On balancing acts

We all know the public sector faces unprecedented pressures. Rising demand and expectations are compounded by Covid19 backlogs and falling budgets. These are the immediate and pressing concerns that public sector leaders face. It is easy in such times to enter survival mode, tending to the urgent presenting issues. However ,this comes at the expense of considering the longer-term and no-less important challenges that are inexorably marching towards us: falling staff numbers, net zero, uptake of technology, the rise of people living with multiple long-term conditions, an aging population, health inequalities, and the like. This is the balancing act that strategic leaders need to perfect, and it formed the entry point into a recent conversation I hosted with Sally Wilson of GatenbySanderson and three transformation and change leads across Local Government. 

Richard Grice from Nottingham City Council explored the challenge of taking costs out without managing the decline of service. Although seeking productivity gains is a common response, Richard was clear that process improvements such as automation will free up capacity to focus on the big issues. The work that they are doing to create a change academy was seen as an important response to the need to secure the positives of staff response to Covid – such as autonomy, empowerment and making fast responses the norm. It’s not enough, in other words, to simply provide the capacity for change, but more than anything there needs to be a focus on nurturing the skillset and mindset of staff. 

Paul Cracknell from Norfolk County Council talked about a need to focus on transition and not see the present and future as a binary distinction. By taking a longer-term perspective it can be possible to stretch today’s thinking into new spaces and open-up new possibilities, in turn a helpful counter to the mindset or behaviours that assume the future will simply be a continuation of how things are today. Norfolk 2040 was a pre-Covid attempt at that. Paul also talked about the talent challenge of attracting and retaining quality people who can support the delivery of an ambitious agenda for change. 

Stephen Biggs from Islington Council shared their approach to community well-being, which was seen as a framework for addressing the challenges faced by residents. The six square miles of the London Borough were characterised by what Richard referred to as the ‘proximity of difference’, and as a result fairness, tackling economic disadvantage and working towards inclusive economies were seen as critical to the post-Covid response. The council is using the framework to help co-ordinate and maximise its use of the various policy levers at its disposal, including social value commissioning, its role as a major local employer and landlord, and its influence over local supply chains and local assets. 

That the same macro-level challenges manifest differently across three very different local contexts is perhaps the best illustration of why we need local government in the first place. Local knowledge is often under-valued and our speakers talked about the importance of employing local people who not only know the places they serve but also have a stake in its future. Putting community at the heart of efforts to move beyond the worst of covid was seen as both an opportunity and a core challenge. It’s vital to actively engage with communities to create trusted and safe spaces for dialogue to emerge and ensure that community needs are being met – not simply through the provision of services and support, but by liberating the creativity and talent inherent within them. 

There is a role for local government of facilitating such conversations and co-ordinating responses from a range of sector-agnostic sources. Of course, it is hard not to see this through a political lens, although at its best we are seeing people modelling different leadership behaviours. Mature conversations about devolving power and resource can support community-led initiatives and movements for change rather than simply imposing new ideas in a top-down manner. 

Seeing this work as a journey and not a destination can help provide a longer-term framing and support staff to explore new ways of working and responding to these challenges. Core skills, strong ambitions and flexible mindsets were seen as critical. After a decade characterised by austerity, working within a constrained fiscal environment is nothing new; there comes a point, though, where the margins are insufficient to absorb even minor shocks, let alone those on the scale of Covid19. It’s the most vulnerable people and communities that bear these shocks the hardest and for whom the impacts run deepest, and it is local authorities that are on the front line, co-ordinating the response. By sharing just a few examples of the innovations they were developing, Richard, Paul and Stephen illustrated that it doesn’t matter how tough the context is. Local government – the people working in our communities – always seems to rise to the challenge.

Ian Burbidge is the former Head of Innovation and Change at the RSA @ianburbidge

Sally Wilson is a Senior Consultant at GatenbySanderson

Richard Grice is Transformation Director at Nottingham City Council @Richard_E_G

Paul Cracknell is Executive Director of Strategy and Transformation at Norfolk County Council @PaulCracknell

Stephen Biggs is Corporate Director, Community Well-being at Islington Council 

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