Systems change in local government: learning from COVID-19

City of York Council (CYC) are one of the six local authorities that took part in Nesta’s rapid research into how local government responded to COVID-19 in the first six months of the pandemic. Through this research, we explored what the crisis could teach us about the future of local government, and how we might hold on to the positive changes that emerged. In this piece, Jennie Cox, Senior Local Area Coordinator at CYC shares how COVID-19 has highlighted patterns of behaviours that lead to silo working and stifle collaboration between councils and citizens.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for critical reflection and conversation within local government. During this time, I became attuned to several shifts in the system: first towards panic and chaos, then towards an increase in collaboration, innovative ideas and compassion, which was unfortunately followed by an inevitable shift back towards more familiar negative system processes and behaviours.

I worked through my initial dismay by taking the incredible learning opportunity to map what I had seen. I mapped the COVID-19 microsystem, made up of the behaviours, processes and approaches we had developed since the start of the crisis. This helped me to work out how, why and where this was sliding back into familiar silos and negative behaviours. My intention was to help us identify the conditions that enabled the ‘sweet spots’ of agile-working and citizen-centred approaches that characterised the beginning of our COVID-19 response and give us insight into the bigger question of how and why the wider system had historically become a landscape of silos, guarding resources and ‘interrogation of need’ which is a characteristic of a culture which distinguishes between deserving and undeserving citizens. This, I hope, will help us move forward by healing fractured relationships with partners and citizens and indicate where change might be needed to break negative patterns of behaviour.

I wrote these reflections based on the CYC Help Response Line, emergency planning and Local Area Coordination (LAC) cross-system work – which are areas I have been closest to. They are informed by my experiences as a citizen, front line worker and manager, and on the feedback and reflections of the LAC team. I am aware that a full system understanding would require bringing together many different perspectives – I hope this piece can start a wider conversation with partners and colleagues across the system about how we break these loops.

City of York Council’s COVID-19 Response Timeline

City of York Council’s COVID-19 Response Timeline

I started the mapping process by creating a COVID-19 Response Timeline, which maps the sequence of actions, behaviours and relationships that occurred within the wider system from the beginning of the crisis. This timeline allowed me to identify where positive and negative behaviours arose in the system, what factors reinforced negative practices, and where and how positive behaviours became more negative during the pandemic. Three causal loops emerged which illustrate some of the system behaviour patterns that lead to silo working and stifle collaboration between councils and citizens.

Loop 1: Controlling the flow of information.

At the beginning of COVID-19, councils shared information with staff, partners and communities quickly to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents. With time, as bureaucratic structures were reinstated around communications processes, the flow of information from the councils to communities slowed down. This in turn, deepened silos and lowered trust between the council, partners and communities. These practices and behaviours are interconnected and reinforce one another, as seen in the diagram below.

Causal Loop 1- Controlling the flow of information

Causal Loop 1- Controlling the flow of information

In practice, these patterns of behaviours negatively impacted CYC’s relationships with partners and citizens, who became frustrated at the lack of transparency. The information-sharing processes used in emergency planning didn’t account for a diverse range of views and versions of the truth, generated risk aversion and delayed getting important information out to people when it was most needed. Although staff were quickly mobilised to gather information about businesses doing food deliveries early on in the crisis, this information was logged into a limited access spreadsheet.

Concerns around how best to present food delivery information to citizens, making sure it stayed up to date, and apprehension around being seen as supporting some businesses over others meant that the information was not shared in time and community groups started circulating their own lists instead. Citizens frequently voiced that the council’s focus should have been on distributing this information rather than the good news story features which seemed to be the focus.

Loop 2: Guarding of resources

The initial COVID-19 response was characterised by a person-centred, flexible and case-by-case approach that offered help and support to people quickly and unconditionally. As processes around things such as food and medication deliveries were refined, new rules and eligibility criteria were put into place to ensure the support reached the most vulnerable citizens. Instead of embracing a wicked solutions approach that allows for adaptability and flexibility, there was a push from above to find prescribed, set solutions. In practice, this guarding of resources and stricter eligibility criteria made it difficult for people to access the service and lets people slip through the cracks. It reduced the compassionate person-centred approach and reinforced a second causal loop, illustrated below.

Causal loop 2- Guarding of resources

Causal loop 2- Guarding of resources

The simple guidelines and flow charts that were initially used to flexibly support enquiries were replaced by complicated process maps. The staff taking the help calls felt less permission and trust to make judgement calls and increased anxieties around how resources should be allocated. This led to an increase in eligibility criteria needing to be met and more interrogation of the people asking for help. These behaviours move the focus away from relationships of trust towards gatekeeping and invoke a narrative of the undeserving versus the deserving. This resulted in more people being refused help and having a negative interaction with the Council. This loop could also be seen in other areas of the council such as the discretionary financial assistance scheme.

Loop 3: Sharing of power

The initial weeks of the crisis saw more sharing of power with those with the practical skills and first-hand knowledge needed to act, including with thousands of citizens who came forward to help. We saw bottom-up system-wide change thriving with brilliant ingenuity and initiative, a proliferation of citizen-led responses and innovation and great motivation from frontline staff. However, an increase in top-down directives and ‘command and control’ defaults shifted power away from communities and frontline workers. Frontline staff have been caught in the middle of this power shift, with pressures coming from the top and from communities, they are experiencing a lot of fear, confusion and lack of trust in themselves and others. Meanwhile, people in communities feel disconnected, uninformed and start to display anger, frustration and anxiety. This, in turn, shifts more power upwards in an attempt to relocate accountability back up the hierarchy along with any blame. This shift in power forms Causal Loop 3, and is, in many ways, the dominant pattern, as it permeates many of the processes, behaviours and relationships that occurred during the crisis.

Causal loop 3- Sharing of power

Causal loop 3- Sharing of power

An example of this shift in power comes from the Public Health team. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guidance for community groups and teams came late in the crisis. This meant that many had been using the guidance and equipment they already had, rather than waiting to be allocated kits after the PPE shortage subsided. Some of these practitioners were criticised for wearing face masks or coverings when visiting people in their homes when the guidance around this was unclear, with little consideration to the varied situations, pressures and anxieties faced by practitioners and volunteers on the ground who wanted to protect themselves and others.

Trust and relationships seem to be a common and important thread throughout these processes. Negative behaviours are intrinsically linked with a lack of trust and the distribution of power, overall creating ‘them and us’ divisions, rather than integrated systems and reciprocity. I see these three causal loops acting not in isolation, but interacting with each other (as illustrated in the COVID-19 Response Timeline). However, unpicking them as three separate processes helps make it clearer where some of the loops could be disrupted and replaced with new ways of working.

I found these diagrams useful visual tools to make sense of abstract thoughts and say a lot in a small space and have used them successfully as conversation starters. Mapping and understanding these causal loops patterns has already started to help us in York to identify where in the wider system negative system behaviours, silos and hierarchies emerge. I hope that we can break some of the cycles that hold innovation back and recreate the conditions that helped agile working flourish at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis so that we can achieve our vision for a better future for all. Taking time to pause, reflect and think systemically is time well spent. I am fascinated to hear what others have been reflecting on.


Jennie Cox

Jennie is Senior Local Area Coordinator at City of York Council.