Beyond the crisis: How might local government build a positive legacy after Covid?

by Eddie Copeland
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Alongside their NHS peers, staff in local authorities are at the coalface of the Covid response. Their work has been relentless. Creating new hubs to support the vulnerable. Working with volunteers to distribute food and medicine. Dispersing grants to support local businesses. And dealing with thousands of calls from people in need.

Here in London, digital and IT teams have been fundamental to this response, enabling massive remote working on a scale never previously experienced, putting in place new tools to triage and handle cases of need, analysing data and designing entire new services to support the vulnerable.

Last week, the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) held a call with borough digital teams and their partners to hear about their work, which is nothing short of inspirational. You can view the slides here.

That call was also a chance to reflect on boroughs’ common aspiration: that the measures they are now putting in place should not just be temporary crisis responses, but rather deliberately designed to leave a lasting, positive legacy.

In this article, I want to sketch out some thoughts on some of the changes we’re witnessing during Covid and what kind of legacy they could have. I’ll divide my comments into four sections, covering: Supporting local democracy; Meeting needs quickly; Making, Buying, Sharing & Re-using; and Using data better.

(I’ll point out before I start that, for the sake of brevity, my remarks include some significant over-generalisations, for which I know there are many exceptions. Please read the following with that caveat!)

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For those in hurry between video calls (and who isn’t these days?) a summary of my key points on a single slide:

Creating a positive legacy from Covid

Need some more prose to explain these points? Read on.

Supporting local democracy

Prior to Covid, online collaboration and video conferencing tools were widely used by councils’ digital and IT teams. Yet they’d made fewer inroads into the practices of many other teams or elected members. Thanks to Covid, almost overnight staff and politicians have had to gain a level of comfort with these tools that previously seemed years away. That’s likely to leave a lasting impact — not least in councils’ democratic functions.

Councils have been rapidly trying to figure out how to hold online committee meetings that are accessible to the public, enable voting, deputations and all their usual procedural business. (The government recently approved a Statutory Instrument to permit such committees and voting to take place online for the first time.)

Paul Brewer and his colleagues at Adur and Worthing Councils have done brilliant work to sketch out and rehearse a means of doing this using Zoom. At LOTI, we’ve put together some guidance on doing the same using Microsoft products (MS Teams plus MS Live Events) and Google products (Google Hangouts plus YouTube connected via Wirecast).

What’s clear from this guidance is that elected members will soon experience first-hand what digital teams have long known: that shifting a process online is not a matter of simply doing the same thing but through a browser. Rather, it requires changes to policies, processes and practices as well.

I hope one long-term impact of the crisis will be that the UK seriously considers developing and adopting a wider set of digital democracy methods that are more accessible to the public and engage citizens in more meaningful ways.

The UK has lagged behind other countries in this regard. In part, this is because our democratic institutions have shown a reluctance to adapt their processes to work with new digital tools. Our most well-known digital democracy initiative is arguably the government and Parliament’s e-petitions website, which suffers from all the usual flaws of inviting people to declare a preference for one measure in isolation of every other policy. And while there have been recent efforts by DCMS and local government to trial online citizen juries, most such activities have been temporary pilots. Few UK cities have anything like Iceland’s Better Reykjavik or Paris’s Madame La Maire, J’ai Une Idée initiatives, which enable citizens to influence local decisions and budget allocations.

Better Reykjavík website
Better Reykjavík

As councils are experiencing a resurgence of local citizen activism alongside their increased familiarity with doing democracy online, they should embrace the opportunity to go further and experiment with digitally-enabled innovations to local democratic processes. (For more inspiration on the art of the possible, check out Nesta’s Tools for Transforming Political Engagement.)

Meeting needs quickly

I’ve written previously about the fact that local government’s dominant model for addressing needs has been to deliver or commission a top-down service (see articles here and here). While some councils are known for radical innovation on service design, it’s more common for them to make incremental improvements within their existing service paradigm.

Yet as part of their Covid response, that dominant model is being loosened by a number of trends we’ve seen in councils over the past few weeks:

  • Rapid (re)connection with local voluntary sector — different councils have very different working relationships with their local voluntary and community sectors (VCS). All local authorities have had to quickly build or strengthen those relationships into solid delivery partnerships for meeting the needs of local vulnerable people.
  • Mass citizen participation in community responses — while media attention has mostly focused on the remarkable response to the government’s call for volunteers to support the NHS via the GoodSAM app, councils and local VCS organisations have been rapidly recruiting and deploying thousands of volunteers to support their community efforts.
  • Extensive development and use of match-making platforms — internet era tools and business models have largely solved how to efficiently reveal and connect supply and demand (think Amazon, eBay, Uber, etc). During Covid, councils have been embracing tools that help them do this matchmaking, especially to connect vulnerable people with those able to help.
  • Re-evaluation of vulnerability and need — councils have long been in the business of helping the vulnerable. But with Covid, those who were previously vulnerable are now vulnerable in new ways (e.g. children on free school meals now need additional help with avoiding food poverty at home). Other groups of people are becoming vulnerable for the first time (e.g. a single parent previously earning well as a freelance consultant whose work has disappeared). Local authorities are now quickly trying to ascertain who may need help (see Hackney’s great data analysis) and how best to reach them.
  • Different demographics experience inadequacies in some service models — benefits like Universal Credit (UC) were previously experienced largely by those at the lower socio-economic end of society. Now, new groups of traditionally more affluent people are applying for UC en masse and feeling first-hand the frustrations around the low level of financial support and length of time taken to receive payments.
  • Rapid adaptation of existing or development of new services to meet new needs — having created a broader definition of vulnerability, services are having to be bolstered (e.g. getting additional money to foodbanks) or redesigned at a pace previously rarely seen, with speed the absolute priority. (Check out the excellent work coming out of Camden and Hackney with their partners at FutureGov.)
  • Challenges launched to invite responses to specific needs — local authorities are being inundated with offers of in-kind support from businesses offering to help. While this is welcome, councils mostly lack the time and headspace to review and assess them. Instead, we’re seeing some councils and organisations like NHSx and PUBLIC stating the challenges they are facing and inviting offers of help that directly meet those needs.
Advertising image of NHSx / PUBLIC Techforce19 challenge prize
NHSx / PUBLIC Techforce19

What might be the long-term shifts that result from these crisis responses? I hope the following:

First, we should see much more serious consideration of alternative operating models based on a recognition that councils can play useful roles other than that of service deliverer or commissioner. Over the past few weeks, there’s been plentiful evidence that local government can effectively act as match-maker (e.g. connecting vulnerable people with sources of support in their community); incentiviser (e.g. declaring challenges and rewarding the best solutions); and convenor (e.g. bringing together VCS, health and business partners to address challenges).

Previously, the adoption of alternative operating models was hindered by the cost and risk of running experiments to test them, together with a lack of evidence on how to transition from one model to another. Covid has temporarily shifted the balance of risk and reward. Soon the sector will have dozens of examples of these models to point to, learn from, and hopefully embed.

Second and related, we should ensure that the intensification of councils’ relationships with their local VCS turns into long-lasting, strategic partnerships and funding models that recognise each sector’s strengths. Working together in this way is a key means through which new models of service delivery can be created.

Third, the growing familiarity with ad hoc challenge prizes used during the crisis should lead to wider adoption of this methodology for addressing community needs. If councils can learn to effectively articulate the challenges they are trying to solve, rather than specifying in detail the solutions they believe they need, it could also open the door to more outcomes-based procurement. That would be a positive shift, helping local government engage with a broader range of more innovative suppliers in future.

Fourth and finally, the crisis might lead to fundamental reform of some services. There’s a difference between well-educated people reading about challenges for recipients of Universal Credit and experiencing them first-hand. If the lockdown continues much longer, they are unlikely to remain quiet about those challenges or fail to lobby for change in ways that councils have been calling for from national government for some time.

And at a local level, as councils thoroughly reconsider the nature of vulnerability in their communities, they’re likely to put in place structures that outlast the crisis, such as provisions to help the homeless and those in gig economy jobs. Covid has also revealed the interdependency of needs and services. Never before has there been such a push to reduce service silos (e.g. adult social care staff having to know who else might be working to support newly vulnerable families). Councils must work hard to ensure they avoid resurrecting service silos once the crisis is over.

Making, Buying, Sharing & Re-using

Recent weeks have brought additional attention to the different approaches councils take towards technology and their differing digital capabilities.

Councils’ approaches to technology loosely fall into a Venn diagram of three circles: Buy it, Lo-code it or Build it. (In truth, many councils will use a combination.)

  1. Buy it — some councils, especially those whose digital teams are heavily IT focused, are looking to buy or re-purpose off-the-shelf tools that meet their new needs.
  2. Lo-Code it — a second group, well exemplified by the activities of Adur and Worthing, use lo-code tools: software that can rapidly create new forms, services, apps and systems without coding.
  3. Build it — A third group has a preference for coding new solutions from scratch or forking and developing code from others.

Some in the localgov digital community make impassioned pleas for one of these models over the rest. My preference is for a pragmatic approach, which considers the merits of each depending on what you’re trying to do. However, it’s worth stating that these different approaches do make it hard to scale solutions between councils who sit in different parts of the Venn diagram.

What I think matters more is how councils combine their approach to technology with their wider digital approach.

Put simply, those councils who are set up with truly digital capabilities — by which I mean the Tom Loosemore definition of “Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations” seem much better equipped to handle the pace of change now required than those who still have quite traditional IT departments.

Until now, one factor that has held some local authorities back from investing in digital capabilities has been that their senior management and elected leaders haven’t sufficiently understood what it entails and supported the creation of an environment for digital to thrive. Now that the difference between IT and digital is being laid bare to leaders, all councils should be making the push to become genuinely digital organisations.

Lastly — and you’d expect me to say this — I hope Covid will highlight the importance of collaboration and working in the open. In a crisis, it’s understandable that organisations initially need to get their heads down to put in place whatever provisions are necessary. But as we transition to thinking further ahead, far more can be gained if councils share the challenges they see on the horizon, divvy up the workload of developing solutions and design things in a way that can be shared and scaled.

Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a lot of thinking with boroughs and colleagues from the GLA on how LOTI can facilitate and incentivise such collaboration. Perhaps the simplest measure councils can take is to work in the open (as many already do: see the great weeknotes, blogs and code sharing from the likes of Camden and their partners at FuturegovHackneyHounslow and Croydon). I expect many more local government comms teams will start to see the importance of supporting their colleagues to share details of work in progress.

Using data better

The technical, data, legal, organisational and cultural barriers that make data collaboration between multiple public sector organisations hard have been known about for years, at least within the local government digital community.

Prior to Covid, much of LOTI’s year one work plan was aimed at chipping away at them, for example seeking to standardise and streamline boroughs’ approach to information governance (IG), or working together to develop common standards for the deployment of IoT devices.

During Covid, the negative consequences of data silos, the lack of data standards and other barriers to data collaboration have started gaining widespread attention for the first time.

The national media has lamented the lag in timely mortality figures due to the different ways care homes record such data. Data sharing between national and local government on medically shielded individuals and lists of volunteers has been a major talking point in cross-departmental discussions. And individual local authorities are acutely aware that they can’t afford to wait six months to be able to share data on factors affecting vulnerability between them — a typical length of time for signing a multi-organisation Information Sharing Agreement.

The Covid response is creating an environment in which breaking down those barriers has become a political priority and organisations can see first-hand what can be done at speed. For example, based on a request from boroughs, the Information Governance Group for London has been able to create a data-sharing agreement for boroughs to share data between themselves on vulnerable children who depend on free school meals in less than a week.

On another recent call, boroughs shared with each other details of how they’re using data to model vulnerability. It’s apparent that those councils that have already made consistent use of standards like Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) and put in place systems to link and match their internal data, are finding it easier than their peers to conduct the urgent analysis now required.

The lasting positive potential of Covid should be that this greater awareness about — and commitment to — enabling rapid data collaboration endures. The opportunity is for cities to finally put in place helpful data standards; to invest in common approaches and tools for IG; and for forums for local government data analysts to become well used. Expect to see much more serious investment in, and activity on, the creation of city data infrastructure over the coming months.

Thinking ahead

London boroughs share a commitment to making sure their Covid responses deliver positive changes far beyond the current crisis. Right now, what they lack is the headspace to spend much time thinking about it.

Reading back over this article, I realise that many of the suggestions I’ve made for the Covid legacy sound like mundane items we’ve discussed for years. But that might just be the point.

Perhaps the single most important change will be that leaders, national government and local authorities are finally able to take the steps which many digital teams have long been advocating for.

That said, now is also a time for thinking big. At LOTI, it’s likely we’ll shortly commission some research on boroughs’ behalf on the future of public services post-Covid.

For now, your ideas and feedback on the above would be very welcome.

Thanks for reading.

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