News and views
To emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis, we must take the time to understand how local authorities work and the critical role they play
Alissa Davies reflects on a decade working with local government, and why it is uniquely placed to lead us through the current and future crises.
This month marks ten years since I started my first job working for a local authority. Having worked for and with local authorities ever since, I’ve been reflecting on what the last decade has taught me and why local authorities are uniquely placed to lead us through COVID-19 and the future crises that will inevitably follow.
While there are no easy answers, local authorities hold lots of the skills we need if the country is to regroup and find a route through the pandemic to a better future. And in a year dominated by Covid-19, it’s only fitting that my reflections are captured using four C’s: complexity, confidence, communities and change.
Local authorities are really complicated. The work they do is both deeply specialist and extremely wide in scope. The unitary authority I joined delivered more than 600 different services and worked with upwards of 20 other public service agencies across a big rural area. There aren’t many industries where one organisation has so many responsibilities affecting key aspects of people’s lives. Or where there are so many different organisations trying to solve connected problems that affect the same people while continuing to operate separately with different budgets and approaches.
Some of this complexity is inevitable and some of it is avoidable. The people and places local authorities serve often have very complex needs which cut across all aspects of our lives and livelihoods. In theory a large organisation with lots of different services has a better chance of giving people joined-up support. In practice, people easily fall between the cracks because they don’t experience problems in neat boxes that correspond to the traditional boundaries within and between local authorities and other public services. Domestic abuse is a good example of this – the police respond to call outs, children’s services act if a child is at risk but no single agency is responsible for helping the family improve their life.
Like local government, the COVID-19 crisis is extremely complex. It is hitting all the key aspects of our society and economy at the same time. A balanced strategy is needed that brings multiple public services like health, employment, economic development, schools and social care together. And that can help the new public service infrastructure (like the National Institute for Health Protection) that is being hastily set up function more effectively.
There is a lot we can learn from local authorities about how to do this. The most successful leaders at all levels of local government are experts at balancing competing priorities and navigating their way through complexity. In my experience, they use a simple but effective strategy to cut through organisational boundaries and vested interests: a pragmatic and laser like focus on the end user and net outcomes for their local people and places. Central government needs these skills if it is to succeed in getting us through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Local authorities have the unenviable task of delivering positive outcomes for their local people and places, in an environment of rising demand, reduced resources, changing expectations and growing complexity of need.
For the most part, local authorities have managed to walk this tightrope for the last decade. During the pandemic, dedicated frontline local government workers have kept services going at great risk to themselves from adult social care, to waste and recycling, to safeguarding children.
Yet there are low levels of understanding of local authorities in comparison with other public services like the NHS. For example, two thirds of the population think social care is delivered by the NHS. When I joined a local authority in 2010 as a recent Oxford graduate people simply could not understand why anyone would choose ‘sorting out things like bins’ over law, banking or the civil service. They didn’t appreciate the sheer complexity of local government or the impact local authorities have on people’s lives. Or the chance to make a real difference with a social purpose.
COVID-19 has highlighted this lack of awareness and understanding of what local authorities do, and how they can help with the response to the pandemic. Central government has looked elsewhere for skills that sit naturally in local authorities, such as building a test and trace system without the involvement of local public health teams.
This needs to change is we are to successfully emerge from the crisis, let alone build back better. Central government needs to give local authorities the recognition they deserve based on their track record of delivering in challenging and complex situations over the last ten years. Local authorities need to engage differently with central government and focus on what they bring to the table as whole organisations with the insight and relationships needed to deliver policy goals effectively. Rather than engaging with separate central government departments as a collection of siloed and disparate services.
There are some small signs that the tide is starting to turn. Recent research by the LGA found that 75% of people believe their local authority will put their needs first during the pandemic. Central government is waking up to the need for a more positive relationship with local authorities if it is to respond effectively to COVID-19 and deliver its wider policy objectives. But to do this, central government needs to treat local authorities as equal partners with valid views and opinions on what will work best for their people and places.
Over the last decade, there has been a lot of rhetoric and debate about how to build strong and resilient communities and change the relationship between the citizen and the state. Local authorities have been at the forefront of innovative ways of involving and engaging citizens. Early in my career, I worked in a community engagement team focused on getting greater local engagement in the council’s services.
COVID-19 has reminded us what cohesive communities look and feel like. That a community is first and foremost a place that people live and interact in (rather than an abstract vision of citizenship). As test and trace has shown, there is no real substitute for a practical street by street understanding of a local community or for a ward member who knows all the key resources and assets in their local patch. The relationships and insight of local authorities and their partners is key to responding to the pandemic and locking in positive developments like mutual aid.
Constant change is the normal operating model for local authorities. They have been in crisis management mode for much of the last decade. In some ways not much has changed since 2010. Back then the country was in recession and local government was in crisis. Austerity was hitting hard. Difficult decisions were being made left, right and centre.
But in other ways change is becoming more difficult. Over the last decade Local Authorities and their partners have used a wide range of approaches to successfully transform services. Yet the scale of the challenge is now such that it can only be addressed through coherent place-based system leadership. This means looking across services and organisational boundaries to identify needs and aspirations, develop shared purpose and take collective action.
The response to COVID-19 has shown how public services can set aside organisational interests and the appetite of residents to support each other. There is an opportunity to build on this momentum to meet the challenges ahead but to do that central government needs to change the way it thinks about and works with local authorities. If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that in the next ten years (if not sooner) there will be another crisis to manage.
To hear more about the themes in this article, or for any thoughts or questions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.