Can local government really continue at this pace?

Businessman working on the laptop
Date Published

24/05/2021

Reading time

6 mins read

Author

Paul Abraham

A great opportunity to rethink how we deliver services to citizens

As we start to turn the corner in our campaign to beat back the pandemic in the UK, many people are thinking about the recovery and rebuilding of our nation. Huge efforts across central and local government, frontline service providers and citizens themselves have got us this far, but to steal a line from Winston Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning….” Getting back to some form of pre-pandemic way of life is going to take years, not months, and things will certainly be different when we do.

Even in the darkest hours of the last year there have been countless uplifting stories and greater appreciation for the unsung heroes in our communities and our public services. Working together, councils have achieved much, responding in weeks where previously it would have taken months or years due to politics, budgets or the complex web of council governance. It has shown the nation how valuable local government is and the potential, should we choose, to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity for change.

A great opportunity

In a recent survey we conducted with YouGov, we asked senior leaders from a range of sectors to score how they and their organisations fared during the crisis and their outlook for the future. Unsurprisingly in local government, a sector at the front of the fight, 72% said the pandemic had negatively impacted their council, with 65% indicating a negative impact on them personally. When asked about the next six months, 86% expected either service or organisational transformation, while 81% anticipated transformation in the local government sector.

There have been positives. 86% have seen their organisations change faster than expected and 61% are collaborating more with their peers to achieve their objectives. Adoption of new technologies was rated ‘good’ or ‘very good’ by 86% of councils, with half of them saying productivity had increased (about 25% said it had gone down).

The most surprising result was the 44% who said that the current pace of change could be sustained over the next 12 months and the 7% who thought it could be faster.

Transformation at pace

Perhaps unsurprisingly, finance and funding were seen as the primary challenges for the sector over the next 12 months as leaders struggle with reduced revenues, lack of funds and rising demand, plus the burden of enabling the local recovery. On the personal side, burn-out and adaptation challenges are key concerns. So how do we maintain this pace, as 44% believe we can, while ensuring that we and our teams don’t buckle under the pressure?

  1. Adopt a resilience mindset

    In the short-term, resourcing key services is not going to radically improve. Without careful management, the accumulated leave of millions will be taken out on the shores of the Algarve and numerous other popular holiday spots as they move onto the green list. Well deserved, but the demand is going to remain high for a while yet and will need to be covered. Reaching out to partners and peers that can support you though a peak in demand or trough of resources is the first step, but it’s worth considering the medium-term measures such as services redesign and some automation to free up officer time.

  2. Do digital differently

    Many councils have shifted services to digital channels during the pandemic as a necessity. But, while moving to portals and webservices has provided access for citizens, much of the underlying process is still mandraulic or a digital replication of the old process. Taking the time to rethink these processes, automate the admin and open new channels to citizens is time consuming, but should be considered as the long-term benefits are significant from both a cost-to-serve and officer wellbeing point-of-view.

  3. Go deep on data

    Turning raw data into information, then into intelligence and into insight is going to be critical if we’re going to proactively manage demand. Legacy systems, technical debt, and the inability to share easily across departments and agencies all make this step hard. Previous endeavours in other sectors have not always been viewed as successful and councils still have to deal with citizens whose views on data use and sharing are divided and often very emotive. While we can continue to evolve our approach to data within local government, I believe we have the opportunity to transform everything from our data infrastructures, hardware estates, software, citizen interfaces to in-community IoT.

  4. Always put the customer first

    It isn’t just organisations that have had to radically rethink how they deliver services – citizens and businesses have also had plenty of time to re-think how they want to engage with public services. With so many individuals and businesses now home based, previous geographic restrictions and the importance of face-to face contact are less important – but seamless and intuitive customers are. Make sure you are listening to how your customers want to interact with your organisation rather than assuming that they, too, wish to go back to pre-Covid-19 customs and practices. Be brave and use this opportunity to redesign your services and processes around your customers.

This isn’t going to be easy

I don’t think that we can maintain this pace for much longer without transformative thinking and courageous action by all those serving citizens in communities across the UK. I don’t think the transformation will be easy. It will require public sector leaders to maintain and build on the culture changes that the pandemic has enabled – openness to innovation, speed of decision-making, and pace of change. It will also require local authority leaders to become cross-organisational leaders, bringing together the best ideas and capability from the public, private, and 3rd sector.. Those organisations that can continue to ride the momentum kick-started through the necessities of Covid-19 will reap significant benefits. The future may well favour the brave.

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Written by

Paul Abraham

Paul Abraham

Corporate Services Director, Capita Local Public Services

Paul is director of our Corporate Services function within Capita Local Public Services, responsible for revenues and benefits, digital experience, finance and accounting, and customer services across a number of partnerships including Westminster, Bexley, Five Councils, Lambeth and West Sussex. Joining Capita in 2016, Paul has previously held a number of senior roles in local government including leading HR and Transformation for Essex County Council.

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