Local government response to COVID-19 is giving us a glimpse of a new way of delivering our public services.
What can we learn from this, and make Working Smarter the new way of working?
We have all had to work differently, and to our surprise, it worked really well!
This write-up compares the current way that the public sector operates, with how we have rapidly redesigned ourselves to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. I will use experiences from various councils, to list down a series of actual changes that were made in both the services themselves, but more importantly, the way that staff and managers adapted to this change.
The New Support Hub
The typical setup was a group of front line officers in a large room together. Some of those with more experience were quickly appointed as leads. A facilitator was resident in the room three days a week for the first two weeks, and two managers had the job of ‘managing’ the team.
Lets look at various aspects of what we would normally do in these situations, and compare them with what actually happened
One; The Drive for change — the current approach
In both the private and public sector, pressures are what creates new activity and change — regardless if we want it or not. In fact, we generally prefer to retain static workplaces, but pressure drives us, kicking and screaming into doing something.
Local government in the UK has been in austerity now for over 10 years and the impact of this pressure has, according to most comentators, to simply cut rather than improve. In terms of outcomes from the perspective of those who need support and help to live their lives, the impact has seen them struggle more, and generally get into greater difficulty in their lives. And ontop of that, we have failed to tackle the waste in the way we do things. Austerity is a major pressure, but that pressure has come from where? It is from central government funding, and that is what we reacted to.
Drive for change — the new approach
The pressure from COVID-19 came from our community, an external pressure, and it has been very different to that from central government. Firstly it came very quickly, no time to have meetings and plan endlessly. No reports! But more importantly, what is the driver? The driver is in the local need, the need that is on the doorstep, and in the urgent phone calls. So, dealing with this problem means that we then deal with the actual need in-front of us, rather than a man-made initiative.
The basic design of the new way of working consists of three main things;
We observe that:
The impact of reduced central funding, drives us to cut activities and non-essential services.
The impact of being confronted with real problems, drives us to support people to get them back to supporting themselves.
A brief comment about urgency — it is a driver for change that is often needed to bolster us into action. That pressure creates speed, and drives the activity and solutions that we use to address that change. And the quicker the speed of the problem, the more rapidly we need to respond.
An Example — One hospital Chief Exec sent an email to all staff, congratulating all staff on moving a haemoglobin ward. It was completed in two weeks, rather than taken two years!
Two; The redesign — the current approach
How we redesign in the public sector needs no introduction here. Most of us can make a list of ‘cures’ for our woes that we have seen over the years. The main characteristics of such change might be something like:
The redesign — the new approach
It started with an email to a group of front line staff from different departments, to meet in a room, scratching their heads and wondering what to do. A facilitator was there in the room that had the ability to go and fix things. We engage the public online with a form, and via the phone. Most people preferred to call, as they wanted to discuss things. The council office was closed to visitors, but there were a few people with no working phone or internet who needed immediate help — we helped them, despite it being not what we ‘officially’ meant to do.
The facilitator watches as calls begin to come in, and the staff work out how to deal with them. Once a call is complete, they put the phone down, and talk with their fellows in the room and discuss how to take this forward. The conversations are not planned - they emerge, people feel they can contribute and are listened to.
The manager is outside the room most of the time, and has regular zoom calls with the team. There are flip charts of diagrams and lists going up on the walls, as we figure out what we are doing.
An Example — There was a question about food bag volunteers not having food safety training or certificates, we went upstairs to talk to the environmental health expert, and we got a pragmatic and immediate reply that did not slow us down. It took 10 minutes.
What are they doing that is different?
We had plenty of data to analyse, so we analysed it… It was interesting. And we waited for it to actually direct us to do something that we could not do without it. What we found is that technology was essential, it was critical to helping us to retain knowledge. But, when there was a question, when there was complexity to resolve, invariably a person was the key to answering it, not the data.
Three; The change framework— the current approach
We have experts who have big brains, who know everything. They tell us what we have to do to comply, or else we will incur the wrath of the Daily Mail. We add in lots of checks and management approvals to the procedures, and the experts threaten us with inspections. Risk is defined by the worst case scenario, events that will rarely happen. Our power comes through compliance, for instance GDPR.
Those experts define the how we do the change, and that ultimately defines what becomes the overarching focus of the change. The real reasons for the change become lost to these pressures.
The change framework — the new approach
The experts connect with what the team are doing in their operations room, and they observe. The facilitator then discusses how they can help the team to ensure they do the right thing. The experts realise that by sitting on one room, engaging with staff, ensures flexibility of governance at the right level. Risk is balanced and learned from the actual activity being carried out, rather than fearing the worst case. Checks and balances are part of the discussions with the team who then modify their workflow diagrams.
GDPR was not allowed to become a barrier, it was used to adapt and alter the design of what was needed. The experts' role includes to actually resolve the issues the team encounter, and allow the team to do what they need to do unhindered.
Four; Measures — the current approach
Measures are a managers way of understanding performance and indicates what is happening in the work. Typically, what matters to the manager gets measured; how many, departmental costs against budget, how quickly can we process, government returns, etc. Managers react to those measures.
The staff respond to the measures by artificially improving them, and this creates departmental silos, hiding the real issues, and their purpose becomes ‘hit the numbers’. Measures are often compiled into reports, discussed at meetings, and hidden from the front line. After careful massaging, top management receive a watered down version of what others want them to know.
Measures — the new approach
The numbers are written up at the end of the day on a flip chart on the wall. If anyone wants to know outcomes, they have to come to the room, where someone from the team will explain the measures, and have a discussion as to the implications. No numbers are allowed to be emailed out of the room! This causes other managers and finance to engage directly with the team.
The measures are used in discussions in the team to alter what they do; they learn from them. It is up to the manager to go into some individual cases to understand the causes of costs, and then to formulate the cost model away from the team.
The operations room becomes the place to go to for managers.
Five; Management— the current approach
The management approach in the public sector is born from bureaucratic and administrative foundations. Rooted in the logic of Taylorism, designing the organisation like a logical machine. Then add in the myriad attempts to bring in private sector techniques and wider ‘best practice’ initiatives, and we get to where we are now. In times of pressure, we tend to behave as our masters expect us to, and that is almost always responding to the person with the purse strings.
Management — the new approach
Let’s look at what organisations do when they liberate themselves from the confines of so many conflicting pressures, and instead focus on what we are here to do — purpose as defined by those we are here to support. This greatly simplifies our focus, and directs the organisation to do the right thing. Moving away from the machine paradigm, replaced by an adaptive and emergent way of working that requires a shift in the way we manage.
This table attempts to highlight some of the main management approaches and behaviours that emerged, contrasting between the current and new way of working.
How do we move forwards, learning from this?
One way is to set up a series of change initiatives, and then plan the living daylights out of them. That's what we have been good at doing, but now we want to do better, we need to do this differently.
The crisis has taught us one really important lesson, that has made us very uncomfortable, but is true.
We reacted immediately, and became person centered by default.
We were thrust into uncertain territory, that was actually not that frightening
One thing to note, is that this way of working does not just happen. The new services did not just happen. There were many issues that needed resolving, where the cause was; people not being team players, dominance, lack of communication, top down management decisions, silo mentality.
Community groups are the place where the complexity and solutions meet. In one area of the borough, there was almost no demand. We heard nothing. We discovered that it was because there was a robust and well operating set of volunteers operating in that area. We had little idea what they were doing, but were on hand to support them when needed. The end to end workflow, includes groups, neighbours and family as the true enabler of support.
The development of new approaches like this requires conscious leadership decisions to be made. It requires the managers to become both managers and the facilitators. This is primarily dealing with demand that is complex — uncertain and changing; therefore the management approach needs to adapt to that environment. We need to ask ourselves about the fundamentals of what we need to put in place, to ensure that we enable our organisation to work this way.