COVID-19 & Local Government: The Story So Far

As we begin to accustom ourselves to the new reality of remote working and find ourselves able to look back on the events of the past nine months, it’s important to analyse our response to the pandemic. Learning what we did right and what went wrong prepares us for the coming challenges and any future crisis, whilst also allowing us to build robust local government systems that can continue providing services despite difficulties.

Our analysis draws on data gathered by Socitm in a recent local government survey. Here, we’ll be breaking down their survey results and discussing what lessons we can learn from the last nine months.

Remote working – the new reality

Possibly the biggest change to working practices brought on by COVID-19 is the prevalence of remote working. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 5% of local government staff worked at home. Now, that figure stands at 82% (Socitm).

The scale of this change cannot be underestimated and, though this article will attempt to examine, analyse and, in some cases, criticise the UK response, it is important to note that this change has occurred during a global crisis. Local Authorities (LAs) were not prepared for such a pandemic and have been forced to undertake the biggest modernisation of the public sector in living memory in a remarkably short period.

COVID-19 & Local Government: The Story So Far

The new reality of remote working has also resulted in the adoption of new digital tools and working practices. Specifically, office collaboration and video conferencing software have been the two most common digital tools integrated into local government systems.

In some cases, technology has been adopted in an intelligent and carefully considered manner. In others, it’s been selected in a seemingly arbitrary and haphazard way. For instance, Zoom was clearly not the best video call software available, but its designers capitalised on the moment and it became the go-to video call application for businesses and LAs almost by default.

Training remains an issue

In some councils, the percentage of employees who had been provided with any training on new digital technologies was as low as 17% (Socitm). This figure rarely rises above 50% in any of the councils surveyed.

The average percentage of respondents who had received some training on new technologies was 22% (Socitm). However, this figure tells us nothing about the quality or amount of training received. The fact that 78% of employees received absolutely no training on how to best use tools that became essential to their work suggests that considerable improvements in productivity could still be made.

This is supported by the fact that only 46% of employees reported that the technology adopted during the crisis had made them more productive (Socitm). For tools that are specifically designed to improve productivity, this figure might be considered a little underwhelming.

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Disparities between Local Authorities

The Socitm survey results also paint a picture of a country that faces considerable disparities between local government bodies.

At one council, 72% of respondents felt more productive working from home, 94% said they had all the IT tools they needed to work from home and 83% believed their services had been improved by innovations during lockdown (Socitm).

A separate council came back with a very different set of results. Only 38% of respondents felt more productive, 38% felt services had been improved by innovations and 75% had the IT tools they required (Socitm).

COVID-19 & Local Government: The Story So Far

There are a large number of possible explanations for these disparities. However, the substantial gap in productivity increases and service improvements suggests that the situation needs to be addressed if all LAs across the country are to be able to continue providing a satisfactory level of service.

The danger here is that some LAs excel under the new conditions, while others struggle, exacerbating regional differences in local governments’ ability to respond to the crisis.

Performance internationally

Despite disparities between areas within the UK, the percentage of respondents working at home is more or less the same as the international average.

In the UK, 82% of respondents work remotely and 81% have all the tools they require. Internationally, 83% of respondents now work remotely and 80% report having the tools they need (Socitm).

However, other statistics seem to show the UK lagging behind the international average.

The international average outperforms the UK average on a range of factors. These include;

  • Percentage of employees who receive training
  • Percentage of employees reporting an improvement in work-life balance
  • Percentage of employees reporting an increase in productivity
  • Percentage of employees who believe service innovations have benefited citizens
  • Percentage of employees reporting that no services had been paused or forced to stop.

The only two unenviable categories in which the UK average was higher than the international average were;

  • Percentage of respondents who had issues with remote working tools
  • Percentage of employees reporting problems with virtual meeting technology (Socitm).

While the Socitm survey was focused primarily on UK local government and therefore gives us a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the UK response, it is concerning that the country seems to be lagging behind the international average in almost all key areas.

A distinctly top-down approach

Finally, it’s also important to look at the way change was introduced by LAs. By and large, this has been via a top-down approach, with very little input from those working on the front lines. Just 9% of respondents said that they were involved in service planning or software design (Socitm).

COVID-19 & Local Government: The Story So Far

While this can be predominantly attributed to the speed at which change had to be introduced – COVID-19 afforded local governments little time to consult employees – it would be beneficial if this figure increased in the future.

What Next?

  • Digital transformation cannot be a one size fits all solution. Different LAs react to new technologies and work processes in different ways. Consequently, digital strategies must be tailored to individual councils
  • Specialist digital technology expertise appears to be lacking. LAs need to collaborate with organisations who can provide that expertise
  • There are considerable differences between councils’ responses and there’s a risk that significant regional disparities could affect LAs’ abilities to provide an adequate standard of service. Collaboration between LAs could be one way of preventing this
  • Improved access to training programmes could have a drastic effect on productivity
  • Greater employee engagement over the coming months will likely result in systems and software that are easier to use and that perform better
  • UK local government bodies could learn from the local government response in other nations, where the survey shows more employees feel that they’ve benefitted from recent changes

If you’d like to discuss how Inform’s experience and expertise working with local government organisations can help your council, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Our expert team have been providing customer self-service solutions to LGAs for over 25 years. Call us on 01344 595800 or drop us a line to find out more.