Opinion: Can Covid get the public sector working as one?

The government’s plans for reform have placed an emphasis on operating “more seamlessly with institutions outside government”. Pamela Dow, the executive director of the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit and Stephen Crookbain, the director of leadership (interim) at Cabinet Office, set out some of the lessons from the public sector’s pandemic response that can unlock progress
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The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything, including the relationship between public services, citizens and communities. We’ve all talked for years about ‘systems thinking’, and often in the abstract. In 2020 we saw what it really meant. To support the country during this time of immense challenge, public servants responded, adapted, and worked together to achieve some exceptional things.

The National Leadership Centre, a crucial element of the new Government Campus for skills, knowledge and networks, launched their flagship publication, the Public Leaders Report 2021, last month. This illustrates what worked and how during the pandemic, and the lessons we learned from both successes and challenges. Its aim is to celebrate the people and organisations on whom we all depended, and explain why, and how. We want to prompt discussions about what we must all do now, to support them and others in similar roles in making 2020 achievements an enduring feature of post-Covid life.

Unique pressures and challenges

The National Leadership Centre’s mission is to help the country’s most senior public service leaders develop the expertise, insights, and relationships required to address society’s most complex challenges. To do this we unite a network of civil servants, police chiefs, local authority and NHS chief executives, university vice-chancellors, and more.

Our work focuses on both the challenges facing the public sector, and overcoming them, and the opportunities, and maximising them. We care about understanding what works, how it works, and sharing this for greater impact. The pressures of Covid have been unique. Universal Credit claims surged in unprecedented numbers – just under a million in the fortnight after the first lockdown. Teaching across all age groups moved entirely online within days. Through great adversity our colleagues have worked together and made things happen in ways that nobody would have thought possible in February 2020.

Covid has not been the only challenge facing government and public services of course. Work to keep people safe, to protect the environment, to narrow inequality gaps in education and health, have continued. But the pandemic has placed an additional strain on people and organisations, complicating the strategic and operational landscape for the whole public sector.

Insights and lessons

The Public Leaders Report 2021 captures what it was like to lead during such a tough year. The stories, including candid insights, reflections, and lessons on leading through the pandemic from 20 chief executives across the country, are compelling. They put faces, places and context to abstract terms like ‘collaboration’ and ‘ innovation’, and explain what we might retain for the future.

The report features the work of HM Courts and Tribunals Service to set up courts and tribunals outside its current estate, which brings lessons that stretch well beyond the justice system. Known as ‘Nightingale Courts’, these temporary courts have been set up in venues such as universities, theatres, football stadia, and hotels to increase capacity. The chief executive of HMCTS, Kevin Sadler, shares how he led a team through dramatic change.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, also shares his four lessons from the pandemic. Martin described the importance of communication, understanding critical success factors, building partnerships, and personal resilience. These are relevant well beyond policing.

One of the most striking elements of the recent Declaration on Government Reform was the importance it placed on operating “more seamlessly with institutions outside government.” Through the National Leadership Centre we are reframing our programmes and research to help leaders overcome unhelpful barriers: national vs local, strategy vs operations, policy vs delivery.  This report makes a powerful case for change in better responding to the needs of our public servants and the civil service leaders, Ministers and policymakers who rely on them to deliver.

In seven Portraits of Public Service Leaders, our interviews with CEOs capture insights we hope apply to many: business continuity, prioritisation, looking after your own physical and mental health and that of your teams’, keeping perspective, focusing on the positive.

Together we are greater than the sum of our parts, and we hope readers find this report refreshing, illuminating, and inspiring.

Relationships eat theories for breakfast…

Relationships built in crisis will last. The National Leadership Centre will do all it can to help leaders to keep these links strong as we recover and rebuild. We will also help leaders to ‘pay it forward’, supporting the next generation to build strong and deep networks, without the prompt of a pandemic.

In the new Government Campus we’re working with many partners, across the public, charity and private sectors, and academia. We’ll share our findings on what works and how, to inform practice, and design and host effective leadership programmes and network events. The NLC will support public servants in senior positions to extend the links that have proved so vital over the last year.

In many ways, the work featured in this report has only just begun.

You can view the Public Leaders Report 2021 in full at NationalLeadership.gov.uk

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