Chapter 1

‘People have had to go through a hell of a journey’

The pandemic has brought about some extreme changes in the way local authorities deliver services. With their backs to the wall, councils have thrown everything into responding to the crisis. But is this sustainable longer term?

They are figures that probably most, if not all, local government executives and officers will be able (grimly) to relate to. “A total of 4.6 million Microsoft Teams messages were sent between March 2020 and July this year, with 90,000 alone in the first 90 days of the first lockdown last year,” says Rob Huntington, assistant chief executive at St Helens MBC on Merseyside. “Then there were 611,000 Teams meetings between March 2020 to July this year,” he continues, before adding ruefully: “And I feel like I’ve been in every one.”

Of course, the huge technological and digital transformation that local government has gone through as a result of the pandemic has extended far beyond video conferencing calls. Indeed, as Mr Huntington explains on page 11 of this special supplement, the pandemic is totally changing how St Helens is delivering and thinking about services for its citizens, and his council is very much not alone in this.

“In some ways the technology and data community were the unsung heroes of the pandemic – 95% of your workforce working remotely almost overnight in the vast majority of cases; putting in place the technology to support the new vulnerability hubs to feed vulnerable people, in some cases thousands, and literally doing that in a weekend. It was genuinely extraordinary,” says Eddie Copeland, director of the Lon-don Office of Technology and Innovation (Loti).

Mr Copeland identifies a number of potentially longer-term transformational changes that we can begin to tease out from the forced experiment of the pandemic. “Number one is on the use of data. We noticed boroughs that had already invested in the capability to pull together data and information from multiple different systems and get that one view of a household or resident found it much easier to react rapidly to identify newly vulnerable people,” he says.

“For the first time, I’ve seen all councils recognising they need real-time, granular data. The penny has finally dropped on the importance of day-to-day data rather than, say, making decisions based on last year’s economic statistics or schools’ admissions data. I think that is a really helpful turning point and silver lining of the whole pandemic,” Mr Copeland adds.

Yet, at the same time, it also has to be recognised that much of the change of the past 18 months has been in extremis, driven by councils with their backs to the wall throwing everything into responding to a crisis situation. There may now need to be an element of pulling back – of draw-ing breath and taking stock – to gauge what positives can be preserved and built upon and, from there, how things can now be put on a more sustainable footing.

As Simon Gray, head of finance and operations at Agilisys, a technology and transformation partner for the public sec-tor, puts it: “People have had no option but to make solutions work, so they have delivered change in months that previously could have taken years. Yet, at the same time, there is a recognition that, to do this, people have had to go through a hell of a journey and maintaining change at such pace and intensity is probably unsustainable.

“Local authorities need to be shown what is out there and what is possible, which is where private sector partners can help. But they can also learn from each other and do more around sharing best practice. It’s about recognising we can’t do it all, or all at once, and prioritising; what is going to meet our needs and those of our community?” he adds.

"People have delivered change in months that previously could have taken years... maintaining change at such pace and intensity is probably unsustainable"

Simon Gray Agilisys

“You can’t sustain being in crisis mode indefinitely,” agrees Sarah Bogunovic, head of customer strategy and futures at Surrey CC. “For me, something that Surrey has done very well is taking the time now to understand the impact of the pandemic on our residents, on our staff. Whether that is social, economic or around health and health equality.

“For example, we commissioned a com-munity impact assessment to get that rich, granular detail around how the pandemic had really impacted. Some of the fi ndings were really inter-esting, especially in terms of who had difficulty accessing information and services online. For example, 52% of 16-25-year-olds said they were feeling lonelier during lockdown, yet that tends to be the demographic you would assume would be using technology to keep connected and to access services.

“It is about having that level of detail and understanding and making sure, from that, that we are doing things from a user and from a county perspective; that we are designing things that really work for us as an area, as a county, as a locality, in a way that really resonates with the residents,” she adds.

“For me, the key thing is not to allow ourselves to fall into that inevitable desire to slowly move back to what it was like pre-pandemic. Because, actually, while no one of course would have wanted the pandemic, it has brought masses of improvements and opportunities. I think we need to make sure we keep them and maximise them,” says Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council.

“Adoption of technology and the increase in the digital skills of our work-force has been accelerated beyond all imagination. But the pandemic has also exacerbated the gaps in some of those digital skills. So, I think we have got to spend quite a bit of time on the digital skills and digital inclusion of our workforce and of our communities to make sure that rapid adoption of technology over the last 15-18 months can be maximised,” he adds.

In Sheffield, for example, £1.5m has been invested on providing laptops for pupils during the pandemic, he points out. The council has also set up a ‘digital divide’ taskforce to look at how to get connectivity, devices and skills out to communities.

The elephant in the room here, how-ever, is the parlous financial state of local government combined with the underlying, systemic deprivation in many areas that has now been amplified by the pan-demic, Mr Gannon contends. Tackling this is going to need, first, better collaboration and communication between local authorities; second, better collaboration and communication between healthcare and local government; and third (and perhaps most of all), a recovery conversation facilitated and led by national government.“

“I think some kind of national conversation around ‘how do we do this collectively as a set of public services?’ would be really, really helpful. Fundamentally, too, we need a renewed conversation – and this has got to be a national/local conversation – about the fact it doesn’t make sense to have so many different systems doing the same thing. We need to move away from suppliers simply providing applications to providing integrations and workflows.

And, actually, why can’t we have a national library of integrations and workflows that we can just borrow from, where you can just pick things up?” questions Mr Gannon.

“I want customers to have choice and control. But what I really want is for our technical solutions, our digital solutions, to be user-centric, to be intuitive, to feel personal to people,” emphasises Ms Bogunovic.

“I want them to be so good that, for those people who can engage with us in that way and who want to do so, it is just automatically their fi rst choice. What that then does is allow us to free up other channels for those who really need additional support, either because they don’t have the digital skills or because of the enquiry type or because they can’t even access broadband. For example, we have 18 postcodes in the county – in Surrey – where 75% of households have problems with their broadband speed. So, I think we have to challenge some of these assumptions.”

Reimagining that customer contact ‘journey’ is something being addressed in work going on with Loti in Newham and Hackney LBCs, points out Mr Copeland. “Rather than a resident saying, ‘I need help with this specific issue’ and then just referring them on as quickly as possible, we’ve been developing a link-worker model whereby those call centre staff are trained and given tools to connect with other services and sources of support,” he explains.

“They can say, ‘while you’re on the phone, can I just check is financial exclusion also an issue for you? Is there anyone with a disability in the house? Are you already registered for free school meals, because your child may be eligible for that?’. The idea is that, at that fi rst point of contact, council staff can hold a resident’s hand and connect them to not just internal council services, given that they may operate in quite a siloed fashion, but refer them on to local voluntary and community sector organisations.”

Finally, Handforth Parish Council’s stormy virtual meeting that went viral may have cheered us all up back in the dark days of the third lockdown in February (and made a social media star of clerk Jackie Weaver). Yet, argues Loti’s Mr Copeland, it also highlights one of the more significant, yet less remarked on, technological shifts we saw during the pandemic in terms of local government – the mainstreaming of much more accessible, virtual local democracy. This is also something that, if it can, local government needs to be proactively working to preserve and build upon, he argues.

“For all the hilarity we’ve seen on Twitter around some meetings being done on Zoom, actually it is massive. I think elected members, despite some initial scepticism, have seen viewership of and participation in those online forums go up signifi cantly,” Mr Copeland says.

"You get a different type of demographic, recognising not everyone can turn up to the town hall. There is so much more we could do there, using digital tools to give citizens a voice in their local recovery. There is real potential there, I feel, but it is also the one where I worry the most that momentum might be lost, that we are most at risk to going back to business as usual,” he adds.

- Nic Paton, Commissioning editor.