Natalie Abraham reflects on one of the saddest sides of the Local Authority response to the pandemic.

Rewind 12 months. Like everyone else, we were on site in office buildings working, delivering contracts when the slow realisation hit that it was no longer safe to carry on delivering services in the way we had been.

We went home and we stayed home.

Now luckily, being consultants, based predominantly on site and already working from home, we were already set up to work effectively remotely.

But our clients, local authorities were not. So we had to allow them the time to migrate and get up to speed working with technology that they were unused to.

Which they did, and in those first few weeks Council ICT Departments went from often being cited in workshops we delivered as the biggest barrier to effective change, but to the biggest enabler of positive change. So a great reputation improver for ICT departments.

But whilst this was happening, we could not sit idle and we volunteered into my local authority in the north west of England and supported the excess deaths/bereavement services cell.

This highlighted a few key themes which remain relevant now. We supported an area of the response effort which was planning for some of the most sombre aspects of the coronavirus impact, the Bereavement Services Cell. This cell was mobilised to ensure that facilities such as the local crematoria and mortuaries had sufficient capacity and were robustly managed and organised to cope with the anticipated significant increases in local deaths.

So a very very sensitive subject, but handled extraordinarily well.

Red tape and over-bureaucracy was banished and replaced with agile and action-focused decision-making, which appropriately utilised the Council’s existing management and member-led meetings. This robust and considered response was enabled by thematic ‘cells’ which were mirrored across public agencies up and down the country. Typical 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, decision-making with long sign off chains were no longer responsive enough. Decisions were made speedily and based on proportionate evidence and risk management. Gone were the days of decision making involving “come back next month with more data”

The consistency in the set up of the cells, being thematic, with clear remits replicated across agencies, allowed for easier cross boundary and multi agency discussions, joining up and action to happen.

Within the Cell itself, the governance and structure that had been set up in incredibly challenging circumstances was action focused and purpose-driven by the highly skilled and motivated workforce that were supporting all of the necessary activity. Long days, intense timescales and disparate resources were not barriers to the joined up working that was occurring across this locality.

Our experience with this cell in particular highlighted some seismic shifts in how local authorities can operate for the better going forward:

Firstly , responsive and evidence driven decision-making

Fast paced content, priority-driven agendas, daily briefings and informed decision-making were the basis of the governance framework we experienced. Bureaucracy was cut and governance was used to add diligence to the responsive and informed decision-making being undertaken. If this can work in a crisis scenario, it can be even better in a stable context.

Secondly, the use of technology enabled remote working

Flexible and mobile working programmes pre covid existed in local authorities up and down the country. Often people would change working location but what wouldn’t change is the ‘presenteeism’ culture, or the reluctance to truly embrace the technology available. We as consultants would often sit in meetings with huuuuuge tv screens on the walls which were never switched on for video conferencing either internally between buildings or for external guests. The TVS just had bbc news on silent in the background, sounds familiar?? All the gear, and I’m sure all the ideas too, just not the cultural willingness. This has changed.

We saw immediately in the cell we were supporting the benefits technology was bringing in keeping people connected. Reductions in sickness, despite COVID, were widely reported, with the ability to shift the migraine and start work later in your comfy clothes as opposed to having to face the hectic 1-2 hour commute into an office. Productivity increases also through the roof. Now we, I, know that there are also huge and significant downsides to this way of working, and how we manage people and support people in particular also has to adapt.

While office working no doubt will still have a place, the cultural shift which has occurred to enable the embracing of technology has put down real roots and will remain.

And finally, multi-agency collaboration

Historically challenging, and often project-based, true multi-agency collaboration is rarely ever business as usual. But over a very short space of time, the Local Resilience Forums became a major conduit to joined-up regional working.

Through personal, operational and historical relationships, new working groups were formed and quickly became the enabler for regular data and intelligence sharing and action based prioritisation. This ensured consistency in decision making and assumption planning. This joined-up working was critical, not just to the Bereavement Service Cell we had first-hand experience of, but of the entire Coronavirus response.

The new and enhanced relationships that are being formed through this shared experience of the coronavirus pandemic will be a lasting legacy and the foundations for the future public sector.

These 3 themes we identified do not attempt to cover every positive response seen in the immediate reaction to coronavirus, but are certainly fundamental building blocks to new ways of working for the future. The challenge is going to be ensuring the positives are protected and that the future is not driven by what was considered ‘good’ before.

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