Julie Smith, business consultant/project manager and Luke Taylor, programme manager at Entec Si, advise how local authorities can ensure continuity during COVID-19
While the coronavirus crisis is affecting organisations in all sectors, it is presenting a particular set of challenges for local authorities. As well as the need to continue delivering key frontline services, many are having to overcome budget and technology constraints in order to rapidly introduce remote working. However, with a careful plan in place and by seeking the right expert support, local government organisations can continue meeting the needs of their communities throughout the pandemic, while implementing working arrangements that are fit for the future.
As a provider of some of the “key public services” outlined by the Government, the UK’s local authorities have a vital role to play during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, with large numbers of patients coming in and out of hospitals, areas such as adult social care are likely to be experiencing a sudden spike in demand. Yet, with a lockdown in place, many local councils are facing challenges when it comes to delivering these much-needed services on a skeleton workforce, which may require them to automate or modernise their existing processes.
These unprecedented events have led many local government organisations to scale-up their existing remote working arrangements, while many others have spent the last few weeks introducing flexible working for the first time – often on tight budgets and with limited access to suitable technology. Without carefully managing changes around service delivery and flexible working, there is a real risk that both service levels and the organisation’s company culture could take a hit.
In previous years, budget restrictions and the slow speed of decision-making processes in the public sector have proven to be key obstacles when delivering change projects. However, the current coronavirus situation is now providing a catalyst for local authorities to future proof their models by investing in service automation. Introducing online systems for routine processes, such as requests for new bins, can help to relieve pressure on critical public services which could make a real difference to the UK’s COVID-19 response. Implementing measures such as virtual planning committees to prevent a pile-up of applications can also help councils to maintain much-needed continuity, at the same times as protecting the workforce.
The coronavirus situation is also forcing many local authorities to make a sudden switch to remote working. Adopting an attitude of continuous improvement to new working arrangements can help councils to benefit from improved agility once the pandemic comes to an end. In a sector where financial accountability is key, it is essential to take into account any potential impacts of remote working improvements for the organisation’s people, processes, systems and infrastructure. This will ensure that new flexible working practices do not lead to problems and require further investment months or years down the line.
To ensure both productivity and employee wellbeing, it is important that, whenever possible, the workforce is equipped with the right tools and technology from the beginning. A growing number of remote working technology solutions have entered the market in recent weeks, and it is vital that local authorities make the right investment by carefully weighing up their exact requirements alongside available budgets.
To guarantee that new working arrangements are a success, local government leaders should also take steps to mitigate any impacts on their most important asset – their employees. This should involve instilling workers with a sense of empowerment and focusing on individual employee outputs; establishing KPIs for each team member can help with this. Traditionally, the sector has kept up productivity levels by ensuring staff are always visible in the workplace. However, emphasising that workers are trusted to manage their own time and workloads, and that support is available whenever needed, can provide a valuable boost to workforce wellbeing and efficiency across the organisation.
A key challenge when introducing remote working is the risk of employees feeling isolated. This could potentially damage the organisation’s team dynamic and in some cases, lead to a dip in public service levels. In order to ensure effective communication while remote working is in place, leaders should consider ways to introduce a human element into their remote working practices. This could involve arranging regular video catch-up calls, as well as setting up a dedicated Whatsapp group for colleagues to check-in with each other and chat throughout the working day.
At what is already a strange and pressurised time for local authorities, the need to rapidly update services and working practices in a cost-efficient way may be an additional cause for concern, so it is important to get the right expert support. Leaders should aim to work alongside specialists with experience in helping councils to implement changes linked to the coronavirus pandemic, while also improving their operations for the long-term.
Rather than attempting to update multiple areas of the local authority at once, using tracking systems and making effective use of data can also allow them to understand key pressure points within the organisation and make informed decisions about where to focus investment.
There will inevitably be immediate short-term pressures on local government organisations which require a tactical response. However, as illustrated in other areas of the public sector, such as the NHS, strategic thinking and forward planning will key to prepare for the “new normal” in working practices over the coming months. It is worth bearing in mind no two local authorities are the same and as such, each will need a distinct contingency plan to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 situation on their services and employees.
By taking action now to modernise their processes, local authorities can emerge from the coronavirus crisis as more agile organisations.
Editor's Recommended Articles
Must Read >> Coronavirus and the impact on therapeutic services