Post-pandemic recovery: the importance of debriefing

Posted on 03/08/2021 by Ed Hammond.

We are currently drawing together evidence to support some guidance for councils on how they can use scrutiny to look back on their experiences during the pandemic – as well as to look forward to today and tomorrow’s new policy challenges.

Both tasks will involve fundamentally new ways of working for scrutiny. Scrutiny has reflected on the impact of big events before – but nothing remotely of the scale and longevity of the pandemic. And the policymaking challenge now facing us is similarly huge.

Councils have, practically since last March, been carrying out work on an ongoing basis to assess, review and scrutiny the support provided to local people during the pandemic. Last year we suggested that scrutiny conduct COVID-19 “step back” reviews – short and focused exercises to assess performance and to refine future work.

We are now however in a situation where it is possible that we can start thinking about an end to the pandemic. It is likely that autumn and winter will bring fresh challenges as infection rates and hospitalisations climb – particularly as COVID pressures combine with typical seasonal pressures (of flu, for example). But the removal of legal restrictions on 19 July 2021 provides a bookend, of sorts – and end to the period which started with March 2020 and an opportunity therefore to reflect on the past fifteen months in a more fundamental way.

This process can be more thoughtful and reflective than a quick, sharp “step back” exercise might be. But with this reflective opportunity comes risks – particularly that such a review will be so broad and open-ended that it will have little relevance.

Breadth is the first key issue to tackle. The pandemic has had an impact on every aspect of how councils and their partners work. An in-depth look at everything is impossible, so you will need a way of identifying where to focus. We recommend:

  • Understanding where pressures were most keenly felt over the period of the pandemic – depending on your authority these pressures may have arisen in social care, around housing, or education (or broader children’s services);
  • Understanding where departments, or the council as a whole, is carrying out its own reviews and debriefs of the pandemic experience. Such exercises are likely to be widespread – getting a sense of where work is ongoing will help scrutiny to decide its own areas of focus;
  • Identifying gaps – areas which may not be subject to detailed review, although councillors may think they are important – and cross cutting issues;
  • Putting together a plan to carry out investigations into these areas.

This means that this form of scrutiny is likely to look different for every council.

There are also more generic “whole council” questions which scrutiny can seek to answer, such as:

  • How, during the pandemic, did we ensure that we had an accurate, ongoing picture of the areas where the most acute need arose – how did we speak to the public during this period?
  • How did we manage our budget, and workforce, in a time of high uncertainty?
  • How did we change our plans and approach as the national and local picture itself changed? How did we, for example, develop and deliver contingency plans, or use risk management processes to mitigate the negative impacts of a fast-moving situation? How easy did we find it to shift our operating model at the start of lockdowns one, two and three, and when the “tier” system was in place?

All of this work will probably need, at its heart, to answer questions like:

  • What did we do differently?
  • How did we communicate those changes?
  • Which of these changes do we want to keep? (because they promoted collaboration, helped us to get the job done)
  • Which of these changes do we want to discard? (because they were appropriate for emergencies but not for everyday use)
  • How does this experience inform our contingency, and risk, plans more generally?

We’ll be drawing on the experience of a wide range of councils to understand how they’ve gone about the process of post-pandemic review (and review during the pandemic).

After we publish this research we will be going on to produce something looking forward – answering the question of how scrutiny can assist councils to fundamentally reassess what community need is, and where priorities lie, in an environment where the pandemic has thrown our plans into flux. This will be published in the winter.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.