Does it take a pandemic to rebrand the public sector?
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have prompted a radical transformation of the UK’s public sector.
Much of this is being driven by the NHS and central government. But local authorities are also finding innovative ways to keep services running and address their citizens’ needs.
As we look to a post-lockdown future, it’s time to start analysing these incredible efforts, and ask: how has the pandemic altered the public sector?
Keyworkers and key services
It’s fair to say that the pandemic has boosted public perceptions of the keyworkers who are keeping the UK running under lockdown, often for low wages and at great personal risk.
And many parents trying to home school their children are finding out just how hard a job teaching really is.
Most of these Covid-19 heroes are public sector staff. By and large, essential public services have continued to run throughout lockdown under conditions that most of us would previously have thought unimaginable.
While frontline workers are rightly praised, those services are supported by the huge efforts of backroom staff, who have pulled together to implement a decade’s worth of change in a matter of weeks.
Many services have gone from being run from offices to being operated remotely from employees’ living rooms – frequently sharing table space with an impromptu home school.
It’s an incredible achievement, and one that bodes well for the post-lockdown future.
These successes are all the more surprising when you consider the landscape prior to the pandemic.
There had been more than a decade of austerity measures, which saw services such as social care struggling to cope with ever increasing demand and other council services shouldering the majority of public sector cuts
Individuals and community organisations in need grew accustomed to turning to charities for support or grants, rather than councils.
Local authorities were reputed to be unduly risk averse, and overly burdened by the need for GDPR compliance.
While it’s right that services which handle sensitive data are cautious, it sometimes seemed that they focused on theoretical security risks at the expense of actually helping people.
The experience for customers? A “computer says no” response that gave local government a reputation for bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Shaking up services
So has the Covid-19 pandemic shaken up local government? While it’s too early to give definitive statistics, some charity helplines are reporting a drop in queries, while local authorities are experiencing a rise.
It seems that when the chips are down, the first place people turn to is their council – and in most cases, councils are rising to the challenge.
From addressing cyber security gaps to building low-code platforms for community response services to developing virtual libraries, councils have been finding innovative digital ways to meet service users’ needs throughout the crisis.
Sarah Calkin, deputy editor of the Local Government Chronicle, describes such actions as the “nimble, collaborative and localised approaches of local councils” – which she contrasts with some of the efforts of central government.
Technology in place
In fact, much of the groundwork for this technological transformation was already in place.
Forward-thinking local authorities such as Calderdale Council had already launched a Digital Assistant with the support of the team here at Connect Assist to answer routine queries.
When Covid-19 reached the UK, it was simple to reconfigure the chatbot to provide information about waste services and the closure of leisure centres, freeing up staff to respond to the increased volume of calls.
Councils have even deployed chatbots to answer internal queries about dramatic shifts in process and policy.
More complex external queries are now being answered by staff from their living rooms, thanks to Voice over Internet Protocol, or internet-based telephone calls. Up-to-date protocols have allayed councils’ fears about data security.
The post-lockdown future
It’s likely that some lockdown restrictions will be gradually eased, while others could stay until there’s a vaccine or drug treatment.
It’s uncertain how great the economic damage of the pandemic will be, and how this will affect council budgets.
But there has been a change in attitudes. Key Workers and public sector services have proved their worth, and some local government experts are suggesting that increasing the powers of regional governments, as in Germany, could help the UK weather future crises.
Whatever the future holds, councils have demonstrated the importance of painstaking groundwork, innovative technology, and agile approaches – and won respect for their achievements.