Keeping the window open: the 21st Century Public Servant and Covid-19

Image by @laurabrodrick

Prof. Catherine Needham

Local authorities had experience of managing short-term local crises, but the national and long-lasting crisis created by Covid-19 has been something new outside wartime. Local authorities had to manage the local implications of the lockdown and Covid-19 preparedness in their area whilst also moving all of their own non-essential workers to a home working model.

Our 21st Century Public Servant research (first published in 2014) looked at the changing roles, skills and values of people working in local public services. Over the previous six months we have partnered with North West Employers to understand how Covid-19 is changing working practices and skills, and how it links to the 21st C Public Servant findings. Given the constraints of doing fieldwork with local authorities themselves at a time of crisis, we gathered the learning through a series of conversations with the NWE team, published in our new report Keeping the Window Open.

The strain on local authority staff has been intense, as it has on the whole population. However some of the changes in organisational practices have been seen as positive, and have flagged opportunities for long-term reconfiguration. Some of our key findings include:

The importance of Storytellers: the most effective public servants during the crisis were seen by interviewees as those who were values-based and able to tell stories that drew on those values, setting out a path for the long term. They were the energiser and cheerleader – ‘we can get through this’ – despite not knowing the length or trajectory of the story.

The need for Entrepreneurs: the pandemic context has meant that staff have had to innovate, without always waiting for permission, and in some cases bypassing the usual sign-off procedures. The speed and extent of change has been unlike anything in local government before.

A new kind of Resource weaver: A key part of the Covid response has been using internal resources differently. Redeployment has been extensive, which has helped to break down silos within organisations. Many teams changed roles completely – for example leisure services and democratic services teams took on tasks like delivering PPE and setting up community hubs. The urgency and scale of the task made possible changes that otherwise would not have happened. As one of our interviewees put it, ‘People have been more willing to cross organisational lines, looking at partners and saying we can’t afford you to fail.’

Professional skills have been vital for those working in public health, environment health, planning and emergency response. However for many others, it is their more generic skills that have come to the forefront during the Covid-19 crisis. Through skills matching processes, there has been a new understanding of which individual skills are transferable. As one interviewee put it, ‘Lifeguards and fitness instructors have been redeployed to do community support because of their personal style and approach rather than their technical skills.’

Mass working from home has required high trust relationships with and between staff: ‘I think some managers have had their eyes opened about how home working can work. One local authority had no home working at all before this, they didn’t allow it – they had to go straight to 100 percent’. This creates questions about the future beyond Covid-19: ‘Are we prepared to let go and let people continue working from home or will we go back to the long hours culture? Can we focus on outputs and outcomes rather than hours worked?’

Something we didn’t address in the original 21st Century Public Servant research was endurance. It is still unclear how long this crisis will last. In the early phases at least there was hope that the lockdown could be short. Now it is clear that home working will continue for many people: ‘we won’t have everyone back at work ever again’. However, many have found home working to be much more intense, with few opportunities for down time, such as the chats in the lift with colleagues or the daydreaming on the train: ‘There isn’t much informal in my day at the moment. The intensity of it can be quite exhausting. How do we sustain the informal interactions like we had in the office?’

The long-term organisational legacy of Covid-19 is unclear, but the months of the crisis have made much clearer what public services are for and what the people working in them can achieve. Organisations and individuals need to think about how to keep open the window of change, and what are the new working cultures, roles and skills that can be sustained for the future.

This blog was originally published on the 21st Century Public Servant website: https://21stcenturypublicservant.wordpress.com/

Catherine Needham is Professor of Public Policy and Public Management. She is based at the Health Services Management Centre, developing research around social care and new approaches to public service workforce development.

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