Peter Marsden, principal consultant at business change consultancy, Entec Si, discusses how the local government sector can build on the lessons learned from COVID-19
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, local authorities had to make quick and drastic organisational changes to keep up service continuity and protect employee wellbeing. However, this opened up new ways of working that brought a number of benefits. As we enter a ‘new normal’, it is vital that the sector does not regress to former processes and instead adopts an attitude of continuous improvement.
The majority of the changes made by local authorities over the last few months have had the rollout of digital processes at their core. For employees to successfully work remotely and access vital information for performing their roles, technologies such as the Cloud have been essential. Before the pandemic, many local authorities were still following a more traditional approach to business methods, especially in regards to the delivery of essential services and internal administration. Therefore, being forced to embrace flexible working has triggered a huge cultural shift.
With much of their work usually carried out face-to-face, local authorities have had to reconsider how they can effectively engage with colleagues and communities, from keeping in touch using video conferences to embracing new and innovative ways of working such as the registering of births and deaths digitally. Government guidelines around social distancing have transformed ways of working for all kinds of organisations in just a matter of months, and local authorities have had to rapidly adapt to keep up.
COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for increased digitalisation, something that was much needed in the public sector. What was originally seen as a long transformation journey has been implemented overnight, removing opportunities for resistance from stakeholders and proving that change can be overwhelmingly positive. Many local authorities have acted and responded incredibly well to this shift.
The fact that local authorities have had to engage differently with communities has allowed them to question whether past processes really were the best way to do things. For example, the pandemic has challenged whether services such as birth and death registrations could in fact be facilitated online. Adopting a digital approach to service delivery has the power to improve productivity and efficiency, lessening stress levels and providing employees with more time in their day.
This rapid process of modernisation has also shown the viability of long-term flexible working. As long as employees are given access to the right technology, they can carry out their work as successfully as if they were in the office. Offering this level of flexibility also offers a number of other benefits, including increased employee wellbeing by improving work-life balance and giving those with children and other care commitments the opportunity to work at times that suit them.
However, the speed at which local authorities have had to adapt to these changes in working practices means they must now assess whether the processes introduced at the start of lockdown are still appropriate. To ensure continuous improvement can occur, local authorities should reassess their current systems regularly and consider technology solutions that fit in with their long-term strategies and ways of working. By seeking advice from change management and transformation experts, areas for improvement can be identified quickly and the most suitable long-term systems chosen.
During this process of reviewing where further transformation is needed, it is important to ensure that employees are on board. They are the people who will have to use new technologies, so it is vital to ask for their input at every stage. This could be in the form of a questionnaire on their experience of working from home or asking for their thoughts on any improvements that could be made to processes or systems. Business leaders should also consider investing in training, where appropriate, to ensure that employees are able to make the most of the new technology available to them and mitigate the chance of individuals feeling left behind. In addition, regular meetings that give employees the opportunity to voice any suggestions or concerns can help to keep the workforce feeling involved throughout the entire process.
Local authorities should also continue to offer flexible working as part of their transformation towards recovery. Now that it has been proven to work, some employees will expect it to be an option moving forwards. This will be key to attracting and retaining talent in the future.
It is time for local authorities to break free of traditional practices and adapt to the shape of the new world, with building resilience now at the top of the priority list. Whether that involves investing in artificial intelligence to support employees with tasks that could be automated or simply improving communication, local authorities should now be taking a forward-thinking approach to their daily business.
An innovative, agile and digital workforce looks to be the future of UK business, and the public sector must move with the times. New systems and processes can be successfully implemented better and faster than ever before, as long as people are willing to embrace positive change.
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