Simon Freeman, Managing Director at Capita Local Government, and Paul Abraham, Capita’s Corporate Services Director, discuss the challenges that local government has faced during the Coronavirus pandemic and how creating partnerships across the private and third sectors is the key to future success.
Simon: Paul, as our Corporate Services Director, you work closely with our local authority clients. Over the last few months, what have been the major changes you've seen as councils have had to adapt to new ways of working and to the emerging requirements from citizens?
Paul: I’d say that the most obvious and immediate change has been the closure of physical council offices and front desks, which has probably accelerated the shift in how people interact with local authorities more in the last 12 weeks than in the last five years. Rather than investing in culture change programmes and re-setting customer expectations through traditional means, which can take some time, necessity has meant that both council officers and customers have had to adapt to virtual and online engagements overnight. The risk is that potentially vulnerable members of society who lack the ability, opportunity or inclination to transact virtually may not have been engaging at all and are building up issues relating to their finances or their health and wellbeing for when council offices start to re-open.
Simon: There’s no doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to quickly adopt new approaches, that perhaps we’ve been thinking about for a long time but have never had the opportunity to implement. What do you see as the main challenges facing local authorities now?
Paul: Authorities have been profoundly affected by a reduction in revenue caused by their inability to conduct field work, such as proactive council tax collection and parking enforcement, during the pandemic – traditionally key sources of income for them. This has been compounded by the biggest increase in welfare benefit claims in living memory, which has affected the funds that need to be distributed and also on the capacity and ability of council teams to cope with this surge in demand.
I think that, more than ever, councils are now going to be faced with financial difficulty and, as a result, are going to have to make tough choices about which services to invest in – or even whether to stop providing some services altogether. The need for efficiency, transformation and pure cost reduction is going to be greater than ever – as well as the need to collaborate with other organisations, on issues such as health and social care, to make sure that citizens continue to enjoy coherent, joined-up outcomes.
Simon: Is not an easy time at all Paul. How can local authorities prioritise and overcome these challenges?
Paul: I don’t think there’s any doubt that councils are going to have to make some tough decisions about the level of service that they can provide. They’ll also have to improve the data, intelligence and customer analytics that they use to make these decisions. If services need to cease, activities such as joint strategic needs assessments will be key. I think there is a real opportunity to take advantage of the new models of virtual engagement, and ways to engage with citizens that Covid-19 has demonstrated are feasible, to improve the quality of data and analysis that underpins key policy decisions about where councils focus their resources.
In the face of these tough decisions, and a necessity and desire to protect frontline services, I think councils will increasingly focus on making their back offices, management layers, and third-party spending more efficient. They’ll also need to make an even bigger drive for savings in these areas and start collaborating with each other, the third sector and private organisations to share skills and resources.
Simon: It’s clear that local authorities are going to have to innovate if they’re going to deliver high-quality services to citizens in the future. What innovations have you seen that have helped to create better outcomes for citizens?
Paul: They say that necessity is the mother of invention and, if the last few months of unprecedented lockdown and social restriction are anything to go by, that is certainly true! We’ve been working closely with our clients and their citizens to change how engagement, interaction and service delivery work almost overnight.
For example, in the space of about three weeks, we’ve managed to move our entire contact centre operation (circa 500 advisors) to home working – including the technology, risk assessments and management practices. This has been achieved with minimal disruption to our customers, and it has resulted in a significant reduction in staff absence and an increase in morale and retention.
We’ve also been innovating with our clients to accelerate digital democracy, supporting the first ’virtual‘ appointment of a mayor – as well as the first virtual cabinet and committee meetings. We’ve developed remote solutions to support child protection conferences, and we’ve set up dedicated hubs in partnership with our clients to respond to citizens’ queries and concerns about Covid-19.
Simon: It’s great to hear about our recent successes, despite the restrictions that the pandemic has placed on us. What would you say that our client’s successes have been?
Paul: In all our contracts, we’ve worked in close partnership with our clients to support them in safeguarding their own staff in the same way that we’ve safeguarded ours. We’ve helped them to collate data on vulnerable employees, rapidly developed IT solutions to promote homeworking, and even ordered and deployed PPE equipment to help to keep people safe.
We’ve been at the forefront of helping councils to protect vital businesses, supporting the disbursement of more than £500m in grants to local businesses. We’ve supported them in processing the greatest volume of benefit changes since records began, and worked with them to ensure that council tax collection has been adjusted appropriately and expediently in line with changes in Government and local policy during the last few months.
We’ve established a new Covid-19 helpdesk with one of our clients, supported vulnerable people with food, medicine and care, and mobilised and co-ordinated community volunteers.
Simon: In the light everything you’ve said today, what do you think the future looks like for local government and how can it prepare now?
Paul: I think that, by default, local authorities are never going to be the same again. The term ’the new normal’ is undoubtedly becoming overused, but the demonstration of how rapidly workforces can adapt to working remotely – and well organisations have supported them in doing that – means that all councils (particularly in light of the increased financial pressure on them) will be reviewing their property footprint and consolidating. Home and virtual working are going to become increasingly prevalent – ultimately leading to a much more inclusive and flexible workforce, accessible to people who, because of disability or time commitments, couldn’t work in an office but can work very effectively from home.
From a customer perspective, face-to-face interactions have drastically reduced, with citizens becoming very quickly used to telephone or digital interactions. I can’t see this rewinding – the challenge for local authorities will be to ensure that they can meet in person with customers whose circumstances or vulnerability require it but not to build a whole service model based on this.
Councils will be right at the heart of efforts to restart local economies. They’ll be using government funding as well as their own returning revenues to stimulate and support businesses, transport and tourism. I think that this will be underpinned by a new digital democracy in which policy setting and decision making can be done much more quickly with the help of technology.