Post-pandemic local government can create new realities
The future starts now, and we have to protect the positive green shoots of possibility, writes the chief executive of the Public Service Transformation Academy in the Local Government Chronicle
Everyone now seems to agree things will not be the same. Indeed, the first shocks seem to only be the prelude to successive waves of crisis, death, trauma and disruption – as well as transformational possibilities. And most of us agree that, by and large, things should not be the same. So how can we create positive, self-fulfilling prophecies for the future?
In the work we are doing with councils and other local public services looking at ‘the days after’, one thing is clear: all the usual dynamics between and within the ‘worlds’ in our organisations are going to be compounded. We will be dealing with a tide of emotion and trauma comparable in scale to the virus itself, with grief, guilt and stress key features.
Simon Parker, corporate director of strategy at Redbridge LBC, says “the future direction of our society will probably be determined by its psychological health as we emerge from all this”, and this is true of our workforce as well.
Experiences of new ways of working will be complex. Some will have thrived with enforced work/life integration and the flurry of the crisis, especially those who could maintain the cognitive capacity to manage diverse teams, and be banging on every kind of glass ceiling and chafing at the return of any restrictions. Others will be absolutely desperate to get back to the same work, same desk and same team. And those who were forced to ‘sit it out’ will have mixed emotions. People will reassess their lives and we can expect early retirements and career changes.
At the same time, we’ll be dealing with ‘after action reviews’ at a grand level, no doubt including several public inquiries, legal liabilities (fraud and error and unfortunately abuse and domestic abuse will have been rampant), and a mutual evaluation and judgement which could easily spill over into blame and acrimony. And intense pressure to deal with backlogs (marriages, registration of births, commemoration ceremonies, mental health, other social care issues), while dealing with the very different experiences of different parts of our organisations.
Learning from the ‘post-game analysis’
So, at an organisational level, there are huge challenges – and what you let people get away with, and what you reward (heroes, the heroic but actually self-endangering, those who ‘held the fort’) will be critical. Looking up to political world, the role of governance will really need to be reasserted (there is such a thing as a key decision!), as so many councillors and non-executives have been effectively sidelined; the longer and more centralised the response, the more this will be the case. And the role of politics itself needs to be stood up again, some way or other.
And at community level, the sudden uptick in connections, self-help, voluntarism, community capability – and the tension as this is either stifled or enabled by councils and other public services getting involved – will create massive opportunities for new directions.
When all these blend – in the world of learning and change, working across partners, where dozens of informal networks have bloomed, where months of work on integration to support the vulnerable and create one (admittedly treatment-oriented) health and care system have suddenly had the brakes taken off, where digital has finally ‘just happened’ in as long as it took to order the laptops – can we build on these sudden but fragile entities?
And of course all of this is happening in world of continued social distancing, on again/off again lockdowns, and perhaps eventually ‘zone-based’ or vulnerability-based segregation, creating a weird world and a weirder economy with the kind of felt-unfairness of the variations in government support to employees and organisations multiplying, and all kinds of breaks in the expected continuity of lives, careers, etc.
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