The transformative power of collaboration in a crisis

By Gavin Jones | 20 May 2020

If you are anything like me, you might have felt a little uneasy about some of the references to wars, battles, unseen enemies, not to mention winning the fight, which have crept into the narrative around coronavirus. Let’s face it, as much as the 75th anniversary of VE Day is something which has provided some welcome distraction from the lockdown, it hasn’t helped with the wartime allusions.

One thing times of great conflict and crisis do present, however, is the opportunity for partners who might not have been on the best of terms beforehand to reset the relationship. That’s because you don’t really have the choice, if you are presented with the sort of threat to global, national and local health and wellbeing which a pandemic presents.

If your experience has been anything like mine, the way which some of the less edifying aspects of life in public service have been swept aside has been, well, quite refreshing.

I’ve always made my default starting point ‘what does Essex need?’, not what the institution serving it needs. I’ll be frank, sometimes it’s been hard to get everyone around the table to see things in the same light. Getting to the starting line, when you run a marathon, is an achievement in its own right, because you’ve clocked up hundreds of miles in training beforehand.

Dealing with COVID-19, there wasn’t any time for the training programme. The bickering, arguments, tribalism, were suddenly swept away as we were suddenly thrust into a situation where we and our partners suddenly had a common purpose – flattening the curve. Were local government structures the thing which was keeping us awake at night? No, they were not.

Collaboration suddenly became a way of life, and the Essex local resilience forum and its strategic and tactical groups its beating heart and lungs. And a new dynamic emerged, one which was characterised by working together not because it was an option or a choice, but one which was our only chance of meeting the needs of residents and employees who were sometimes in desperate need of support.

The combination of our skills, knowledge and expertise was essential. And as we grew more used to each other, more aware of what we were perhaps dealing with within agencies and sectors, we began to see our response come together. Even through the lens of a ‘Teams’ meeting, there was a sense that in Essex, we as partners were creating a way of working which was altogether different and much, much better as a result. As leaders, we have had to focus not first and foremost on our organisational needs but on a shared sense of doing good for our communities and building consensus around a shared purpose. Retain this collaborative spirit, and the need for time consuming, distracting, not to mention expensive local government reorganisation could be consigned to our pre-COVID history.

I’m all the more struck by this when I think back to some of the more frustrating examples of how we used to work alongside partners in the pre-COVID world. In Essex, for example, our NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnership structures were established on a cross border basis, without any meaningful engagement, in a way which left us and two neighbouring county councils in a difficult position in terms of our ability to deliver local health priorities agreed within our county boundaries.

But now, having worked so effectively alongside NHS colleagues and our two unitary councils, there is rich potential in further conversations on how we go forward in a relationship based on trust, alongside a much stronger understanding of each other’s organisations.

There’s still the question of how we’ve worked with central Government through the crisis. I could point to several examples of how that could have gone better – many of which would have been avoidable if they’d talked to us prior to taking action (which in several instances, we’d already taken).

Can we do better than we did in the pre-COVID world, having been through the past eight weeks? You bet. Do we have a better foundation in May than we had in February for effective leadership? Definitely. Can we lead our places toward the new normal and into a genuine recovery? Ditto. Much as I’m uneasy about war references, capturing the collaborative spirit of last eight weeks is key to winning the peace.

Gavin Jones is chief executive of Essex CC

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