Where do we go from here? Reflecting and learning from this experience

Posted on 11/06/2020 by Ed Hammond.

Whilst we still face many months of uncertainty and many institutions continue to be focused on the operational response to the pandemic, there is a responsibility to consider what the world will look and feel like after the COVID-19 crisis has receded.

We can agree that, when we do finally emerge, things won’t be the same.

In a matter of weeks the way that services are delivered and employees work has changed dramatically, alongside this decision-making and other “formal” elements of local governance have been carried out have been transformed. . Remote meetings were a policy idea stuck in the longest of long grass in February – now we’re all doing them.

The world within which public services operate will also not be the same in 2021 and beyond. Councils are teetering on the edge of a financial precipice, forced to spend huge amounts of money to support local people just as big sources of revenue dry up. Huge shifts across the economy are just beginning to be felt. There is an unknown demand to be assessed and met as ‘normality’ returns in areas such as safeguarding and many aspects of social care. All of these things, and others, will have profound long term impacts.

When things do fully ease – whether that is in a few weeks, in September, at Christmas, or this time next year depending on your level of optimism – we will need to have a plan in place to manage the transition to what we might call “normal” business. This will not be the same as going back to what we thought was normal in February. The world will look different so we, as a result, will need to think and work differently.

There will also be a desire for many to rush to put back to traditional ways of doing things, a need for the comfort and protection that they gave in terms of familiarity but also a desire to re-establish institutional power and control.

We want to learn lessons from what has happened and think about what the relationship tells us about:

  • The relationship between councillors and the councils of which they are part. Were councillors an integral part of the emergency response? If not, why not? What lessons about councillors’ roles can we learn from this?
  • The relationship between councillors and officers. Did officers keep councillors informed – and involved – as the crisis progressed? Alternatively, and worryingly, did councillors not actively involved in executive decision-making feel cut adrift?
  • The relationship between officers, and the work that we do together. Staff were deployed and had to work in different ways, often at short notice, to meet critical local need. Did this “pulling together” help to build a positive organisational culture? Did staff having to work in different ways feel supported – particularly those who also had to juggle childcare, other caring responsibilities and working from home in an environment which might not have been ideal?
  • How was the public kept informed and involved during this period, did the crisis drive more transparency and openness through communications in the immediate response stage, the co-ordination of community resources and the shift to online governance.

We will need to use this understanding to inform how we work in future.

This is a kind of “debrief” process, but it is very different to the kinds of debrief that usually follow on from emergency situations. This emergency will be long-lasting and have profound impacts on every part of the way we work, and our wider lives. We have to design a process of reflection that recognises this, rather than focusing exclusively on matters such as the operational response (which is nonetheless important, but which in this case will only tell a small part of the whole story).

We are, at the moment, thinking more about this process of reflection and that role that local governance  can play in it. As we do so, we are keen to learn people’s thoughts about democratic accountability,  decision-making during the crisis and scrutiny’s role, and whether this is something that we should dedicate time and resource to explore further.


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.