Let’s Tackle Covid

Cllr Ketan Sheth

The ‘mass vaccination event’ at Twickenham Stadium on the Spring Bank Holiday was a proud day for the NHS and local government. The North West London NHS and Hounslow Council, supported by the Rugby Football Union, pulled off this remarkable day with less than a week to plan, following a surge in Covid cases in Hounslow.

The communications around the event included the obvious routes of national, local and social media, but also included targeted door knocking in Hounslow. During the day, as it became clear that there were likely to be some vaccines left over, the local NHS took the wise decision to open up the offer to anyone aged 18 and over and this was quickly picked up and reported by the BBC, Sky and other media outlets. The result was a huge spike in demand towards the end of the day. By the close, over 11,000 people had been vaccinated – a record for a single day at one venue in the UK. Those behind this effort are to be hugely congratulated.

There are three lessons I think we can learn from this remarkable event. First, it may be a myth that young people don’t want to get vaccinated. Most of those turning up when the offer was extended were under 30. Media reports talked of a ‘festival atmosphere’ and those who attended have confirmed to me that there was a real ‘buzz’ among the young people coming forward. A number of young people turned up with older family members, having persuaded them belatedly that they should be vaccinated. While time will tell, this does suggest that there may be more enthusiasm among younger people for getting vaccinated than had been previously suggested.

Second, and perhaps more contentiously, the quicker we open up to all age groups, the easier it will be to coordinate the vaccine effort. Had the whole day been open to anyone aged over 18, it is likely the demand would have been even higher throughout the day. While the initial targeting of older and more vulnerable people made sense, it becomes harder to justify as we move down through the age groups – and harder for the NHS to coordinate and promote vaccination. We might also want to think about vaccinating people at their convenience wherever they live – while the event was targeted at Hounslow residents and others in the NHS ‘North West London’ sector, I know people from Richmond were not turned away.

Finally, what we can learn is that if everyone pulls together and works as one team, remarkable things can be achieved, even in short space of time. This is a lesson that extends beyond Covid-19 and the vaccination programme – and bodes well for ‘integrated care systems’, in which the NHS and local authorities are expected to work in statutory partnerships in the years ahead.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Chair of Brent Council‘s Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee and Chair of NW London Joint Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee 

Help council commissioning to ‘build back better’

Jason Lowther

Local government is digging deep into its financial reserves and hiking council tax bills by double inflation, but still anticipates making further service cuts in 2021–22. The Public Accounts Committee report earlier this month shows how central government support hasn’t matched Covid-related budget reductions. More positively, at the same time, councils and partners are eyeing the improvements made to commissioning and procurement during the pandemic and asking whether these could help balance the budget. Can adding value to local government’s annual procurement spend of £100bn help improve outcomes for citizens, sustain local councils, and build a better recovery?

As NESTA’s recent report, A Catalyst for Change, evidenced, councils’ collaboration with other public sector bodies, citizens and the voluntary and private sectors was at the centre of the response to COVID-19. Local authorities ‘stepped into their role as conveners, leveraged their existing relationships and partnerships, and forged new ones to dynamically address key issues. This allowed organisations to link up volunteers with vulnerable people, support businesses, deliver food parcels or find temporary accommodation for rough sleepers’.

I’ve heard from some of the council managers on INLOGOV’s teaching programmes of the amazing agility and flexibility councils have been able to develop with partners in areas such as social care and housing. Commissioning and procurement processes that in the past were seen as inflexible, slow, risk-averse, price-obsessed and lacking innovation were transformed rapidly in response to the immediate threats of the pandemic. Data was shared in more depth and quickly, enabling better targeting of services. More flexible financial and performance management arrangements opened the door to flexible service delivery.

Now, a major research programme led by Dr. Richard Simmons at Stirling University, called Optimising Outcomes, is looking at the impact of Covid on partnering and procurement. The programme is working with key sector bodies such as CIPFA and SOLACE as well as universities and research councils, to answer key questions such as:

  • How, and how effectively, are local authorities deploying their commissioning and procurement functions to address the challenges posed by Covid-19? What are the successes to be celebrated? Where are the tensions that need to be managed? Where is the system at risk of breaking down?
  • What are the opportunities for improved procurement performance? How do local authorities optimise every aspect of procurement spend?
  • Can local authorities adopt more innovative, strategic, entrepreneurial and relational approaches to strengthen local resilience and avoid a weak and incapacitated system?
  • What role can greater data-analytic capacity play in supporting a more agile and effective response?

As part of this research, council managers have been invited to take part in a survey to capture learning from the many challenges and achievements of the sector during the last year.  The survey is aimed at all UK council managers (there is a separate survey for procurement teams) and takes around 10 minutes to complete.  The closing date for responses is 21st June.

If you are a UK council manager and haven’t yet taken part, please would you complete the survey here.    

This is a great opportunity to ‘build back better’ by applying the lessons and innovations councils and partners have developed over the last 18 months. I’ll report back on the results later this year.

Source: DHSC website

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV)

Backroom or backlit? Council meetings post-Covid

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin

This week two councillor colleagues of mine told me of meetings they’d attended, one an unusual face to face gathering, the other online. For one friend it was the first time she had been to the Town Hall in almost a year. She and her colleagues sat, each at their own table, in an echoing chamber and raised their voices in order to be heard. It was an informal meeting of councillors, officers and other public servants, called to debate sensitive issues in person so that information could be shared freely and confidentially. The issues were serious and compounded by lockdown and stretched resources, an unwelcome distraction at any time. However, this turned out to be a meeting filled with laughter, jokes and gentle teasing. There were interjections and interruptions which helped the meeting flow freely. Delight in seeing each other was tempered only by the acknowledgment of how long it had been since they had last done so.

My other friend told me of an online meeting where an argument had taken place and where one person had cried after making a very personal speech. She observed that what she called “the protection of the screen” meant others were not afraid to show their reaction to the emotions on display but equally the meeting had been stripped bare of physical comfort, an arm around a shoulder or a squeeze of the hand.

These two accounts got me thinking about what we gain and what we lose when we meet online. There’s an interesting seam of academic literature on what meetings are, their role in policy making, the artefacts they produce and of particular interest to local government practitioners, what they tell us about what councillors actually do all day (Brown, Reed & Yarrow: 2017; Freeman: 2008, 2019; Freeman & Maybin: 2011; Llewelyn: 2005). What no one has yet had the chance to explore is the terrain of the online meeting. My own research has used webcast meetings as a rich source of data. Not all UK authorities broadcast public meetings prior to the pandemic but there is now a growing nationwide archive of the formal business of local authorities open to research. What might we want to learn from a closer look? Are individual councillors more or less influenced in their decision making by what they hear from fellow politicians or officers? What of the informal behaviours in meetings – the notes passed, the interruptions, the heckling, the laughter and the eye rolls? In real life these act as lubricants to the flow of discourse and breathing space for thought and reflection. How are they replicated in an online world? If you’re busy on the WhatsApp finding out what your friends are thinking, how much attention are you giving to what is being said?

Arguably, it might not be worth the effort of exploration. The legislation that enables online meetings in English and Welsh local authorities expires in May. The roll out of the vaccine means a roadmap back to the council chamber – alongside the doorstep for local election campaigning – might just be in reach. No doubt those first few ‘real’ meetings will be different. We will have to relearn what it means to speak and listen in person, without the protection and comfort of our screens and homes. We may have gained bigger audiences. Residents, having exhausted Netflix, may be turning to council meetings for entertainment. Maybe not. Anecdotally, councils aren’t directing too much effort into collating viewing figures right now, but having turned the cameras on, it may be difficult to turn them off. We can only wait and see.

I suppose for me it’s always been what happens ‘back stage’ in politics that’s piqued my interest. Privileged access to such space has shown me there’s always so much more to meetings than first meets the eye. It might be happening online, but I’ll wager not to the extent or with the nuance of the past. Back lighting is more of an imperative than backroom dealing right now.

And so I’m reminded of another story a fellow councillor told me years ago about meetings and what goes on in them. Sadly he’s no longer around, so it’s safe to relate. He’d been sent to observe a council meeting in another authority to check on behaviour and conduct. Everything he actually saw taking place was no better or worse than in any other council, he said. The real problem was behind the scenes. The leaders of all three parties represented in that chamber actually carried out negotiations by leaving notes for each other on the top of the old Victorian cisterns in the gents toilets. They were all men. The chief executive, with whom they had disagreements was a short woman who was never going to find them there.

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

References:
Brown, H., Reed, A. & Yarrow, T., (2017), “Introduction: towards an ethnography of meeting”, Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute, 23:S1, 10-26
Freeman, R., (2019), “The role of the councillor and the work of the meeting”, Local Government Studies,
46:4, 564-582
Freeman, R. & Maybin, J., (2011), “Documents, practices and policy”, Evidence & Policy, 7:2, 155-170
Llewellyn, N., (2005), “Audience Participation in Political Discourse: A Study of Public Meetings”, Sociology,
39:4, 697-716