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Jeremy Cooper

5 common themes from local government’s response to coronavirus

There has, of course, been one primary topic of discussion in our meetings with clients this week. How best to respond to the latest news, guidance and advice on coronavirus whilst knowing that it will all have changed by the time the discussion ends? We are keen to help our clients in any way we can and have started that by getting involved in the incredible amount of planning going on.

We are currently working in partnership with more than 20 councils and NHS trusts, and my colleagues and I have been comparing notes on a daily basis. Stepping back to take an overview of all the insight so far, I have been struck by five common themes in the local government response (on-the-ground rather than officially stated):

  1. Fresh evidence of the complexity of councils’ roles. We already knew that councils undertake a wider range of services and functions than just about any other type of organisation. Whilst many other sectors face more of an existential threat from coronavirus, I would argue that few others have as diverse a set of considerations to balance. One practical result of this is that it has been hard for councils to have top-down declarative policies on what counts as essential work, what should carry on off site, and what should stop. The typical response seems to be to pass many of these decisions to managers (often team managers just one level up from front-line workers). This reflects the complexity of what councils do and general policies don’t necessarily work for department under all circumstances. However, devolved decision making does cause problems for consistency, and we are helping a number of councils use a consistent framework for this decision-making.
  2. Surprising analysis of what can be done remotely. This crisis is pushing us all to assess what can be done remotely. From our analysis on our projects so far, we have been surprised to find that on average 40% of work can continue with no change, 50% can continue with some change and only 10% cannot realistically be completed without face to face meetings.
  3. A demonstration of the pros and cons of system leadership. A clear difference between councils and other parts of the public sector and beyond has been the willingness to get on and make local decisions rather than wait for centrally determined policy. This causes some issues when central mandates do come out and change the recently agreed local response but is still great to see.
  4. Real energy for creative problem solving. I have been really impressed that we have already had a number of planning discussions with clients which were not just about limiting the impact of coronavirus on what they are trying to achieve, but actually about how to use the changing circumstances in a positive way. For example, this includes the potential within SEND and high needs improvement to take advantage of increased access to school staff if schools are closed. Another example is the potential to trial new interventions quickly in adult social care when demand flows are changing so rapidly.
  5. A strong commitment to the mission. The message we are hearing loud and clear is that councils are not seeing coronavirus as a ‘get out of jail free card’ that gives an excuse for putting off other changes. This is a huge but ultimately temporary issue to manage, but it does not fundamentally change the desire to continually improve and deliver better outcomes for less.

We are always proud to partner with councils and the NHS in delivering change in complexity, and never more so than in the current crisis.  To share your advice or find out more about our insights, please drop me a line.

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