‘Normal’ no more
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From tragedy to opportunity, local government has a chance to move forwards and make the most of the positive changes the sector has seen since the pandemic hit.
It would be an understatement to suggest that we were probably all wearily relieved to see the back of 2020. As we know, 2021 brought us another lockdown but also hope in the form of a vaccination programme that, whatever views we have on it, has now passed the 10 million stage. Having said that it would be undignified not to take a moment to pay our respects to the now over 100,000 people who have lost their lives to this dreadful virus in the UK alone.
I have said this before and will say it again. The way Local Government has stood up, made a difference and rushed headlong towards the front line without pausing to get hung up on the financial repercussions has made me incredibly proud to serve this sector. It is an era we will talk to our children and our grandchildren about and it is a watershed moment for the sector.
Out of an immense human tragedy has emerged opportunity. Not just in the sense of shining a brilliant light on what the sector can be relied on to do but also in terms of this becoming a catalyst for change. Many, probably all, have enabled a seismic shift in how workforces can deliver remotely and on a genuinely agile basis in a way that might otherwise have taken years to achieve. This and other factors have prompted innumerable debates about what our future will look like. Many conversations have ensued and we have gradually adopted mantras, many of which end in ‘re’ – reimagine, reinvent, reset, recover, re-calibre, reshape and so on. All of which hold true one way or another. What has followed is a local, regional and national debate on the future shape of Local Government because we have been given a one-in-a-generation opportunity to embed rapid and sustainable changes in the way Local Authorities do business. It will never be the same again.
The last decade has not been kind to the sector. But what austerity has done is to force Local Authorities to continually adapt and reshape. Year in, year out, doing arguably more with significantly less money. Perhaps history will look back on this time with a view that all those years of austerity created the conditions in which Local Government could adapt almost overnight.
We need a new word for ‘transformation’ because for many years it has been our perpetual state. In some respects the word is already out of date because one would normally anticipate that transformation would have a start, middle and an end within a defined period of time. Pre-Covid, every Local Authority had it’s own version of a transformation plan for want of a better word, and overnight those often brilliant, carefully crafted and thoughtfully sequenced plans became tomorrow’s chip paper. In their place came this overnight adaptation. This reset and recalibration that we’ve all proudly witnessed.
Science is now (we have to hope) showing us our path out of this situation. Life will never return to normal. A ‘new’ normal maybe, but normal has gone. And from this tragedy, this I believe is our opportunity. Local Government has an opportunity to look forward and embed the positive changes we have witnessed. No Chief Executive I speak to expects to have their workforce back in an office full or near-full time ever again. Most staff surveys will tell you that around 40% want a blended choice over where to work – partly from home and partly from an office. Only 5% or so will tell you they want to go back to the way things were. And as for the rest, most don’t want to be in an office if they don’t have to be.
Customers too have got used to interacting differently with their Local Authority. There has been no choice, but therein also lies a further opportunity to do things differently in future. There will always be customer groups and situations that require a personal, 1-2-1 approach, but many more activities have moved online by default.
Transformation activity in 2021 and beyond will doubtless look rather different to the 2021 we might have otherwise anticipated. Government funding for Covid-19 activities doesn’t come close to covering the gap and while budget setting for 2021 will be hard, 2022 could be another matter altogether. More Section 114s are sadly all but a certainty.
Interim managers have been a constant throughout. Alongside their permanent counterparts we have seen roles being delivered in extraordinary ways. Authorities are no longer hiring interims with an eye to where they live and how much time they can spend locally. Even for key service delivery roles – Monitoring Officers who haven’t worked on site since March, governance specialists working with Members online, interims running huge services with little on site time where previously only an interim who could have been on site nearly full time would have made the shortlist. It proves you can hire from just about anywhere if you’re willing to be flexible and adaptable, so in many cases (not all of course) talent is no longer constrained by the same geographical boundaries.
We knew officer leadership turnover would be a feature of 2021 and that is already happening. There is an opportunity for creativity and flexibility becoming even greater factors in the recruitment of top talent going forward. Last week was the UK’s first ever Race Equality Week, with Local Authorities across the country heavily involved. We are immensely proud to be leading this initiative and a time of heightened public consciousness of racial inequality not least due to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities. We are seeing ever more inclusive permanent hiring processes and decisions as well as interim managers being thoughtfully and purposefully alongside ever-slimmer permanent workforces.
The time for action is now. Let’s not go back to normal.
Green Park is the InterSearch Worldwide member firm in the UK