So how do we ensure the public sector is fit for today and ready for the future?

This time last year, over just a few weeks we saw the sector come together and respond with a can-do ethos to one of the biggest challenges of our generation. But as we move further into 2021 and public sector returns to a more recognisable patterns of work, what comes next? Whilst we don’t have a crystal ball, we can learn from this crisis and embrace the positives, like the agile governance we saw first-hand when volunteering to support one Council’s  Excess Deaths Cell, the action and decision focussed meetings, the utilisation of tech and the norm of multi agency working. These are all opportunities and challenges that can be applied when we think about being ready for the future.

We saw, and continue to see a phenomenal demonstration of kindness and unity coming from the community. This is likely to have a profound and lasting legacy on how we view each other, our role as citizens, the relationship between people and community sectors and the role of public services. What society wants and more importantly needs from local government has changed.

So 12 months on, what have we learned:

Intelligence Led: There are huge concerns about hidden demand for public services right now. Increases in domestic abuse were widely reported by charities in the early stages of the pandemic, but this has not translated as we would expect into the numbers of families and young people referred to formal services. This is worrying. We do not fully understand what our vulnerable and at risk members of society need today – this is where open channels of communication and 21st century use of data and intelligence is required to ensure services are fit for purpose and accessible to those who need them most. We need to produce and use better intelligence to inform our services.

Technology: We are digitally enabled as a society. We now have video consultations with our GPs; children had lessons on-line; and video-chatted with colleagues, family and friends. This is an opportunity that technology provides and we must both mobilise it and embrace it when necessary. We must understand as a sector how best to interact with the public but never forget the seldom online or digitally excluded. Gone may be the days of the usual suspects in meetings in town halls but we should also go ‘back to basics’ using the community sector and social capital to maintain links with those who need extra support.

Customer: Essential services have still been delivered, albeit very differently, whilst other services have seen innovations in how they are delivered. We need to think carefully about what is of value to our customers and how the future form and function of public services can ensure that needs are met in a cost effective way. Use of technology does heighten expectations on public services, as citizens we expect to interact with our council in as equally effective way as we interact with our banks, our grocery shops etc. This accessibility is key for future service delivery.

Work/life balance: Work has become a thing we do, not a place we go to. After all this remote and flexible working, will we start to question the value of offices, the need/cost of buildings, could working patterns change forever? This matters to local government, not just as an employer but as a service provider. This presents an opportunity in remodelling estates and capital strategies but service accessibility must be at the heart of decision making. Robust equality impact assessments will be the lynch pin to making sure that we understand and mitigate any unintended consequences.

Social Care: We have seen the importance of social care services in getting people safely back into the community. This doesn’t mask that demographic and funding pressures facing ASC (and care providers). But it has changed the perception of the value of these services. We will have to re-think how we organise and pay for social care and address the disjointed service offer.

Governance: During the initial on-set of the pandemic, Councils responded quickly to get decision making arrangements in place. Politicians met virtually and decisions/authority delegated with trust and confidence. Time will tell if decision making rigor, audit and scrutiny has prevailed, but it provides pointers for the future.

Finance: The scale of the government response to the crisis has been unprecedented. But, what is the impact as councils have recently gone through budget setting processes, many having to turn to capitalisation requests from HMRC to ensure immediate affordability of services. And that is not a get out of jail free card. It comes with huge expectation that funding will be saved from existing service delivery, thus creating a significant burning platform for change that can not be addressed by salami slicing or haphazard cuts. Intelligence led, informed decision making and medium term transformation agendas are the only way forward for these councils.

Engagement and formal consultation: People want to engage in the design of future public service delivery now more than ever. When we rebuild public services we must not overlook asking residents what is valued and what is not. Engagement is key. It is also not an opportunity to just tick boxes as maybe times of old. But it is the right thing to do to provide the right services to meet people’s needs. It’s a necessity to ensure communities voices are heard and we have seen during the pandemic that communities have mobilised in a positive way, we need to capitalise on that and not see the tide turn against the public sector if people are not duly consulted where significant service change is up for consideration. The real risk of legal challenge is heightened through campaign groups and crowd source funding to pay the legal bills.

Demand: It is anticipated that demand on some services has and will continue to go through the roof; homelessness, poverty, domestic abuse, early help. But how will authorities reduce the unsustainable levels of support currently offered whilst preventing more costly interventions ‘downstream’? When cuts come, as they are, preventative services are often top of the chopping block as they have immediate and significant up-front costs and a long lead in time to savings and impact. But for every pound off prevention you can add £100 to acute delivery of services. We Must hold strong on funding prevention.

We will never be able to go back to pre-covid-19 times but we have the opportunity to think differently about the challenge we face and how we build local government into something new, better, than before.

At C.Co, we support organisations with solutions for all aspects of change management, enabling successful improvement and transformation across the public sector. If you are interested in finding out more, please get in touch with us today.