Creating a New Normal – an overview of the challenge

Public service has performed heroically in response to Covid19 and there is no doubt that the impact of the crisis will be felt for many years to come. The challenge now is to build on the learning that can be drawn from the crisis and establish a New Normal that reflects the needs of society in the years to come.

Organisations have responded brilliantly. Leaders and staff alike have pulled together to implement change at pace, overcome hurdles that previously were seen as insurmountable and learned a great deal about their organisations.

Society will be different. We have now seen how vulnerable we are to pandemics and we will be dealing with this one until there is a vaccine. Our economy will shrink, many businesses will fold, unemployment will rise – along with poverty. Local government finances will be in tatters and political priorities will inevitably change. Ultimately, the operating models that were already being severely challenged will need to adapt further to reflect the New Normal.

1. Community

The relationships that Public Service organisations have with their communities will shift. With an upsurge in volunteering and the increased awareness of citizens to the needs of the more vulnerable in their community there is an opportunity to unleash the power of the community as a co-deliverer of public service. With this may well go an increase in democratic voice and an increase in scrutiny of local service delivery from the public.

2. Demand

With the onset of increased unemployment, business failure and pressure on health there will be a shift in the pattern of needs and demand on services. Economic growth (or recovery) will become even more important. Services impacted by poverty; benefits, housing, social care will come under increasing strain. Interestingly, services like waste and parks have gained some recognition of how important they are to the day to day lives of communities.

3. Customer Access

With the closure of libraries and customer contact centres, communities have accessed services increasingly by phone and on-line. Staff have not been able to meet face to face and have found increasingly agile ways of interacting with citizens. This new-found capability and flexibility will need to remain and become increasingly stable and consistent.

4. Service design and delivery

Along with a change in customer access we have also seen that service delivery can change. There has been no choice but to deliver services without face to face access and with greater flexibility in customer journeys and the processes that sit behind them. There will need to be an increase in the move to digital, recognising that the gains made during the crisis were proof that many services can be delivered in very different ways.

5. Workforce and agile ways of working

Two big things happened. People have needed to work from home – with mixed blessings. People have been asked to work more flexibly with staff being redeployed across old service boundaries. This has demonstrated that agile and flexible working are more feasible ways of working than imagined and that there will be a need for far greater flexibility in the way resources are deployed – with multi-skilling and broader role specifications the norm. It may well bring additional challenges to the service silos that prevailed before the crisis.

6. Financial position

With the collapse of many businesses, the closure of retail and service outlets and another step change in the way on-line purchasing is damaging the high street there will be an inevitable dent in revenue streams through business rates or commercial revenues. Costs of services may well increase as demand rises. If austerity stimulated one wave of change then what we face now will drive another. It is yet unclear how government funding will change to reflect the changed circumstances, but it will be inevitable that Public Service leaders will need to get ahead of the curve and fundamentally rethink how they deliver services and balance the books.

7. Strategic focus

The corporate plans currently in the public domain will need fundamental re-examination to see if they remain fit for purpose. As circumstances have changed so too must priorities and the funding that is allocated to those priorities. Local political leadership will be faced with the need to look very hard at how funds are allocated to meet the new needs of their communities.

8. Place and identity

With an upsurge in local participation comes an increasing sense of awareness of the community and the place it occupies.  This may increase a sense of locality and how service provision works at local level. It may challenge how agencies work together in localities and the investments required to delivery what each locality needs.  This increased sense of locality may run counter to a top down view on local government reform – or it may create an opportunity to redesign local government without defaulting the creation of unitary authorities.

9. Agile leadership

Public service works well in a crisis and leaders should be rightly proud of what they have achieved. They have demonstrated an agility and flexibility in leadership that has seen changes implemented in two weeks that might otherwise have taken two years. It would be such a shame if, as the crisis and its consequences unfold, leaders lose the gains they have made and miss the opportunity to create a New Normal way of working.

The challenge

In this series of thought pieces we will examine what has happened, what we have learned and what is required to secure a New Normal. Out of every crisis comes an opportunity and this is no exception. Society will have changed, communities will have been unleashed and demand will have shifted. We need to create organisations that respond to this systemic change and be optimistic about how public service can adapt to meet the shifting needs of its communities.