

Facing this existential crisis, local government has done what local government does best; calmly and efficiently led the response at local level by providing vital frontline services, supporting the critical work of the National Health Service and providing an important conduit between the efforts of the state and its citizens. It has also led the way in protecting the wellbeing of its workforce through embracing remote working and treating its responsibility as an employer with the utmost importance.

The speed of developments is such that it is far too early for any meaningful analysis, indeed as the situation continues to evolve, the only certainty appears to be the ever-increasing uncertainty we are facing. Within the space of weeks, indeed days at the arc of the crisis, the unthinkable has become routine with decades of familiar social structures are turned on their head. Times such as these are accompanied by many false prophets who make wild predictions about what all of this means; they are to be treated with caution because they are generally wrong. We make no such claims about the future and what this all means, aside from cautioning against the twin imposters of under or over reaction and recognising that what we don’t know, still far outweighs what we do.

That said, we do believe that a number of structural indicators are emerging which will create the framework that could well guide the post-crisis order.

While the immediate task at hand clearly remains the support of vulnerable communities, as the pieces of the kaleidoscope begin to resettle, local government will need to adapt to what may well become the ‘new normal’.

First, after the feverish and at times shrill political debate of recent years, fanned by Brexit (remember that?) and a seemingly polarised political culture, about the role of the state in our daily lives, COVID-19 has quickly and emphatically entrenched governmental influence at an unprecedented scale in peacetime and potentially for a considerable time to come. Within the space of a few short weeks, the reach of government into our daily lives has increased exponentially, with short-term measures affecting basic freedoms like movement and congress, while longer-term, the bailouts and bridging loans will put many of us on the state’s tab for potentially decades to come. Perhaps the debate will become less about whether big government is a good thing or not, to how do we accommodate an enhanced state into business as usual. For local government, this will likely bring challenges as well as opportunities, the strategic response to which will be critical to the future prospects of the sector.

Secondly, even at this early stage the importance of local knowledge and insight in ensuring that state mobilisation is effective in diverse communities has been overwhelming. The national operation may well be being directed from Whitehall, but it is local government chief executives and their teams that are orchestrating the ground operations as field commanders for the deployment of materials and support in each local area and passing important information back to the centre about the realities of the situation at local level. The reality is that trust in the state tends to be more abundant the closer people are to it; big government may well be a significant factor for the foreseeable future, but the form of that government is unlikely to be as monopolistic.

Thirdly, it is precisely within this dichotomy of an enlarged but more distributed state that local government must begin to make some sense of an uncertain future. At EY, we are beginning to think about this, though we recognise that there is a great deal more thinking to do. We’re framing our thinking through the three horizons of short, medium and longer-term challenges, or put another way; now, next and beyond.

The short-term (now) challenge is clearly immediate and focused on mitigating this existential crisis and no doubt what comes ‘next’ – the medium-term – will be taken up with recovery and the challenge of kick-starting a global economy which is facing an almost inevitable recession and toward which considerable efforts will need to be made to avoid a full-scale depression. Recent weeks have brought into stark focus the sheer fragility of the threads that bind modern society, rebuilding quickly will be an enormous challenge and any sort of recovery will be hard fought and can in no way be taken for granted.

What comes beyond that, the far horizon, confronts local government policy makers with a number of questions, many of which area already familiar but which will be further shaped by COVID-19. The response to these may well determine whether this has been a short-term shock to the system or a more epoch-defining change in direction.

These questions will need to be framed through a variety of lenses; local government is after all more than a service provider, it is, among other things also a large-scale employer and a seat of local democracy, an important partner in an increasingly interconnected network of local services.

For example, the role of technology post crisis will be an interesting one; is the current surge of remote working purely borne of necessity or is it a prelude to a more permanent shift in patterns of work and service delivery? If that is the case, what will be the knock-on effects for transport planning, commercial centres and retail for example? Will managers carry the sense of urgency and innovation that have been successfully deployed in recent weeks to tackle what would have been hitherto considered intractable problems; from designing new ventilators to building new field hospitals, or will we settle back into former routines and attitudes. Or indeed as is more likely, will we merely shift the dial; but if so, by how much?

As history proves time and time again, it is the speed and certainty of response to global events that often differentiates success and failure. With the stakes so high, local government must be ready to meet the many challenges ahead.

Darra Singh OBE is senior partner government and public sector, and Aidan Rave is an associate, at EY

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