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

We spent the past month talking to people in local government about the changes that occurred within their councils as a result of COVID-19. In this update we discuss how councils are approaching recovery planning, capturing learning of positive change, the alignment of multiple organisations around a common purpose and values, and the creeping regression to old ways. To read our first research update, see our first round of findings.

During the second round of research, we have been talking to the City of York Council, Kirklees Council, Leeds City Council, Oldham Council and Staffordshire County Council about their plans to transition out of the crisis towards recovery and existing opportunities and challenges. Below are some emerging findings coming out of our second phase of this exploratory research.

Summary of emerging findings from weeks 3 &4 of research

New Operating Models and COVID-19: Emerging findings (Weeks 3 & 4)

As councils are slowly moving towards recovery planning, they are beginning to think about the transition out of lockdown

As our initial findings revealed, there is a sense that the severity and urgency of the crisis has brought about many positive changes: it helped increase collaboration with communities and other actors, devolved power to front line staff and led to mass digitisation of services. As local authorities are starting to plan for recovery and the easing of lockdown, they are thinking of ways they can capture the lessons emerging from this experience and ensure they will be able to hold on to these positive changes beyond the crisis.

In Staffordshire, the council is actively thinking about the future and their ability to preserve the positive changes that have occurred over the past weeks and maintain the same sense of urgency and agility.

In Leeds, the council are preparing for services to resume whilst simultaneously continuing to focus on the current situation. They want to build on the dramatic changes to services that have occurred during the crisis. To do this, they are considering five questions:

  • What have we stopped doing that should remain stopped?
  • What have we stopped doing that we should bring back?
  • What have we started doing that we need to stop?
  • What have we started doing that we should continue to do
  • What are we not doing now that we have never done before, but that we might need?

While actively thinking about the mechanisms for learning and preserving these positive changes into the future, many councils are also worried that as they move out of the crisis and the realities of their financial situation becomes clear, financial security considerations might take precedence and the focus on new ways of working might slip away.

Staffordshire Council are worried that “The budgets we are expecting might be less than we thought. We’ve spent the last years dealing with the effects of the financial crisis and we’re just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Dealing with money scarcity is hardly a space for innovation.”

Similarly, Oldham Council shared that they were under significant financial pressure before COVID-19 and the future of their financial situation is unclear. If they face additional financial pressures going forward, then the capacity to reform further will become more difficult.

In addition to financial pressures, councils recognise that an upcoming challenge over the next few months will be knowing the right moment to withdraw the support that was provided during the emergency.

The crisis has given councils clarity and alignment on purpose, principles and values and has allowed for systems leadership to flourish

In our previous update, we discussed how maintaining flexibility around their purpose and roles has facilitated 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 flexibility has allowed for response teams to be created quickly by bringing together staff from across the local authority, but also from voluntary sector and partner organisations. Having these multi agency, multidisciplinary teams working together has helped develop a shared sense and alignment of purpose across the system that ultimately has helped coordinate an effective response.

Oldham Council were able to respond to the crisis quickly and effectively because of a sense of shared purpose across the organisation and an urgency to integrate quickly. This sense of shared purpose will be important beyond this crisis in building shared plans post COVID-19.

The crisis has also brought organisational values and principles into sharp focus. Before the crisis, York Council were undergoing a cultural values assessment process. The crisis has helped them advance this process. It has highlighted where in the organisation people aren’t working well and has given them direction about where things need to be improved.

Working in these cross organisational teams has broken down silos and allowed staff to come together to pursue the same goal. To respond to the rapidly changing situation, response teams had to be quickly put together from across the organisation and job descriptions and organizational and team boundaries became blurred. This issue of siloed working has been a stubborn problem in government and so this represents a very positive shift, and one which councils are keen to preserve.

In Staffordshire, staff have embraced a ‘one council, one team’ approach, where “people are there to deliver what needs delivering without worrying what team they are part of”.

Similarly, Kirklees Council's response to COVID-19 involved bringing together staff from different parts of the organisation, with different experiences and specialties, who were led by a single purpose. Job descriptions have become less relevant and their sole focus is protecting communities and saving lives.

When COVID-19 hit, Leeds Council had to build teams made up of staff from different parts of the organisation and a singularity of purpose emerged: “Everyone knows what they are there to do and their prime focus is around protecting people, ensuring quality of service, and of course saving lives etc. Moving away from the formal job description means people are instead working to key outcomes, working from a strong values base.”

This alignment of purpose and values across organisations and collaboration across teams has helped accelerate the adoption of place-based models and has provided fertile ground for systems leadership to emerge.

Oldham Council shared that “having multidisciplinary teams led by people from across the system, including partners, has blurred organisational boundaries and allowed for systems leadership to flourish.” Similarly, Kirklees Council pointed out that this “feels like the beginning of what place-based working should be, as manic and mad as it is!”

Many are seeing signs that behaviours and ways of working are reverting back to more familiar ones

The first weeks of the crisis required public sector organisations to quickly rethink how they operate to ensure they can provide support to residents and work in new ways with communities, businesses and partners. Whilst thinking about how they can ensure they can preserve positive changes beyond the crisis, they are also noticing a return to pre-COVID behaviours and ways of working.

Some of this change back to old ways of working is occurring as demand for services goes up and staff move out of multidisciplinary response teams back into their original departments and teams and go back to siloed working patterns.

Oldham Council expressed concerns that, as they move out of the crisis and demands for services such as mental health or children’s services go up, people’s tendency to draw back and work in silos will go up.

Moreover, whilst during the crisis, councils have been able to move things along more quickly than usual due to the relaxation of bureaucratic processes and procurement rules, this is showing signs of slowing down. This allowed councils to be responsive and flexible in their actions and set up systems and processes in a matter of weeks. However, as the processes and systems that were set up as a response to the crisis in a matter of weeks mature and are being refined, rules and pathways are being implemented that are coming in the way of speed and responsiveness.

In York, in a few weeks, the councils managed to set up effective food distribution hubs to respond to community needs. As the processes around food distribution have been refined, new rules and eligibility criteria have been put into place to ensure the food reaches the most vulnerable citizens. However, in practice, this interrogation of need and stricter eligibility criteria make it difficult for people to access the service and lets people slip through the cracks. “It’s the instinctive organisational muscle memory kicking in. How do we resist clinging on to the comfort blanket of old ways of working? “

Over the next two weeks, we want to dig a bit deeper into some of these findings. Many of the changes councils have reported to us in the last four weeks have been in the ‘holy grail’ category for a number of decades - in particular the seamless working across departmental and organisational silos to deliver against a set of important outcomes. More specifically, we are keen to explore what it was specifically about this situation that meant this way of working came to the fore. Understanding this will shed light on how we might be able to recreate some of these conditions after the crisis has passed.

This research update is part of a series exploring change within local government due COVID-19 and is building on the work of the ‘Upstream Collaborative’, a collaborative network to support Local Government innovators to share, accelerate and assess new ways of working that enable citizens’ needs to be met in empowering and inclusive ways.


Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Mission Analyst, A Sustainable Future mission

Codrina is a mission analyst for Nesta's 'A Sustainable Future' mission team.

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