Part 1: COVID-19 a catalyst for positive change?
How COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for positive change, a framework for evaluating and moving forward with some examples from North Wales.
Part 1: Structuring reflection and examples from North Wales.
This is the first blog in a series exploring COVID-19 as a catalyst for positive change, the second post is here. If you would like to contribute to the conversation, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruption. The crisis has required rapid adaptation and innovation as public health requirements engulfed all aspects of life.
Audit Wales’ position within Wales’ public service gives us a privileged view into its organisations. It also shows us many examples of people and organisations doing amazing things.
The response to the COVID-19 crisis has unleashed a range of novel practices and changes; changes that would not typically be seen in a generation. COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a catalyst for positive change. Jeremy Evans introduces a framework that will be of use when taking stock and planning for the future.
How do you make sense of where we are now, and what might help us in the future?
The big questions that organisations are grappling with are:
- How do we make sense of it all?
- How do we identify the things that will be genuinely useful for the future of public services and make sure they stick?
- Are there things that we have stopped during COVID that should not be restarted?
In any challenging task it is always useful to have a framework or model that helps to organise your thoughts and the process of deciding what to do next.
Illustrated is an example of a sensemaking framework that was shared at the recent Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Wales meeting. This framework was developed by Ian Burbidge of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Lab [opens in new window], who has given us permission to share it.
The framework was initially described in the blog post, titled ‘How do we make sense of how the crisis is changing the world as we are living through it?' [opens in new window]. A more detailed explanation of the framework is available here [opens in new window].
Alternately described as ‘The Stop Start Grid’ and the ‘Amplify, Dampen, Stop, Restart Box Model’, we see this as an useful tool in taking action to; pause, reflect and make sense of what has happened over the last 9 months, and how this might affect the future.
The framework is a 2x2 table, with the vertical axis labelled as ‘practice stopped or started during crisis’ and the horizontal axis labelled ‘practice stopped or started post-crisis’. It goes on to offer classifications for both new and old, either begun or stopped during the crisis.
New practice is described as either:
- Practice that should be amplified because ‘we’ve been able to try these new things and they show some signs of promise for the future’
- Practice that should end because ‘we’ve done these things to respond to immediate demands but they are specific to the crisis’
Old practice is described as:
- Practice that should be restarted because ‘we’ve had to stop these things to focus on the crisis but they need to be picked up in some form’
- Practice that should be let go because ‘we’ve been able to stop doing these things that were already/are now unfit for purpose’
Time for you to think
In the public sector, taking time to think, develop a strategy and move to action is not always a simple process for many reasons. As in the case with the initial relaxing of restrictions outside actors often set the pace, with large parts of the public sector having to react. The model suggests the need to be proactive, to think and plan based on learning.
Whilst learning is the key, the need to reflect on the service user is as important:
- Have they missed services?
- Have they engaged with the new access models?
- Have they taken advantage and valued the changes that have been made?
In working out what to amplify, dampen, stop or restart have organisations had the benefit of time to take stock. On the other hand, have they simply moved back to operating services in the same way they did before COVID-19 raised its head?
Part 2: Examples from North Wales
The model described in part 1 recognises that our experiences since March 2020 have fundamentally changed the way that we work.
The model suggests that organisations might review their experiences this year:
- End some practices that were specifically to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Amplify some approaches that have worked well.
- Restarted some services that had stopped but are still needed.
- ‘Let go’ some services that stopped because COVID-19 highlighted that they are no longer needed or may not have been needed for some time.
- That organisations should avoid simply returning to the pre COVID-19 model.
This has also prompted our thinking and acceptance of new ways of working going forward. Dave Wilson shares some thoughts and examples from North Wales.
We have seen some good examples in Wales of councils amplifying approaches that worked well. Denbighshire County Council has seen the opportunity to:
- improve efficiency
- reduce cost
- reduce its carbon footprint
- improve participation
- use its building space in a way that better reflects need.
For staff it sees improved work/life balance and more widely it sees rural communities becoming more sustainable. All this comes through increased use of technology. Staff will not need to be primarily office based: They will in future benefit from a mix of being in the office or working from home whichever works best. This in turn aims to free up office space, reduce travel, reduce pressure on public transport and free up car parking spaces.
There are also clear advantages for governance: Councillors will find it easier to join a meeting using their computers from a variety of locations rather than travelling, and technology provides more opportunities for public participation in meetings.
Wrexham’s Modern Ways of Working
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Wrexham Council had already agreed a strategy for Modern Ways of Working and the pandemic has reinforced its prominence. With a focus on what works for the Council and the benefit of individuals, Modern Ways of Working covers:
- Working environments
- Wellbeing and sustainability
Another example from Flintshire County Council; they set out a clear approach to recovery at a local (Organisational, Service, Democratic), sub-regional (community) and Regional levels in their Recovery Strategy [opens in new window]. They recognise that they do not operate in a vacuum and need to forge strong links with partners to build back better.
Things to consider
Most public services in Wales have partially or fully resumed.
As councils consider their budgets for 2021-22, there will no doubt be many discussions about how COVID-19 has changed the perception of public services and this returns us to the four-stage model, but perhaps from a different perspective:
Responding to the pandemic involved staff redeployed to priority areas which will doubtless cause councils to explore how they can improve the flexibility of their workforce.
In amplifying some approaches that have worked well comes the recognition that technology came to the fore. Activities and communication moved quickly to the digital realm, with both benefits and drawbacks. Technological change was accelerated such as in the formal world of the democratic process: Who would have believed that formal committee meetings would be conducted remotely so quickly and work so well?
Services have restarted to varying levels after a period of lockdown. Public bodies are investigating the impact of these services not being available for so long. Was local need met in a different way and if so could the alternative way be cultivated and funded in future?
When deciding to stop or change services, how well do decision makers understand the impact on residents and their views to ensure they are not left vulnerable and at risk?
Where does this leave you?
Each post in this short series finishes on a series of questions which we hope will stimulate thinking and reflection about where we are now, and the future of public services beyond COVID-19:
- Is your organisation using resources to think about what it has done so far, where it is now and what the future might look like?
- What approaches is your organisation using to structure this practice?
- What lessons have you learnt from the sensemaking process so far?
- How can councils improve the flexibility of their workforce?
- What other improvements could be made if we think the unthinkable, beyond what can be conceived in the current environment?
- What was the impact of these services not being available for so long?
- Was local need met in a different way and if so, could the alternative way be cultivated and funded in future?
- How well do decision makers understand the impact on and views of residents to ensure they are not left vulnerable and at risk when services are stopped entirely?
The other blogs in this series will describe work that has been happening in different contexts to make sense of what has happened and plan for a future beyond COVID-19.
About the authors
Jeremy Evans is an Audit Manager with responsibility for the local government performance audit programme of work at the six North Wales councils and Ceredigion County Council. He has been with Audit Wales since 2006 and before this he worked in both local and national government in Wales
Dave Wilson is an Audit Lead with responsibility for the local government performance audit programme of work at Denbighshire and Wrexham councils. Before moving to Audit Wales he worked for councils in North West England, the Audit Commission and a private sector audit firm.