The new everyday in local government roundtable: Councils and the Covid revolution
By Martin McFadyen, head of public sector, Virgin Media Business
Meeting online demand from citizens. Setting up remote working for employees overnight. Ensuring access to vital resources for vulnerable residents.
Just some of the challenges local authorities have faced since Covid-19 hit in March 2020.
To survive and stabilise, they’ve turned to digital services. The progress has been extraordinary – reflected by widespread public satisfaction with councils’ responses to the pandemic, according to the Local Government Association.
Digital investment in local and central government is set to bring a £32bn boost to GDP by 2040 through reinvestment and service improvement, according to our study with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr). This will bring benefits for council workers and local citizens, including disadvantaged groups. So, it’s vital this ambitious attitude towards digital adoption continues if we’re to realise this potential boost.
To understand more about how councils had responded to the pandemic and the new everyday in local government, we partnered with Local Government Chronicle, a leading publisher of sector insights, to host a virtual roundtable discussion.
Expertly chaired by Nick Golding, the magazine’s editor, the panel featured contributions from three of our local government customers and representatives from the Cabinet Office and our key strategic partner, 8x8.
There were three major themes to emerge from the discussion:
- The need to continue digital momentum
- How digital investment can deliver social value in the future
- Preparing for hybrid working
1. Continuing digital momentum
Going back to the way things were simply isn’t an option.
The panel agreed that the benefits we’ve seen from digital transformation during the pandemic can’t be allowed to drift away.
Laurence Ainsworth, Director of Public Service Reform, Cheshire West and Chester Council, was clear that the demand for digital transformation is still there.
He said, “People see the role of technology to deliver better services to customers and communities and are really anxious about wanting to see change quickly.
Mark Gannon, Director of Business Change and Information Solutions for Sheffield City Council, agreed.
He warned of the risk of “centrifugal forces” pulling people back to where things were before, and the need to actively avoid that happening to continue enjoying the benefits of digital transformation.
Alison McKenzie-Folan, Chief Executive of Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, highlighted that continuing momentum is chiefly about putting people front and centre of digital strategies moving forward.
“We will push hard on making sure that we don’t go back. We’ll grab all of the positives that have happened through Covid and digital transformation and stick with them.”
For Alison, there are “no more excuses” when it comes to making the most of the opportunities at hand.
And it seems that these excuses won’t be needed – because local authorities have acted with so much agility during the pandemic.
Robert Francis-Reed, Senior Commercial Business Analyst for the Cabinet Office, praised the “massive stepping up” he’d seen from local and central government.
“We’ve seen more agility in terms of contracting. And we’ve seen more agility in terms of conversations we’re having, (and) more outcome-based conversations.”
Leaders now need to consider how they can build on the progress achieved to date – to create social value, boost their communities and prepare for hybrid working.
2. Creating social value and delivering community benefits
The pandemic has exacerbated issues such as loneliness and poor health. This can lead to reduced access to employment and educational opportunities, widening inequalities.
Yet there was a sense of optimism among our participants. Partly because they’ve seen how digital transformation has already created social value.
It has tackled isolation by connecting elderly people with loved ones and opening up new opportunities for the disabled.
And by continuing this momentum, local authorities are hoping to bring further benefits to their communities.
“We’ve managed to get very poor families in tower blocks 12 months’ free broadband,” said Mark Gannon.
“That’s great, but the other aspect is the motivation, skills and ability to exploit that (access). That’s where the wider involvement of our digital inclusion programme across the city comes in.”
Gannon’s broader point was that local authorities can’t rest on their laurels once they’ve provided an “immediate fix”. They need to go above and beyond.
Part of this is about ensuring people have the right digital skills, which was agreed to be an urgent priority.
Alison McKenzie-Folan discussed the importance of smaller programmes such as Wigan’s“Tech Mates”, which connect digitally confident people with those who are less advanced to help familiarise themselves with technology.
She explained: “They’ve been able to build digital skills (through) access to digital tools. And I think that’s really helped with opportunities from a social and an economic mobility perspective.”
Russell Tilsed, Senior Director, Public Sector at 8x8, emphasised the importance of reaching the right residents with effective, targeted training programmes. He encouraged councils to ask themselves testing questions:
“How can we get training together for people who need it in these communities? How can we do that at scale?”
Alison responded by stating that digital skills can’t be an afterthought. They must be front and centre of public engagement programmes. Councils need to proactively identify skills gaps and provide accessible routes into digital employment.
There’s a vital role for the private sector here, too.
Robert Francis-Reed was clear businesses have a pivotal role to play in collaborating with local government to improve digital skills, providing work experience placements and apprenticeships.
But they must make sure they are “more joined up” with the public sector to avoid the risks of strategic fragmentation.
3. Preparing for hybrid working
With the national lockdown now over and some employees returning to the office, another priority for local councils is supporting a hybrid form of working, with staff operating from the home and the office.
For Alison McKenzie-Folan, the emphasis has now shifted to one of choice. “Naturally people will have a choice around that hybrid blended working. We’ve got a big programme of reimagining how we work…Staff can think about how it works for communities, how it works for residents, (and) how it works for their own diaries.”
Robert Francis-Reed said he’d witnessed the same shift towards a more hybrid model of working, built around personal choice. He emphasised that how people work will depend on the type of activity they undertake. More creative, collaborative projects will see people come into the office, as they “naturally work better” in the same space.
But working from home is very much here to stay. “A lot of companies are seeing that their employees have been able to do almost all of their activities from home perfectly,” Robert added. “It’s not been as detrimental as many had predicted prior to COVID-19.”
Laurence Ainsworth also spoke about the shifting purpose of the office, which has morphed into a collaboration space, rather than just desks and workspaces. For his team, “There is no ‘must return to office’ in the future.”
And hybrid working is prompting council leaders to rethink their estates and city centres. Mark Gannon said that Sheffield City Council is “reshaping (the city) to be much more around residential (buildings), culture, and open space” – one which isn’t dominated by office blocks.
And this applies to local authorities’ own buildings, too. Alison McKenzie-Folan says that Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council is “also thinking about actually repurposing some of our council buildings into much more collaborative spaces and using the buildings completely differently.
”Councils are clearly reconsidering the role of headquarters and whether large physical spaces are really needed. Thanks to digital collaboration technologies, it’s clear that the new everyday is unlikely to be purely office-based.
The opportunity for a new everyday.
This was a fascinating discussion which raised a number of important issues for local governments to consider. Namely, putting people before technology and focusing on outcomes for individuals.
The panel agreed digital transformation can open up opportunities, tackle inequalities and enable vulnerable people to participate in the community in ways they couldn’t previously.
But this won’t happen on its own.
Decision-makers must choose to invest in connectivity, collaboration, and network technologies to provide employees with the tools to be productive and effective – wherever they might be. To learn more about the impact of digital transformation within local government, read our report on the new everyday in local government.
Thanks to all those who took part in our roundtable:
- Alison McKenzie-Folan, Chief Executive, Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council
- Laurence Ainsworth, Director of Public Service Reform, Cheshire West and Chester Council
- Mark Gannon, Director of Business Change and Information Solutions, Sheffield City Council
- Robert Francis-Reid, Senior Commercial Business Analyst, Cabinet Office
- Claire Read, Reporter, Local Government Chronicle
- Russell Tilsed, Senior Director – Public Sector, 8x8