Will Covid-19 transform local public services? - RSA

Will Covid-19 transform local public services?


  • Picture of Joan Munro
    Joan Munro
  • Public Services & Communities
  • Communities
  • Public services

Clearly Covid-19 presents a huge challenge to public services.

Having studied leadership for innovation in local public services over several years we wondered — would the disruption caused by the pandemic thwart innovation? Or would it provide an opportunity to fundamentally transform the way local public services operate?

To find out, we spoke to 10 council chief executives and their key public sector partners across the UK. Their answer? The crisis had already changed local public services significantly, and it offers a huge opportunity to transform them more fundamentally in the longer term.

In our new report, Seizing the Moment, we share their stories and explore how their experiences could be built on to achieved completely new ways of operating in the future.

High speed transformation

We heard some fantastic stories of how the pandemic response had created service transformations at breakneck speed.

  • In Bradford five community hubs, with 50 linked community sites, were set up within a week
  • In Monmouthshire, a prototype track and trace website was developed in 24 hours
  • In Wigan, most GP surgeries moved to online and telephone consultations within a week
  • ‘Digital by default’ became the public service norm across the UK overnight

In areas where local leaders had been slowly and carefully integrating services, there were giant leaps forward. As one leader explained: “Before we were quite restricted by organisational boundaries. Covid has almost blown that away.”

Almost everywhere data sharing increased significantly, enabling much better targeting of efforts. Going forward nearly everyone was committed to sharing and analysing data together, enabling a much more ‘evidence-based’ approach to tackling shared issues.

Three years ago, our Transforming Together research found that strong personal relationships and mutual trust between local leaders form a vital foundation for local cross public sector innovation.

Nearly everywhere leaders reported that their relationships had been greatly enhanced by the crisis. And they wanted to build on these by working much more closely together in future.

As one said:

“We live in complex systems which have unintended consequences, amplifications and tipping points. And it’s that combination of approaches from across the system, whether it is housing, education, transport or health, that we hope will lead to this tipping point.”

Key challenges they wanted to tackle jointly included the impact of the recession, youth unemployment and climate change, as well as issues highlighted by the pandemic, such as poverty, health inequalities and racial injustice.

Adopting new approaches 

As well as working together, all the public services were working more closely with voluntary and community organisations and volunteers. And all were determined to continue to do so.

As one explained: “It has been the most compellingly brilliant experience working with communities where they have set up their own systems to support vulnerable people.”

Several leaders were tearing up previous plans as the crisis demonstrated the benefits of completely new ways of working:

  • Edinburgh Council is now creating lots of small locality based offices, allowing most staff to walk to work.
  • Surrey Council is planning to keep in touch with most looked after children and older people online, allowing them to target much more intensive personal support where it’s most needed. 

Will there be more fundamental transformation long term?

Everyone we spoke to believed that there was a need to rethink how local public services operated individually and together. As one commented: “We have got to make sure the new normal, the way we work, will be different.”

Some were determined that they would fully achieve their ambitions for transformation no matter what. Others raised more concerns, such as financial pressures, fatigue and people who wanted to return to the past.

As one said: “The crisis has created a rare opportunity — maybe the first in modern history. The issue is how can we make the most of it? How do we avoid slipping back into old habits?”

Many commented that national governments, particularly the UK government, could do much more to support local cross public sector collaboration: “Whitehall seems incapable of acting collectively in a way that we can at a local level.”

They suggested that governments needed to adopt a much more systemic approach to cross cutting issues, provide an integrated light touch local performance framework, and devolve power to regional and local levels.

If both national and local leaders seize this moment, local public services would be in much better position to address the covid crisis and its repercussions, as well as to tackle the UK’s key 21st century social and environmental challenges.

As one leader commented:

“There are some fantastic people in Whitehall, the best brains in many ways, but we have got to put them to better use, get them out of SW1. Build a much stronger, more powerful partnership of equals between local and national government. That’s a big prize, if we did that we would be better all round, the country would be better.”

Read the report - Seizing the moment: building local bridges to the future

Read blogs by local leaders on their responses to Covid-19

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