About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

New operating models and COVID-19: A catalyst for change? (Part I: Initial findings)

As councils strain under the immense pressures of COVID-19, new ways of working are emerging.

The pressures created by the crisis have, as with many organisations, pushed councils to rethink how they operate in order to support vulnerable residents and work in new ways with communities, businesses and partners. Which of these changes are positive, and should endure, and which should be left behind as we move out of the crisis? How do we ensure that we capture the learning that is emerging and that we preserve what is needed beyond the crisis? It is these questions that we are trying to answer in our latest research project with the Upstream Collaborative.

Studying changes in local government

Over the past decade, local government has been moving away from ‘command and control’ mindsets by bringing communities and those working in public services together. They have been challenging traditional power structures to address complex challenges in new and inclusive ways. We have spent the past year studying this change - what we call ‘new operating models for local government’. In April 2020, we published a paper synthesizing our research and outlining a framework to help identify and define new operating models. We are now particularly interested to observe and understand the ways in which COVID-19 will change how councils operate and what light this crisis sheds on ‘new operating models’.

Local government in the time of COVID-19

We are taking an agile approach to research over the next ten weeks to capture learnings coming out of this rapidly shifting situation in an open and dynamic way. We have spent the past few weeks talking to some members of the Upstream Collaborative, - City of York Council, Leeds City Council and Staffordshire County Council - about their response to the COVID-19 crisis. This is the first research update in a series that we will publish over the coming months; it outlines the initial findings that have emerged from the first few weeks of research. It is important to note here that these findings are based on the small number of councils that we’ve had interviews with so far. We expect that our thinking will evolve and be refined over the next couple of months as we widen our engagement.

Our first line of enquiry was focused on understanding what the COVID-19 crisis has meant for councils over the past 7-8 weeks. Below are some findings that have emerged from this initial phase of exploratory research.

Summary of emerging findings from the first two weeks of research

New Operating Models and COVID-19: Emerging findings (Weeks 1 & 2)

COVID-19 has helped increase the uptake of new ways of working

The severity and urgency of the crisis and the need to act in more dynamic and collaborative ways has helped advance the shift towards new operating models: collaboration with the private, public and voluntary sectors, flexibility around purpose and roles, mass digitisation of services, devolving power to front line staff and/or the shortening of some bureaucratic processes.

There is a sense that collaboration with communities, the voluntary sector and other public sector organisations has been at the center of the council’s COVID-19 responses. No single organisation, team or person can work through this crisis alone and either had to leverage their existing relationships and partnerships, or forge new ones. This has allowed organisations to link up volunteers with vulnerable people, support businesses, deliver food parcels to those who need it or find temporary accomodation for those without a home.

In Leeds, many GP practices would have been unable to work remotely due to a shortage of laptops; the existing supplier was also unable to take new orders within the required timescales. Meanwhile, there were many hundreds of new laptops within the city destined to replace existing Leeds City Council laptops. Through collaboration between the council and the CCG, a decision was made to re-purpose and re-fit 600 of these laptops to fit NHS requirements and enable Leeds GP Practices to work remotely. In Staffordshire, some of their aspirations around systems leadership and collaboration have been met; every agency and partner has come together to deal with the crisis. One of the biggest shifts has been developing and deploying the model for supporting vulnerable self isolators working with partners and importantly the community and voluntary sector and a new group of volunteers. This collaborative approach has been hugely successful and has accelerated the council’s Supportive Communities programme. The challenge is how to maintain and build on this work to maximise the positive legacy.

The COVID-19 crisis is completely uncharted territory with no roadmaps or instructions for how best to deal with this rapidly changing situation whilst still delivering on existing commitments. Maintaining flexibility around their purpose and roles has allowed for people, teams and organisations to either take on or delegate responsibilities on a case by case basis and to respond quickly to varying needs and a rapidly changing situation. This has meant exploring different roles for local authorities such as that of convener, data provider or funder. Leeds City Council attribute their capacity to resolve complex problems, and respond quickly, to the ability of the council to work with its partners and its people, to reconceive, broaden or focus their role and purpose as needed in the midst of crisis. In York, the team has been reflecting on ”how important the flexibility that underpins the York model is to adapting constructively to change and supporting others around us to do so. Our person centred approach has allowed us to listen, learn and adapt, on a daily basis.” In Staffordshire, staff has embraced a ‘one council, one team’ approach, where “people are there to deliver what needs delivering without worrying what team they are part of”.

From booking hospital appointments online, to communicating information in real time, the process of digitisation has also been accelerated. Given that most people are now homebound, digital and IT teams have been under immense pressure to enable teams to work remotely, find ways to provide timely online information, connect volunteers and triage cases, move to online hospital appointments scheduling and more. For Staffordshire County Council, COVID-19 has led to mass digitisation: “We’re having virtual council meetings, online cabinet meetings, online conferences with vulnerable children and adults, we’re registering deaths online, doing online hospital appointments. It has moved us forward 3-5 yrs and showed us you can do this online and it’s so much more convenient.”

We found that the urgency and severity of the crisis has meant that more power has been devolved to front line staff, which has enabled them to take decisions and act in a responsive and nimble way. In some cases, this shift has been intentional, in others, the lack of clear official guidance from the top, has meant that front line teams have had to make decisions quickly and independently. In York, drug and alcohol services received official COVID-19 guidance late into the crisis and had to develop their own guidance and put proactive measures into place. In some cases, this has meant pushing through measures that would have taken a long time to get approved and implemented, such as allowing key workers to go buy alcohol for people who are alcohol dependent to avoid putting their health at risk in other, potentially more damaging ways.

Some ‘old’ behaviours and processes have eased up

COVID-19 has also meant some processes and behaviours have scaled back to allow for new ways of working to emerge. We were told that, during this crisis, there is a sense that all bets are off. Because of how unprecedented this situation is, perceptions of what is risky have shifted. We heard how some have been able to work with colleagues with traditionally lower risk appetite in new ways. The crisis has highlighted silos and things that were not going well. This has, in turn, helped build a critical mass of allies that will ensure that the positive changes are preserved after the crisis. It is also worth noting that councils have shared that they are seeing some signs of behaviours reverting back to more familiar ones, as we come out of the initial phase of the crisis.

In addition to an increased appetite for doing things differently, councils have been able to move things along more quickly than usual, by sometimes foregoing or shortening lengthy bureaucratic processes, or by relaxing procurement rules to enable the response to be swift. In the case of the drug and alcohol team, who were able to provide alcohol dependent people with alcohol, the lack of bureaucracy meant key workers could go ahead and do what they judged to be best for those individuals. In Leeds, the ability to forgo or fundamentally change bureaucratic processes enabled the establishment of layers of volunteering and nurturing community responses, allowing for volunteers and citizens to provide support and initiatives as diverse as digital inclusion, and keep fit classes to buying shopping and picking up methadone prescriptions.

Building on existing relationships and ways of working has enabled councils to be more responsive

Local authorities that were already working to embed these people centered and relational new operating models feel that they benefited from their strong foundations: they were able to access existing relationships with volunteering organisations, statutory partners, the private sector and the community; override lengthy procurement processes in favour of speed and responsiveness, and guide their response following principles of collaboration, openness and continuous learning. This helped them to provide support for their communities in a swift and agile way. Whilst this crisis has provided an opportunity for additional relationships to be forged and new ways of working to be taken up, having these foundations laid created a more responsive, resilient system, sped up their response and freed up time to focus on other aspects of crisis response.

In York, their relationship with the community has enabled them to communicate reliable information to them, but also consult residents about what the council should be prioritising, for example in the process of creating a COVID-19 hardship fund. They were also able to rely upon existing networks of volunteers to deliver over 500 prescriptions before the NHS volunteering scheme and Good Sam were up and running. They told us that “having existing relationships already forged has really helped us put things in place, speed up bureaucratic processes and procurement; where it would have taken months to negotiate, it’s taken days instead.”

For local authorities that are at the beginning of their new operating models journey, this is an opportunity to make the case for more participatory and inclusive ways of working that put people at the heart of public services.

Spending time to reflect on these changes

In York, the Local Area Coordination team is encouraged to capture their thoughts and observations on small bits of paper that get added to a ‘system change silver linings jar’. They intend to go through these when they come back to the office to ensure that lessons emerging from this crisis inform their new system change plan and vision for the future.

Staffordshire County Council also shared with us that “This crisis is the biggest call to action since WW2: what comes first is the public good, and not individual sustainability, managerial concerns or anything else. We’ll be going back to day to day soon enough, so how do we ensure that we maintain these changes long term?”

It is imperative that local authorities take the time to reflect on the changes that are occurring and to identify the things that they want to preserve and let go of as we emerge from this complex crisis. The new operating models framework can act as a tool to aid reflection on what can be learnt from this experience. Over the next three months, we will be working with councils in our network to understand the learning they can apply, so that they do not revert to habitual approaches as we move past the pandemic.


Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Mission Manager, sustainable future mission

Codrina is mission manager for the sustainable future mission.

View profile