The new (ab)normal?

If I had £1 for every time I’d heard the phrase ‘new normal’ in the last few months, there would be enough in the kitty for a good night out. That will have to wait though. Flippancy aside, there is a serious point to that first sentence. It’s about resilience and how as a sector we may just now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver the sort of lasting change and legacy that we’ve talked about and agonised over for years.

We’ve reached the six month phase and while we may not experience another national lockdown again, we will no doubt continue to see regional restrictions like those in the North East affecting any parts of the country that see further spikes in cases.

The world around us looks completely different now and is unlikely to revert back to the way it was any time soon, if ever. I’ve said before in these pages that for me, local government has been perhaps the unsung hero of these recent months. Authorities and their workforces have pressed on relentlessly under unimaginable pressure to continue to deliver services that, when all said and done, make a meaningful difference to peoples’ lives.

I’d like to think that’s why most of us are here. We’ve just judged The MJ Achievement Awards Local Authority of the Year category for this year, delayed inevitably, and as a (virtual) judging panel we were hugely impressed by the work the sector quietly and without fanfare or fuss just gets on with. I imagine next year’s entrants will focus significantly on how they have led through this pandemic, although who knows where we will be by next spring.

And now here we are approaching the autumn in completely uncertain times. For a while one of the catchphrases has been ‘new normal’. Some call it the ‘new abnormal’.

We’ve talked about recalibrating, realigning, reshaping, reimagining, reinventing and resetting. Just about any word that starts with ‘re’. While a new normal often refers to how organisations will function internally and interact with the public going forward, it does seem broader than that. In a local authority context the opportunities, and perhaps the risks, are enormous.

One cannot ignore the spectre of more s114 notices as councils grapple with inevitable overspends because of the pandemic, but one thing is certain – our new normal comes with a fundamental rethink about how local authorities structure themselves and deliver for communities – and that’s without asking what they’ll deliver in future.

Transformation is nothing new – it has been our perpetual state for years now. But there is a real opportunity to make fundamental changes at pace that might never have been possible otherwise. To take some good from the tragedy. Every council I speak to is looking at its operating models – both current and future. Some have invested carefully in diagnostic exercises to underpin target operating model changes with empirical evidence but it is clear that we’ve reached a watershed moment.

Where workforces have been working remotely, many continue to do so. While many senior leaders have made a deliberate choice to be visible and present part time in offices, the majority of desks remain empty and may well do for the foreseeable future. Almost overnight we’ve shifted our world of work to near constant Teams / Zoom meetings from home. And while that change creates its own issues, it has largely been successful from a continuity and productivity perspective.

With offices standing quiet if not empty and ever more customer contact moving online, there is a significant question mark over the corporate estate. With workers genuinely agile what physical footprint will councils need going forward? No doubt it is an opportunity to deliver savings or reconfigure buildings to alternative uses.

The same question applies when thinking about each local authority’s relationship with its communities as well as the services it can deliver in future. If a council is an enabler of its place in the broadest sense then to consider what services it delivers is a genuine opportunity to recalibrate that relationship. Connecting real world lived experiences with strategic decision making will be at the heart of future models and plans.

Which brings me on to devolution and reorganisation. Although the White Paper may not see the light of day until next year, plans are already afoot across many regions to propose options for reorganisation. Talk to chief executives in those regions and it is clear that even if ministerial resignations cause a delay in plans, the sector is coming together to work out what its future can look like. Equally, will local authorities continue to deliver adult social care?

Similarly, with the Government about to implement the £95K redundancy pay cap (at the time of writing we still don’t know exactly when), it is a certainty that we will see an exodus in anticipation. This in itself will create both opportunity and challenge when it comes to succession planning within individual councils, and the drive to hire in talent from elsewhere. It will also inevitably, along with all of the other factors, trigger further requirement for the right interim managers, notwithstanding the financial challenges that local authorities face.

So all in all, ‘new normal’ means a lot of things. Local authorities are future proofing and planning despite an unclear and an uncertain future. That may be nothing new, but it is arguably a far greater challenge now than at any time in the past. With so much up in the air for the sector to contend with, things may be new, but they’re anything but normal.

Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search

Tel: 07967 826026

Email: neil.lupin@green-park.co.uk.

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