‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
If only these were my words. They aren’t, they are the words of the wonderful Arundhati Roy. But how they ring true right now. And I believe these words sum up how the sector can now respond. Let me not revisit history or create artificial comparisons with previous pandemics. Our recent past has been documented almost beyond tolerance and the only thing I’d wish to say about it right now is that every key worker deserves to be cheered from the rooftops. Without them it is unbearable to think where we would be right now. As it is, this coming Sunday we will apparently have some clarity from the Government around how it intends to start loosening the lockdown. What none of us knows, nor probably dares to predict, is what that loosening could mean for us all further down the line in terms of a second or even a third wave of this dreadful disease versus a return to some sort of ‘new normal’.
I’ve written here and on LinkedIn about resilience. A lot. Personal, professional, community and corporate. And all of those things matter, a lot, if we are to re-imagine, rebuild, redefine and re-create a world in which our public services can be centre stage, playing their vital role in a world which will look different going forward.
Over the past weeks, an increasing number of the conversations I’ve been having with local authority CEOs, directors and HR/OD professionals are about ‘recovery’. We may be past the peak of this first wave (I won’t use any PM-like analogies about driving under one alpine mountain and into the next), and no-one would pretend that means we are ready to go back to life as normal. Quite the reverse in fact. Recovery and planning are not about patting ourselves on the back for flattening the curve or thinking we have won. It is a shift from purely reacting to our surroundings (and how brilliantly you have dealt with them) towards creating the headspace and opportunity to acknowledge and plan for the fact that our ‘new normal’ when it comes around will not be the same as ‘normal’ would otherwise have been.
I believe that re-imagining, rebuilding and re-creating is, within reason, in our gift. It is our opportunity if some good is to come out of this situation. Perhaps even our responsibility. By now it is probably a given that we aren’t going back to the way things were before. Think even just about agile working for a moment. How difficult was it eight weeks plus ago to get managers to manage teams of people they couldn’t see every day? Every organisation had (and probably still has) a core of folk grimly hanging on to the outdated notion that out of sight is out of mind (or not actually doing any work). But I’ve not spoken to a single chief officer recently who hasn’t said there is an incredible opportunity to re-imagine a workforce model where far more people than was ever previously thought possible can work on an agile footing. It means potentially that there is an opportunity to entirely re-invent our relationships with employees because the overwhelming proof is that almost overnight we have adapted rather well to a world of Zoom, Skype and Teams.
And why stop there? As we rebuild, would we still do so in the same way in which local government was originally created? I’m having some fascinating conversations with transformation, HR and OD professionals and other senior leaders about how, within the confines of the statute book, the fiscal envelope and community responsibility, we might rebuild our local authority capacity and capability towards the designs we’ve all long thought possible. We’ve seen the health and social care sectors come together in recent weeks in a way we’ve wanted for decades so how do we harness that? Bottle it? Keep it going?
It is perhaps harder to know how far we can go in redefining local government. Perhaps what can be done is to redefine its relationship with communities even if its role is harder to unpick. Some of that may be around building on the community resilience that may hopefully be a positive by-product of this chaos, but we know that certain communities have felt the effects of this pandemic far more acutely than others.
Re-creation will take longer but the evidence is already there. On a very simplistic level, if the workforce can largely operate in a more agile way, does that make even relatively modern concepts such as 7:10 desk ratios out of date? How far could we go in rationalising corporate estates, re-modelling town halls, partnering even more, and encouraging bold thinking among elected members about how they want their communities to look in the years ahead beyond the next election cycle?
Working through all the permutations of our ‘new normal’ will be a logistical, emotional and intellectual nightmare, but it will be worth it. I would like to think that this is also a watershed moment in the way all our public services are viewed in future.
So hopefully we can emerge prepared to secure an even brighter future for local government. Let’s harness all the brilliant stuff that already worked and take as little of our baggage with us as possible. Those that can adapt to imagine their new world quickly will continue to do sterling work for their communities and will be more resilient than ever before. n
Neil Lupin is managing partner and local government interim lead at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.
Tel: 07967 826026 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org