On local government in Covid19

Despite a decade of financial emasculation, Local Government has stepped up in the wake of Covid19. Those of us who have ever worked in local government never doubted it would, despite resourcing and capacity already being stretched thin. Not only does local government tend to attract people who want to support others and help make their communities better, but employees tend to be vested in their local communities. 

When you live somewhere and work on behalf of its local people, business and communities, you step up, regardless of sector. It is why our sense of place and belonging is important to many of us. This social capital builds on that which arises naturally from the solidarity of knowing we are all in this pandemic together. It manifests as a desire to respond effectively without regard for job descriptions or working hours or all the old trappings of hierarchical management. Into the most fluid and emergent of situations must arise an emergent and fluid response. 

This is what we found in those places we reached out to for this research. A range of local authority chief executives and their counterparts from key local organisations paint a picture of significantly enhanced local working, of transformative practice, accelerated by the pandemic, and of flexible responses to local conditions. Of course, challenges remain, not least of which is the largely dysfunctional central/local government dynamic and the inadequacy of funding over the last decade.  

One of the key lessons that Covid19 should be teaching us is that chronic national underfunding and the resultant efficiency-drive for financial survival has not only eroded any slack in the system but has left people and communities more vulnerable than ever to the kind of shock that Covid is delivering. By reducing investment in prevention and raising the bar at which support becomes available, we are storing up a double-whammy of impact. A participant in a recent NHS workshop I ran expressed their concern that we are not talking about other pandemics: mental health, undiagnosed disease, children’s development, health inequalities…

Slack in the system is not waste, it enables resilience, and it is crucial. It offers respite when things are not quite so crazy; it enables us to absorb the regular shocks we face; it ensures our services can be high quality. An A&E department can cope with a major incident, but not continuously, night ater night. We can work at a high intensity when we need to, but such levels are not sustainable. We all need a slower period after an intense period. Such capacity is not there to be ideintified and cut-out by bean-counters and down-sizers, though this is what has happened. It should be preserved by managers for the sanity of us all. 

Whilst the resilience of our systems is being laid bare for all to see, the knock-on effect is that society’s resilience will surely be tested as a result. We now head into what has all the makings of a long, emotionally-challenging winter. Resilience of our communities, already stetched by the impact of the pandemic and attendant loss of normality, of employment, of life… Resilience of our institutions, stretched over the last eight months to a point of brittleness in terms of funding and revenue, operations, staff well-being… Resilience of people, of individuals, living with protracted uncertainty and stress, deprived of many of the usual support mechanims and aspects of self-care that we might usually rely on when times are tough. 

Perhaps communities will demand the opportunity for just such a debate at an appropriate point in the future; this is certainly something that has been called for in sessions I have run with communities using the Future Change Framework I developed earlier in the pandemic. Indeed, this framework in turn forms the structure for the interviews that comprise this report, posing questions around the changes that have been made and the actions that might follow: the temporary crisis response, the innovations that show promise, the obsolete practice to let go of. 

Are our leaders flexible enough and equipped with the skills to navigate such uncertainty and complexity, the competencies required by persons of tomorrow? It is apparent from this set of interviews that many of those operating at the local level do indeed have them. They are responding in ways that are not prescribed because they are facing situations that have not arisen before. They know linear approaches and reductionist thinking are not fit for this purpose. A post-linear world needs leaders like those we spoke to in this report. 

The full report that this blog relates to is published on the RSA website.

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