Across government (local and central), as well as all sectors (private, public and not for profit), we have seen variations of the so called ‘Three Rs’. These broadly converge as three key words we find ourselves in post-COVID; response then renewal and very soon, reinvention.
It is fair to say the ‘response’ phase across local government has been spectacular, even heroic. We have seen smart working programmes being implemented, a redeployment of staff to areas hard to recruit, and business process re-engineering to ensure grants are delivered to businesses in need. There has also been huge support allocated to vulnerable people during this crisis, with programmes for rough sleepers and support for the bereaved.
In just the first few weeks, local government delivered a comprehensive response programme, all the while dealing with high levels of ambiguity, uncertainty and tragedy. We cannot commend our local government and, undeniably, our health superheroes enough for this.
The ‘renewal’ phase has been equally impressive. Local government has committed to looking onwards, away from recovery (with its back-to-normal implication), shifting into an ethos of improvement and embracing the renewal stage. Councils have grasped the opportunity to build on their recent, rather radical, shifts and are expected to continue to drive change with the remarkable pace seen over the past few months. There is now no going back, only acceleration forward.
It is perhaps the ‘reinvention’ phase where we are seeing less momentum. I would say this is understandably so given this has been an area of local government provision that has suffered from austerity. There has been great loss of talent in roles such as policy, strategy, research and development and ‘futurologists’ over recent years.
Executive appointments, be they interim or permanent, are a useful barometer to how organisations are beginning to develop their own insights, approaches and solutions to the reinvention conundrum. I therefore offer the following top five emerging trends we have seen:
1. Behaviours: Going forward, how we as communities think, act and behave is very much undetermined. Several juxtapositions have emerged, such as the climate emergency, but none more sobering than the Black Lives Matter movement that starkly shows how far behind we still are as so-called ‘advanced economies’. Hearing, listening, communicating, informing and protecting our communities has perhaps never been more important. To lead this, councils need to have the talent capable of championing diversity and sustainability, bringing forth entrepreneurialism, courage, and vision to go into the unknown.
2. Data and Information: Service design has changed for good. Smart working has been accepted and ‘working from home’ now is just simply ‘working’ – irrespective of location. There is no going back. Data has infiltrated across government and is now highly critical to advancement of services. How it is obtained, its quality, the ability to analyse and interpret this data as well as secure it is at the forefront and we are seeing this fast-tracked given the requests for chief information officers and technology/data leadership in the public sector.
3. Sustainability: Across government there has been great promises of green agendas - driven by the declaration of climate emergency last year and the following 2050 carbon neutral promise. We have seen the COVID-19 pandemic positively impact the environmental state of the country, bringing changes such as air quality levels returning to those of the 1970s. Though, despite this progress, it appears to be temporary and the country will regress quickly as lockdown eases. Pragmatic yet passionate expertise and skills in sustainably fulfilling this commitment are now in demand.
4. Austerity 2.0: A natural concern given the predictions of a severe recession and the assumptions that we will revert to the post-2008 global financial crash response. With this looming prospect, there are considerable fears that a default return to the efficiencies, lean reviews and cuts will strangle any hopes of an economic recovery. For local government, a repeat of the 50% reductions in budget seen over the preceding decade will also run counter to the Government’s levelling up agenda. Central government’s response to this crisis has been swift given furloughs, business grants, food parcels and support to rough sleepers. However, without a long-term funding strategy for local government, this void is being innovatively filled with some uncommon talent types being requested into local government with chief commercial officers, chief investment officers, strategy/research directors and chiefs of staff all being functions under consideration in future interim and permanent structures.
5. Organisational development (OD): Prior to lockdown, we had been experiencing a resurgence of OD expertise requirements and this has since accelerated. The lockdown has caused sharp pivots in how workforces are motivated, inspired, led, heard and communicated with, opening opportunities for re-invention. We are seeing high demand for senior HR and people leaders with expertise in how to manage the debate around visibility, productivity, presenteeism and trust.
Finally, I cannot close without once again applauding the incredible work of local councils in their resilience, ingenuity and agility in the response to this crisis. There has been great strength to lead us out of it stronger, better, kinder, more productive and more fulfilled.
This response was born out of years of hard work and preparation – not only have we seen the organisations strengthen and build skills for such crisis moments, but they have ingrained a determination and commitment to ensure they can lead through whatever is thrown at us. Heroes indeed. n
Jes Ladva is a partner at Odgers Interim and Odgers Connect