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:

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.

How coronavirus is changing how we think about illegal drugs

Jon Bloomfield

The debate between prevention or punishment is receiving some ‘new thinking’ that may change the way drugs are bought and used.

How the country handles people who use drugs is a contentious political issue. Like most of the country, Birmingham has a growing problem with drug misuse. Over the last forty years Judith Yates has seen every aspect of the urban drugs scene, starting as a GP in an inner-city, Birmingham practice in 1980. Now involved with drug monitoring in the city,  she knows the devastation that drug use can bring to people’s lives. She is clear on the policy approach that is needed. “Treating drugs as a health issue not a criminal justice issue is the key.”

For decades the UK has followed the lead of the United States in seeing drugs as primarily a criminal issue. There are now signs that the agencies which confront these issues daily recognise that it is time to change course. That’s certainly the case in Birmingham and across the West Midlands. David Jamieson, the elected West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, is an astute Labour politician, who knows that  he needs to side-step the ‘culture wars’ booby traps. So he avoids gesture politics and grand statements. Instead he tells me, “we’re following a pragmatic approach. We can’t wait for the government to change the law. We’re looking at what we can do now.” 

Following public consultation, in February 2018 Jamieson set out a new approach to drug policy. The report called for new thinking and a mature discussion about what needed to be done, along with eight recommendations for action.

Some were small-scale measures such as the proposal to improve access to Naloxone and other interventions that reduce the lethal impact of drug overdoses. “We’ve now got fifty officers in Birmingham city centre trained in its use and carrying it around with them.” 

The pocket-sized Naloxone kit. (Jon Bloomfield)

A further measure the PCC is pursuing is the establishment of a heroin assisted treatment (HAT) centre. This would “use a current medical facility and treat 10-15 heavy end users.”  One of the local council officers involved in the discussions on operationalising the HAT admitted to me that setting it up is complex. “You have to find the right facility and be able to match it to the right cohort of users. It’s no good if they are miles apart.” But Jamieson is confident that “we’ll be able to land it by early next year.”

One of Jamieson’s eight  recommendations was to consider the benefits of supervised drug consumption rooms. This support is typically targeted at hard to reach homeless people, improving their access to treatment while taking their injecting and needle litter off the streets. Just before lockdown, the Commissioner  published Out of Harm’s Way which assessed the evidence regarding Drug Consumption Rooms and showed strong and supportive backing for their introduction as a way  to reduce the harm caused, and the costs incurred, by drug use. Jamieson has been to visit such a facility in Geneva to see how it works and its benefits but he admits “it’s a tricky area. Progress has been slow so far and it’s mainly a health issue”. His budgets wouldn’t cover its introduction.    

David Jamieson inspecting a drug consumption facility in Geneva. (West Midlands PCC)

With strapped budgets and ever-rising pressures, the agencies on the ground know that policy has to change and they are increasingly prepared to look at the evidence from across Europe and listen to the experiences of former drug users. John’s life has stabilised on methadone and for more than a decade he’s been involved in advocacy and support for people who use drugs. He’s a firm advocate of heroin assisted treatment centres and has visited drug consumption rooms in several European cities and believes they should be introduced here. “We’ve spent billions on this pandemic; we should be doing the same to tackle drug use.” At the end of a long call he wryly remarks that “as a 63 year old drug user I’ve managed to get by quite well in life.” He basically wants enough resources to be made available for others to be able to do the same.

Some of these harm reduction measures would be controversial with cultural conservatives. That’s why Jamieson treads warily, even though he has the backing of his senior police officers. But he feels that “we’re refocusing the debate. We are seeing quite a softening amongst opinion formers even in the media. A sea change is happening, even if it’s a bit glacial. I’m optimistic about our policies but I know there are no quick fixes.” He talks about the new HAT centre and I ask him if he shall invite Home Secretary Priti Patel to open it.  He chuckles and replies, “She’d be most welcome. I’m here to move mountains, not to build divides. I’m about persuading people.”  It looks like the invitation will be in the post.

A full version of this article can be found here:

Jon Bloomfield is an honorary research fellow at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham and a regular contributor to the Long Read.

Meeting like this…

Bryony Rudkin

The fieldwork for my PhD has consisted in part in watching and transcribing webcasts of council meetings. This was in the ‘before times’. Councillors like me up and down the country would put on their glad rags once a week or so, tip up at town halls up and do their thing.

Some of them would be filmed doing so and webcasts of meetings put up on council websites. Some recordings would be professionally produced using external platforms with nice little extras such as the relevant papers attached and easily referenced timings making it easy to watch the part of the meeting you were interested without having to wade through matters arising from the last one. Some of them were a little more homespun, filmed on phones and iPads, as one colleague put it, “local government styled by the The Blair Witch Project”.

Audiences for these would vary. Anecdotally, I was told officers would watch meetings in their respective councils to follow how their policy ideas were translated and received by councillors. Planning Committee meetings would get more hits from residents who were unable to attend in person but nevertheless wanted to know about their neighbour’s home extensions. One Chief Executive told me her mum watched and sent notes back on how her hair looked. And then there was me, collecting data with which to test my research questions.

All well and good. Then came the pandemic and lockdown and everyone went online. Whether it’s Zoom or Teams (other providers are available…) everyone from toddlers to great grannies logged on it seems. Quizzes were ubiquitous at the start and my family played some great drawing games (none of us will trouble Hockney). It’s not all been plain sailing though and we’ve all heard tales of Zooms gone wrong. Kids, dogs, nudity and those chat messages sent to all in error. I sat through one where someone, in response to a dull peroration on cycle paths, lifted their foot up and started to scratch it.

My rather niche research field has become a daily reality for most of us. I get regular messages along the lines of ‘you won’t want to miss this one….watch from 29 minutes in!”. I’ve been asked to comment on individual performance and style – “does my bookcase look big in this one?” – and I’ve taken part in virtual peer reviews and given feedback, online of course. I’ve been a participant myself of course and not just in council meetings. I’ve presented to an academic conference, chaired a meeting with a shadow minister interrupted by an ice-cream van outside her house and next month I’m monitoring elections in Bulgaria.

What has all this brought to my research? Well, put simply, meetings held online are a different matter to those held in person and publicly broadcast meetings something else again. Being at home, being alone in a room without colleagues to encourage, moderate or provoke can lead to unguarded moments. ‘Home truths’ are just that sometimes.

The organisation and direction of online meetings is a different process and the outcomes unpredictable. I recently watched two recent meetings in one authority, one calm, the other chaotic but the former was darker in tone and raised issues of bias and the chaos of the latter simply demonstrated a community at ease with itself and its challenges.

How we move on from here is a brave new world. Viewing figures are undoubtedly up and residents are getting more engaged. Hybrid meetings are now a reality. We all have new skills to learn and mute buttons to press. Watch this space….

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.

Healthy Neighbourhoods

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Brent Healthy Neighbourhoods have been making headlines and indeed these were debated at a special Full Council meeting a few days ago.

So what are these “emergency” Covid road closures and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” all about? Well these are a group of residential streets where vehicle traffic, which is not local to the area, is either discouraged or removed. These areas are commonly referred to as low-traffic neighbourhoods. Brent plans to roll out a series of these initiatives between August 2020 and February 2021, in partnership with Transport for London and the Department for Transport. So, how can we make this innovative initiative better and benefit all?

I love where I live. It is rich in the elements that make for a vibrant, connected community. There is a bus stop near my home, there are nearby parks, I visit with my two young sons, and neighbours who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, and incomes.

These are all elements of healthy neighbourhoods. Brent aims to create neighbourhoods, and communities that better support residents’ physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. A lot of living happens between buildings and we are starting to realise that reactive healthcare is not sustainable. We need to move to a more proactive mind-set and break down the silos between planners, healthcare, and governments. Then we can develop environments that improve health outcomes and help alleviate the burden of treating chronic conditions at a macroeconomic level.

This involves working with our communities and various stakeholders. At the individual and community levels, the more attention policy makers, planners, and developers pay to these principles, the more likely it is that we will all be able to proclaim our love for our neighbourhoods — and the healthy, supported, and connected lives they enable us to lead.

We know that stress plays a vital role in undermining health and wellness — whether it is caused by commuting, isolation, congestion, lack of exercise, or estrangement from nature — so it is not surprising that stress reduction and connecting residents, both young and old, with their streets is at the heart of healthy neighbourhoods’ initiative.

So, to enhance Brent’s innovative Healthy Neighbourhoods we should:

1. Think Smart location

We must reflect on how people have safe and easy access to public transport. Residents should be able to meet basic needs without using a car, which saves money, and walking on errands provides routine physical movement and social interaction.

2. Nature is integrated

Green spaces are abundant, or at least present. Natural landscapes help maintain and cleanse the environment by removing harmful toxins from the air and water, while open space promotes physical activity and psychological wellbeing.

3. Land use is mixed

Combining housing, schools, shops, and places of worship in a compact area provides easy access to services and decreases reliance on cars. This supports physical and social well-being.

4. Includes a variety of housing types

A mix of apartment buildings, small homes, and larger homes that can accommodate multi-generational families naturally encourages economic and demographic diversity. Combining incomes and generations decentralises poverty, enables “aging in place,” and encourages attainable housing for community members of all backgrounds, income levels, and ages.

5. Offers alternatives to driving

People in pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities have a reduced risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease and enjoy more routine social interaction.

6. Encourages pride of place

Healthy neighbourhoods host high-quality public spaces that encourage residents to come out of their homes to exercise, meet, and mingle (in post Covid times). This builds social capital and a sense of community.

7. Provides access to healthy foods

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and shops that offer a wide range of fresh vegetables and fruits are critical amenities that support wellness.

8. Enables lifelong learning Community members of all ages and backgrounds have opportunities to share their skills, knowledge, and experience with others through mentoring, book clubs, informal lectures, classes, and workshops, all of which promote feelings of growth, self-sufficiency, and connectedness.

9. Incorporates sustainable development

Low-impact development and green building technologies yield positive benefits for human health as well as the environment.

Like other councils, we are taking the opportunity to “de-stress” our local area.  Local councils have the unique democratic mandate and place-shaping ability to make these difficult and complex decisions about conflicting perspectives, needs and preferences.

Cllr Sheth chairs the Brent Council Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

The £3 Billion Pound Question

Jason Lowther

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest review of English council finances documents why so many chief executives and treasurers have been having sleepless nights since “whatever it takes to tackle Covid” transformed into “as little as we can get away with giving you”.

On Wilkins Micawber’s “income” side, Covid has hit councils’ commercial activities, notably around retail rents, as well as fees for facilities such as leisure centres, and revenue from local taxes.   On the expenditure side, councils are seeing persistent cost increases.  As Micawber predicted: “result misery”.

In social care alone, expenditure on the care of older people will need to increase substantially and quickly.  Adult social care has faced a combination of pressures arising from demographic change and increased costs, rising need and demand, and short-term funding settlements. 

The IFS recognises the huge uncertainties involved in predicting financial and economic issues at present, addressing this by analysing a range of scenarios.

The bottom line across all council services is a £3bn+ shortfall in 2020–21, with the IFS concluding this may well be an optimistic estimate, and a middle scenario projecting a gap of over £3bn a year by 2024-25.  Not surprisingly they conclude that “without additional funding and/or flexibility over council tax rates, it is highly likely that councils will have insufficient revenues to keep pace with rising spending needs”.

What to do about this?  Aside from yet more austerity, the IFS identifies changing the rules on council tax rises (which would increase inequalities between rich and poor areas), increasing government grants, or giving councils additional tax powers such as new local taxes.

Austerity, the sustained and widespread cuts to government budgets which characterised Britain’s public policy from 2010, has already shrunk the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments and exacerbating territorial injustice[ii].

Greater local freedom on taxation is well overdue in the UK, where a larger proportion of local government spending is financed through grants from central government, and much less use is made of local and regional taxation than in almost all other European countries[iii]

Although the body of existing academic evidence about the impact of devolving fiscal powers is inconclusive[iv], comparative research on how municipal governments function in a number of major international cities demonstrates that British cities have very low levels of fiscal autonomy[v] and lower productivity than these cities.  There are also positive effects on economic outcomes when powers are held at the appropriate level and when local authorities are incentivised to create pro-growth planning regimes[vi] 

It’s also worth noticing again that much local government funding is still distributed through competitions which place considerable pressures upon local authorities and partners[vii], and result in wasted effort and ineffective use of resources.  And, whilst councils and other public bodies can share resources and pool funds to deliver joint outcomes more effectively and efficiently, there are still legal, cultural, governance and other barriers to this collaboration. 

In the short term, government should cull competitive funding and address the barriers to resource sharing.  They must plug the £3bn+ funding gaps over this and the next few years.  And in the medium term much more local freedom on taxation and autonomy are needed to give local government a sustainable future.

Jason Lowther, Director – Institute for Local Government Studies

[i] Ogden, K. et al, 2020, COVID-19 and English council funding: what is the medium-term outlook?, Institute for Fiscal Studies

[ii] Gray, M. and Barford, A., 2018. The depths of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society11(3), pp.541-563.

[iii] Loughlin, J. and Martin, S., 2003. Options for Reforming Local Government Funding to Increase Local Streams of Funding: International Comparisons. Lyons Inquiry into Local Government Funding.

[iv] London Finance Commission, 2013. Raising the capital: The report of the London Finance Commission. London, the Commission.

[v] Slack, E., 2016. International Comparison of Global City Financing: A Report to the London Finance Commission. Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance Munk School of Global Affairs. University of Toronto.

[vi] Cheshire, P.C. and Hilber, C.A., 2008. Office space supply restrictions in Britain: the political economy of market revenge. The Economic Journal118(529), pp.F185-F221.

[vii] Loader, K., 2002. What price competition? The management of competitive funding in UK local government. International Journal of Public Sector Management.

The Transformative Politics of the European Green Deal

by Jon Bloomfield

COVID 19 has highlighted our fragile relationship to the planet. But it represents a minor challenge compared to the permanent havoc that runaway climate change threatens. Politicians and governments – some at least – are beginning to recognise the scale of the danger. In this article we assess the evolution of policy thinking on how to make climate transitions happen; the potential of the European Green Deal; and how progressives need to shape it and any UK counterpart to meet the challenges of modern society.

The European Green Deal initiative launched in December 2019 arose from a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum. Yet its central thrust of active government offers the prospect of reviving a battered social democracy. Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post COVID19 offers a second chance. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis but it offers major opportunities for social democracy, if it is able to embrace a pluralist and environmentalist approach suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

So what can a ‘social democracy re-born’ offer?  The starting point has to be a recognition that the climate crisis requires a re-making of everyday politics, on the Left as well as the Right. The 19th and 20th century model of high-carbon, fossil fuel intensive economies where the core task is for ‘man to conquer nature’ has run its course. To safeguard our common future a new low carbon model of sustainable development has to become the ‘common sense ‘of the age. That’s what the policy specialists and architects of the European and the US Green Deal have formulated. Politicians and parties across the spectrum are trying to catch up. The anticipated post-Covid, green recovery programmes in the run-up to COP 26 will show which political forces are best able to translate this thinking into everyday politics and to make low or zero-carbon initiatives the golden thread that runs through their policy proposals.

The elements of active government, collective goods, and social inclusion chime with the social democratic tradition yet it needs to overcome the contradictory baggage of utopianism on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. There are four areas in particular where a shift in social democratic thinking is needed.

Firstly, it needs to adopt a 21st Century modernity. The Green Industrial Revolution should no longer be the metaphor of choice. It speaks to a technocratic, top-down model of traditional Keynesianism.  This conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals.  Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas.

Secondly, the potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions should be highlighted.

Thirdly, pluralism has to be at the heart of any effective, green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision.

Fourthly, the 21st century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, Continental and global.   The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change which is why centralised, top-down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission-driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge-led approach where national government specifies the broad direction but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level.  The classic big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle on the UK’s COVID test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.

Our article indicates the openings here for a pluralist, ecological Left. The run-up to the next global climate conference –COP26- will be a vital period which will show whether parties and governments across the world are prepared to meet the climate change challenge.

Jon Bloomfield HeadDr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate change.