This article was originally published in Public Finance magazine
These are unprecedented times, and there is no playbook to draw from. Councils have scrambled to respond to coronavirus with rapidly developed plans and reallocated budgets. The challenges are substantial, and also contradictory – there is a need to inject resources in response, whilst simultaneously delivering on existing savings plans in order to maintain financial sustainability. The risk every council faces is that the outbreak derails the delivery of savings, resulting in an unsustainable future.
The good news is that Directors of Resources and Section 151 Officers, with their position of influence across organisational boundaries, can play a crucial role in making sure that their organisations respond to the virus and are also able to deliver both outcomes and budgets. We believe that the following approach – which aligns with key elements of EDGEWORK – is needed:
Think about frontline workers. The thousands of decisions made every day by your frontline staff will be the difference between managing demand and being overwhelmed; between hitting budget or overspending. Are you clear about how you will engage with these officers, and the behaviours they need to demonstrate to deliver change?
Ensure behaviours are properly understood. Change is driven by getting people to alter behaviours – are you clear about whose behaviour may need to change, how it should change and what might prevent this? For example, are you asking residents to behave differently by supporting elderly neighbours or washing their hands more frequently, or your staff to make decisions based on changing criteria?
Consider the interfaces between teams and organisations. The public sector is complex: no organisation works in isolation and council budgets in particular are susceptible to the decisions made by health, police schools and a whole range of other partners. Who could influence your demand, and therefore your budget? How are you working with them to influence their decision making and identify joint opportunities?
Know if your plans are working. Once you have answered the questions above, and your short and medium term plans are in place, you will need to know if they are working. With so many unknowns, how will you monitor the true impact of coronavirus on demand and on budgets? Do you already have a framework in place, or are you going to wait for your finance report at the end of Q1? Having a clear set of trajectories that are understood, communicated and acted upon is the final piece of the jigsaw needed to get through the coming months.
In times like these, the need to ensure that services are sustainable is stronger than ever. By keeping tomorrow on today’s agenda, Directors of Resources and Section 151 Officers can ensure that councils are in the best possible position make it through the challenges.