07 May 2021

The local government great opportunity

Guest blog: Simon Freeman, Managing Director, Capita Local Public Services.

The past year has been one of the most challenging in recent history, with businesses, local governments and individuals all feeling the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

While we’re living through this time of uncertainty it’s become clear that there is space for positive change, if we’re able to utilise opportunities the right way.

Focus against a common foe

New research from our ‘The great opportunity?’ report shows that 83% of organisations have experienced rapid change this year, faster than they anticipated. Meanwhile more than half said the pandemic has sped up their decision-making processes and encouraged them to work collaboratively with others. These themes are reflected in the experiences of local government workers, who have swiftly put in place working practices and strategies that would have taken years to establish before the pandemic.

Since March 2020, government rulings have forced many of us to work from home, which has led to people re-evaluating priorities, managing reduced incomes and engaging with technology in a way they previously hadn’t. While the report shows that individuals have experienced negative feelings about many of the changes, they also expressed hope that the next few years would result in positive action being taken. By bringing some aspects of the lockdown world, such as flexibility, personalisation and technology, and merging them with the best of the old world, there’s no reason why we can’t deliver a brighter future. ‘Build back better’ is more than a slogan, it’s an opportunity to debate the challenges and opportunities presented to us and make the most of what we have.

For local authorities, there’s no doubt the past 12 months have been challenging. As well as taking many processes online, they’ve been managing the impacts of an economic downturn and an increase in the number of people seeking help and support. After a decade of austerity, spending power remains reduced even compared to 2009, which has left some local authorities struggling to cope with the unexpected demand brought by the pandemic. New claims for Universal Credit increased by at least 400% in March and April 2020, and analysis by the Institute of Employment Studies shows that 1.4 million people made a claim for the benefit in March 2020, compared to the average monthly figure of 235,000 the previous year.

Delivering an inclusive recovery

As businesses open back up, the government is hopeful there will be a swift economic recovery. Local authorities will be looking beyond the ‘war’ response that’s been activated since the pandemic began and start considering their long-term options. Innovation will be key to success, both for the benefit of local authority employees and the constituents who rely on vital council services.

A recent survey of senior council executives conducted by C.Co, the consultancy arm of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), analysed the changes that would be required to make the most of new opportunities post-pandemic. There was a unanimous agreement that some groups had been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, and that local government needed to explore opportunities that focused on protecting the most vulnerable people. Only 50% of respondents felt strongly that they had gained a better understanding of what their residents needed and valued during the past year, though most expected this to become clearer following a period of reflection. At present we’re aware that priorities can vary widely between different regions and may take some time to fully define. Local governments need to be ready to react and make choices quickly and decisively over the next few months, in order to make the most of opportunities that arise. Working from home is expected to become the norm, both for council staff and people living in the communities they serve. This will mean introducing a new set of skills and business rules to manage this effectively, as well as reconsidering issues such as office space and accommodation as people change their requirements.

What next?

With lockdown easing already underway and the vaccination programme in full swing, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the UK population. Local authorities will be pivotal in helping to support communities as we find a new, and hopefully better way to live our lives in future. This will mean making the most of technology and data to deliver high performance services that truly work for the individuals. For example, automating administrative tasks so that council workers can spend more face-to-face time with people who require additional support. Citizen experience will remain paramount, and all decisions need to prioritise the needs of local taxpayers. This means finding the most efficient ways to deliver high-quality, value for money services that support people to get things done quickly and easily.

Moving ahead there will be difficult choices about how local authorities operate, which will include analysis of structures as well as how services are delivered to citizens. To make the right decisions, they’ll need to think differently, embrace new ways of working and investigate what new opportunities could look like in their area. Success is likely to come through trial and error, as well as an open-minded attitude towards change.

Putting people first is a crucial part of this work, and we hope that collaborative working between local government, the public and local businesses will lead to better and happier local communities across the UK.