For the fourth research update, we asked the City of York Council, Kirklees Council, Leeds City Council, London Borough of Newham, Oldham Council and Staffordshire County Council about changes in how their organisations have approached risk during the COVID-19 crisis.
The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis have brought about many changes in how local governments operate. Councils have had to act fast, work in new ways and take unprecedented decisions to protect the wellbeing of their communities. Some behaviours have had to scale back to allow for these new ways of working to emerge at increased pace. During this crisis, the traditional frames of reference that informed decision making prior to the crisis are no longer dominant and perceptions and attitudes towards risk have shifted in the face of overwhelming threat to health and wellbeing for all.
Attitudes towards risk have changed
The councils we interviewed all noticed a significant change in how their organisations framed, evaluated and managed risk in the first months of the COVID-19 crisis response. They shared stories of how positive risk taking behaviours have allowed for teams to come together quicker, set up new processes and procedures in a matter of days, set up large scale food distribution networks and provide support to their communities.
The urgency and severity of the crisis has meant that more power has been devolved to front line staff. This has enabled a shift towards more dynamic risk assessment approaches, where those with on the ground knowledge and who are best placed to act have been able to manage risk locally, take decisions quickly and adapt to a rapidly changing situation. In Kirklees, having to react to the crisis quickly has meant that the council had enabled risk management at a local level: “We are less risk averse than we used to be. We had to trust that people know how to manage risk locally and do a dynamic risk assessment rather than a formal one.”
Being comfortable with failure is intrinsically linked to the attitudes towards risk. Reframing failure as a learning opportunity has helped shift the focus away from managing risk, towards what could be improved instead. For London Borough of Newham, this framing has been particularly important as it focused attention on iterative improvements and prototyping rather than managing and mitigating all risk and designing one size fits all solutions. During COVID-19, this reframing of failure and risk has been strengthened by a shift in power dynamics within the organisation. Having to work from home whilst managing household and caring responsibilities has helped staff see colleagues as people and not as representing a team or an institution and has led to more flexible approaches around risk. These changes have enabled the council to quickly implement measures that would have otherwise been seen in order to protect vulnerable groups. For example, in March, the council took the decision to close the Stratford Shopping Centre overnight in an effort to provide rough sleepers with accommodation, food, medicine and assistance.
The crisis has given councils clarity and alignment on purpose, principles and values and has allowed for systems leadership to flourish. This shared sense and alignment of purpose across the system, has not only helped coordinate an effective response, but also made it easier for individuals and teams to take more risks than they were able to prior to COVID-19. This reflects the experience of LB of Newham, who shared that having clarity on their purpose has been essential in shifting perceptions of risk towards being more risk aware, rather than risk averse and has helped them to quickly put measures into practice, such as setting up temporary mortuary facilities on land owned by the City of London.
Having to take decisions fast due to a rapidly changing situation that poses serious risk for the wellbeing of communities has dramatically changed risk benefit calculations and has enabled more positive risk taking behaviours. 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. The lack of bureaucracy meant that front line staff could go ahead and do what they judged to be best for those individuals, by, example, being able to provide alcohol to alcohol dependent people to avoid putting their health at risk in other, potentially more damaging ways.
Kirklees Council attribute their ability to respond swiftly to the reduction of traditional risk management and to the shortening of lengthy decision making processes. Similarly, in Staffordshire, not having to carry out the detailed assessments of people’s care and support needs required by the Care Act due to the suspension of regulatory obligations allowed them to prioritise more effectively and take decisions faster.
The ecosystems of trust and strong relationships between staff and between local authorities and communities, has been crucial to fostering positive attitudes towards risk, as it has given permission for staff to use their best judgement and manage risk dynamically to achieve the best possible outcome for communities.
Leeds City Council’s ability to take risks was intrinsically linked to their trust and confidence that everyone wants to achieve the best possible. Similarly, York City Council have identified that the pressure that front line staff and officers experience both from communities and from top down directives often produces anxiety and risk averse behaviours in teams such as adult social care. On the other hand, trust and a culture of permission, which have been particularly heightened during COVID-19, empowers staff and enables responsive and noble decision making.
In turn, the ecosystem of trust and relationships relies upon transparent and open decision making processes. For Newham, their council’s approach to reframing failure involves being transparent and open when things go wrong, so that they can focus on prototyping and learn from mistakes. Similarly, Leeds City Council has been able to lower their level of risk “not by not doing risky things, but doing them more transparently and engaging others more. It doesn’t mean we’re forgetting about risk. We’re just approaching it in a new way.”
Leadership is essential in creating and nurturing a protective environment built on trust, which takes some of the risk management pressures away from front line staff and managers. Without an authorising environment that protects staff, the levels of risk involved are simply too great for most of them to take on. As York City council shared with us, “Leadership at all levels, including in communities is important. Without it we are unable to challenge short-sightedness and process driven ways of working. People must be willing to challenge those.”
Technology, data and insights have played an important role in councils being able to adapt to COVID-19. Digital and IT teams have been under immense pressure to enable teams to work remotely, gather insights, find ways to provide timely online information, connect volunteers and triage cases, move to online hospital appointments scheduling and more. Technology has also played a part in helping manage and reduce risk.
As Staffordshire Council highlighted to us, being able to transition children’s social care services online has been crucial in enabling teams to check on the wellbeing of children remotely and therefore reduce the risk they face. Similarly, in Newham, technology has enabled them to provide fostering remote support more flexibly, with many placements that were at risk because of lockdown stabilising. Oldham have developed a comprehensive Customer Relationship Management system behind their Emergency Helpline. This is now paying dividends in enabling them to see repeat referrals and patterns and match up with other data systems to create a better picture of vulnerability. This has enabled them to quickly see people and areas where they would expect higher demand and then target these areas for leaflet drops and other types of communications ensuring services meet those that need it most as part of the crisis.
These changes in how risk is being framed and managed during COVID-19 have been a welcome development that has enabled people to work in new ways. However, they are far from yet being settled or grounded and councils are worried about the danger of backsliding, particularly in light of upcoming financial pressures. As financial resources become more scarce and balancing budgets becomes harder, local authorities are at risk of losing sight of the purpose, introducing more stringent risk management procedures and gatekeeping resources as demand goes up. In this context it’s easy to see how local authorities may struggle to overcome the pull of the status quo and revert back to risk averse behaviours.
This research update is part of a series exploring changes within local government due to 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. You can read our first, second and third research update to better understand what this crisis has meant for local authorities in the UK.