Professor Richard Kerley, Professor of Management at Queen Margaret University, writes on the importance of judging governance of this crisis by actions and outcomes, looking at specifics rather than rhetoric. He also outlines 10 ideas for councils to consider for recovery.
My thinking and writing about local government in the 21st Century has been driven along by a still pertinent observation made by an American politician in the late 18th Century.
“Government ill-executed, no matter what it might be in theory, is in practice poor government”.
In less flowery language, I’ve always taken that to mean two related things. We should look at what governments actually do, rather than what they say they will do; and we should therefore value specific proposals and actions over warm and windy rhetorical ambitions.
We are currently still in dire circumstances, though looking to the future I suggest that this kind of hard analysis should also be applied to the ideas generated by organisations and people talking about what we might do differently as we pass beyond the immediate stresses of this pandemic. As we ‘build back better’ or plan for what ‘a new normal’ might actually look like, we should discuss the specifics of what might actually be, not just bathe in warm generalities.
What I try to outline below are some specific ideas for councils to consider over the next few days, weeks or months – and in the longer term of a few years. There are suggestions for what councils might and could do (and what I believe they should) be doing, and some things they would be wise not to do.
So, what might councils do – and not do?
- During the Covid-19 crisis councils have shown leadership and have arranged for various staff to be redeployed from roles that temporarily have no function, or are not needed. It is really important to recognise that while for some that may have been very stressful and uncomfortable, for others that might have been an eye-opening and a career expanding change, even a supercharged one. I read a brief press account of a parking attendant who was really delighted to be redeployed to taking food and other emergency supplies to isolated households. When people get that kind of enforced change experience some are delighted to revert to their old role, yet others are energised and keen to try on new roles permanently. Councils could support staff via HR teams and line managers to have near term open-ended discussions to assess whether some staff would like permanent redeployment/re-training to a new role and whether it is possible to do that.
- All councils have had to put various emergency measures into place since February/March. Some of those changes were an acceleration of already-planned options; others ad hoc and immediate with very little scope for pre-planning. Some worked well; some have worked less well. Councils could assess how well temporary working patterns and arrangement operated in order to understand if it would be beneficial if such changes were made permanent. What might the implications be for staff; councillors; the public and budgets? So, for example; what proportion of staff ‘worked from home ‘; how were they supported; how were they equipped; how was effectiveness monitored, could office accommodation be shared, reduced? It’s clearly much easier to work from home if you have space, some storage, and the ability to close a door on noisy children; less easy for people in cramped and smaller properties; impossible in some roles.
- On return to something approaching normality, that is with some staff back in the usual offices, that will require detailed discussion with large groups of staff. What is the balance between home and office-based work for the council staff who have been commanded to work at home over the short term? Can the organisation accommodate different staff preferences in the future? I have no doubt that the right (and probably much greater) incidence of properly supported and resourced home working in the future will open up employment opportunities to many people currently limited in their employment opportunities. What we should not do is to attempt to switch to a rigid ‘we all now work from home ‘ protocol unless we build in flexibility that suits both the staff and the organisation.
- Councils could monitor all ICT usage over lockdown to assess whether smartphones or tablets have been used more than laptops; how much cloud storage and remote file-swapping was used; not forgetting how secure this has all been. Agree protocols for recording staff /public exchanges are necessary, so all staff /service users are clear on such arrangements. So, for example record all interviews and discussions for accuracy and a defined record of oral or electronic exchanges between council officials and the public. This could also signal very clearly those parts of the country where connectivity is not yet good enough, and put pressure on providers to remedy that quite quickly.
- People will return to workspaces, some of which will be shared, some of which will be hot desks. How did that work before; how differently does it need to work in the future? How can we accommodate the need to ensure appropriate hygiene measures and physical distance? What does any of this tell us about our requirement for accommodation, equipment, effective communication etc? We should use immediate post lockdown workarounds to assess longer-term workspace use. So, if perhaps the home/office balance is 2 to 3 days per week in the office, with the rest of the week at home, how are desks, chairs, filing, personal storage etc used and deployed? Do you remember all those discussions about the paperless office? Now may be a great time to put that into place, enabling people to work that way both in offices and at home. Councils should also be discussing with their staff how people working from home for at least part of the week might be compensated for the additional costs and inconvenience that flows from that in terms of space occupied, storage at home, heating and electricity costs incurred and so on.
- Given the disastrous experience we have had over supplies and services necessary for such a pandemic crisis, all councils will be reviewing resilience supplies of all forms. Most re-stock with winter grit at appropriate times, as with adaptability aids, furniture and other occasional necessities. Where are the plans for a PPE supply store to support care homes, care staff and other similar front-line workers – next time around?
- Some councils are already actively working on road and pavement adjustments to try and both ensure greater access and safety for pedestrians and cyclists but also to achieve the longer-term ambitions of reduced town and city car usage. There could be even bolder opportunities out there in towns and cities. There is some great progress around the country though more councils could be using the powers available already or implicit in the Covid legislation to try ‘quick and immediate ‘road and traffic changes. Using this chance to try things out and experiment, assess and modify just as we have done over the past few months should be the operational model.
- Every informed commentary suggests that retail spaces on many streets will be further affected even faster than has been seen over recent years. One of the key problems of effecting major change to address such decay is the problem of fragmented property ownership. Post-Covid, there will be distressed property assets in all our urban areas and owners ready to consider disposal. This potentially provides a good chance for councils to acquire such assets through negotiation and possibly some CPO. That might then support the opportunity to re-shape shopping streets for the future with a more rounded mix of uses introduced to make spaces ‘living streets’ again. This is also likely to be a period when capital borrowing for acquisition and construction-related work is cheaper than in a very long time. We should not be planning for clearance and the creation of urban shopping malls, but using the chance to put active life at street level, with people living above street level to bring more human usage back into our town centres.
- All across developed countries the most intense impact has been on (mainly elderly) people in various care homes. Councils might contribute to a cash-incentivised architectural competition for the design of new model care facilities that allow socialisation most of the time and hygienic segregation when required. That might be in the form of dedicated flats – of which we have some, but privately owned, or better designed ‘homes’ of the type we have now. Every recent press and TV image we have seen of care homes where countless numbers of deaths have occurred has shown us relatively new buildings with contemporary design, often surrounded by grass and fencing. The gradual up-grading of standards has seen the end of the old converted work-house or stranded 20 room town mansions with two elderly people sharing a room, and a toilet down the corridor. We have to recognise that those homes where many have died are relatively new; many of those with a high incidence of Covid related deaths have had good inspection ratings, but they may not be ideally designed to minimise ‘internal community contamination ‘. That assessment applies across the board: commercial care homes, charitable, local authority – all of them. There is a real chance to design something better and safer than the typical current model, and architects out there who could rise to the challenge.
- Finally – it’s very likely you may have an idea that will fill this final slot – feel free to comment below.