Learning through crisis

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Amongst all the bad news, the tragedy and statistics that Coronavirus has brought, for those of us in public services, we keep hearing that ‘this is an opportunity to change’ and ‘we can’t go back’. As a progressive Councillor, I can’t stand back and watch rapid the adaptation of the business of local government without understanding what’s happening, what it’s like to be a part of, and how the pandemic has created immediate transformation driven by urgent need.

To gain a deep understand what’s happening, we need insights. Inspired by reading from Chris Bolton from Audit Wales Good Practice Exchange, there is a school of thought that says:

“In a crisis, you should always deploy an innovation team alongside the business recovery teams…to capture the novel practice”.

There is also a more traditional approach of ‘retrospective coherence’ where we sit down at the end of a crisis and discuss what we learnt. The danger here is that we construct a narrative that is formed after the event, not during. Therefore, as we navigate through the most turbulent and unsettling conditions of our lifetimes, we should look to capture what’s happening in as close to real time as we can.

Future scenario thinking – take your pick

There’s much emerging thinking about the future, but I like this quadrant that I saw recently from Social Finance, which outlines four scenarios.

Other quadrants and scenarios are available, but I like the prospect of the top right destination, civic renewal, which speaks of high transformation and local government leadership.  Whilst we are still in the early days of dealing with the crisis, and I’ve broadly heard people being positive about a new normal, we should be aware that there may be a very real and strong desire to ‘race back to normal’. This is not a criticism, as there has been such disruption to life that many will want to feel settled again, but the time to act for the future is now, and one of the ways to do that is to embed the learnings from the crisis response.

Theory to action

Theory without action is useless, so during late April and early May myself and an officer colleague have conducted 25 ‘learning through crisis’ conversations with a range of staff. Loosely based around a handful of simple questions that are both descriptive and reflective, it’s been fascinating to hear their experiences of service delivery during the coronavirus pandemic.

The questions posed were ‘what have you done differently’, ‘what have you learnt’, ‘what’s gone wrong’ and ‘what’s gone well’, and as the interviews progressed, we asked about working from home and more about the future too.

‘What have you done differently?’ is the starting question. For some this has been complete redeployment, and for others it’s been more of a change in working practice. The obvious and most common answer has been to work from home, coupled with the exponential rise in the use of video-conferencing technology and digitising systems and processes rapidly to support remote working. This rapid transition wasn’t without its technological hiccups in the early days of the lockdown, but has settled, and some members of staff told me they’d invested in equipment and furniture to set-up dedicated home offices to work in. That suggests an ‘in it for the long-term’ approach.

In discussion with redeployed staff, I found that one had moved into registrars being trained via distance and e-learning, and within a few weeks was registering her first fatalities. It was a sobering moment to hear that story. Another member of staff has overseen the delivery of 1 million pieces of PPE with a team of two and a Transit van: incredible work. Others had moved into the newly established Community Hub from leisure, housing, or commissioning. One had filled in a skills matrix and was redeployed an hour later, another has shown incredible leadership skills to establish a cross sector hub from the ground up, and another had moved from being a climbing instructor to managing a team of call handlers in a hybrid physical / remote setting. In hearing these individual stories, I was inspired by their leadership qualities and attitudes.

The ‘learning’ through crisis is diverse: working from home works for the majority, but not all, especially where there might just be the corner of a kitchen table to work at with children doing their distance learning simultaneously. Most people want to work from home more often in the future citing productivity being up, and the commute and hunt for a car-parking space a welcome removal from working life. In fairness, those who have been agile/flexible/home working for some time knew this anyway, but now we are (potentially) talking about the masses.

The redeployed staff spoke about their increased appreciation of the diversity of local government services, and how they felt empowered, enthused and even excited to be part of something so important and critical to public safety. Those in the community hub especially talked about the power of community, the public willingness to help, and how if you let go a little and do with, not to, you can achieve far greater collaboration. And of course, working at pace. I was struck by the example of delivering PPE, where there was no manual or guidebook, and the reflection from the member of staff was that if we had to write the manual, we’d still be figuring out the content. The implication? Just get on with it and get the job done. One officer summed it up as “adversity brings empowerment”.

For the what went well and what went wrong, generally there had been some early issues with technology, and also it struck me that the processes that fell over the most were those where more traditional practices were applied. Over the last couple of years I’ve repeatedly heard that video-conferencing is no substitute for the face to face meeting, yet the virtual team meetings occurring during the crisis were reported to be more productive and had an increased focus on staff wellbeing. There had been some tensions between people, process and partners, but on the whole the feeling was that the majority were working as a team, including very positive reports for working with partners and communities.

From the rich insights of just a few staff members working through crisis, there are some themes that I’d like to explore further as we move to recovery. These include, but are not limited to:

Technology: we were in a good place at Pembrokeshire through our investment in ‘smarter working’ and were able to mobilise staff incredibly quickly to work from home. In doing so, we have dispelled the myth once and for all that home working isn’t suitable. It is. The tools are there, they work, and productivity is high. It just needs a balance and another of those cultural shifts that digital/tech is really all about.

Breaking down the silos: The 21st Century Public Servant work feels more relevant than ever. The pandemic has fast-tracked 21st Century public servants across the UK, where councils have embraced the generic skills of their workforces with a very clear purpose: to protect life. We need to capitalise on that by now rejecting silo working, embracing fluidity and collaborating to achieve our goals. The 21st Century Public Servant is about employee engagement to empower and facilitate our workforce to deliver fantastic services, and be very proud of their achievements. It’s about being a municipal entrepreneur, acting on behalf of residents and having broader and softer skills. This is what I am seeing in action and it’s hugely encouraging.

Working with communities. When I took responsibility for the transformation programme, the ‘relationship’ with staff and communities of Pembrokeshire was something I wanted to focus on. We’ve seen such an incredible community response, and crucially we have supported that response, so we need to build on that co-design and co-production ethos. One member of staff spoke of nurturing those community relationships and the choice of word is spot on. There’s also a lot of public goodwill towards the council, which we also need to nurture carefully. Our brand equity is high, but that could be undone very easily. As one member of staff said: “It’s given the council the opportunity to shine.”

So what now?

The culture change work at Pembrokeshire sets course for an organisation that has Learning, Purpose and Results as its centre. If you missed the hint, the key word here is ‘Learning’. To move us on, an ‘organisational learning’ cell has been set up as part of the emergency response which will see a far wider approach than the handful of interviews we’ve carried out so far. This will build on the work of some departments who have already surveyed their teams to make sure they are being supported, and help us capture and respond to ‘learning through crisis’.

My role, as a Cabinet Member, allows me to contribute to the setting of the strategic agenda and work programme for the portfolio, to consult with stakeholders, and to make sure that the portfolio’s forward work programme is kept up to date and accurate. Learning must be a critical component of our strategic agenda, and these insights must inform our recovery.

Coronavirus is the most disruptive event of our lifetime. It has changed the way that we work, it will take years for our society to recover, but councils across the UK have led an incredible response. We’ll be needed for the long-haul, so I encourage all councils, councillors and officers to have more ‘learning through crisis’ conversations now, pause and reflect, capture that novel practice, and help make the changes that we want to see stick.

A year as a County Councillor: surviving and thriving in elected life.

I originally wrote this blog in 2018, after just over a year as a County Councillor. The original version can be found on my LinkedIn page here.

You’ve done the hard work, knocking on doors, posting leaflets, and explaining to anyone who’ll listen why they should vote for you; you’ve had the bizarre experience of voting for yourself, and then the elation of the count and the formal announcement that you are duly elected as County Councillor. Well done. Now the hard work really begins.

I’ve been in post for a year at Pembrokeshire County Council, a beautifully wild and rural county as far west as Wales can be. Within a couple of weeks of being elected, I was entrusted with a new Cabinet portfolio of Transformation in a coalition Cabinet, under a new Leader and a very different looking Chamber. One year in, I thought I’d write a short piece about what I’ve learnt.

So here are my top ten tips for any new Councillors, or anyone thinking of standing in the future.

1.       Immerse yourself. Local government is complex enough without the politics, but by the time you add in ‘code of conduct’ and ‘constitution’ training, get to grips with the concept of political balance, and worked out what scrutiny committee does what, you realise how enormous it really is. So throw yourself in to it, soak it all up, but realise that there will come a point (in my case after a year), when you’ll know where you can best spend your time, and what you can say ‘no’ to.

2.      ‘The bloody Council’. There will be a brief honeymoon period where council critics will hold high hopes for the future and you can do no wrong, but sooner or later you will be lumped in as someone with their ‘nose in the trough’ , part of the old boys club, and as a self-serving in-it-for-yourself crook and liar. It’s amazing how my skin has thickened over the last year, because people will undoubtedly have a pop (even when you do nothing wrong). Whilst I would encourage using social media as a modern councillor, every council will have a Facebook group or two who occasionally have a strong opinion or how you voted or what you said, and these thoughts will be happily shared on the internet.

3.      Build relationships. Officers and members will be suspicious of you. You are a potential threat to a way of working which officers may be very comfortable with, and other members will want to know if you can be relied upon for support. On the flip side, there are plenty of staff and Councillors who want to see change and it’s important to find them and work with them. This takes time and patience, but to get things done, you’ll need to build credibility both politically and professionally.

4.      Leadership. In addition to being a Community Leader, you are also in a Leadership position in the Council itself. This is more explicit in my case as I am a Cabinet member, but what I have learned is that officers delivering political priorities want clear and strong direction. This was not easy to begin with, and there have been a few difficult conversations along the way, but by being clear in my objectives, building my credibility and by being authentic, I think I’m in a good place with the team. I’ve also had to remind myself of my mandate, have a belief in what I’m trying to achieve for the common good, and remember that leading change is difficult.

5.      Pace and Process. There is a lot of process in local government, and this inevitably slows things down. As someone who’s worked in the fast moving technology sector, this has been a challenge to increase the speed of delivery of our transformation programme. I’m getting there now, primarily due to the lessons of points 3 and 4 above (building relationships and demonstrating leadership). I’ve also been fortunate enough to have some brilliant senior staff to work with. But of course it could still happen sooner!

6.      Balance. Depending on your availability, work commitments externally (because being a Cllr isn’t a ticket to an early retirement), the external bodies you sit on such as Town & Community Councils, etc,  you will need to find the balance of your work in the council, on the council, and in your community. You also still have a life, something that my partner constantly reminds me of and the need to take some down time. For me, it’s instant calm as soon as I get on my bashed-up fishing boat in the summer months.

7.      Expect the unexpected. Your phone might ring or you might have a knock at the door at any time, and you’ll have to deal with issues ranging from ‘mud on the road’ (a personal favourite here in Pembrokeshire) to potential homelessness and real personal issues where people genuinely look to you for help. That’s a big responsibility but incredibly fulfilling. And by the way, it’s what the people elected you for. They don’t really care about the brilliant contribution you made in scrutiny on the corporate plan, they care about the grass being cut and the bins being collected.

8.      Council is theatre. We make decisions that affect people’s lives, and that is first and foremost what it’s about, but your regular meeting of full Council is also packed with drama. Only a year in myself I am still not entirely confident on my feet, but I watch and listen to the more experienced in the chamber for how they do it: the language they use, the way they construct their arguments, and their timing. It can be daunting, but it’s important to get on your feet and speak.

9.      Fulfilment and Purpose. You have a democratic mandate. People voted for you and have put their faith in you to serve them, and this is your priority. As I mentioned previously, your electorate will be primarily interested in the things that matter to them, so it’s important to remember that you work for them, and they have the power to reject you at the polls. But have belief. In my case I know I am playing a major role in contributing to a better future for my county, but I have to recognise that I will also be needed to intervene in something very minor that makes someone very happy.

10.  Enjoyment. I’m one year in to a five year term (subject to the whim of Cardiff Bay) and it is a privilege to serve. So I’ll enjoy it, bring my own personality and some humour to it, make the most of the experience and do my best.

No two councillors’ experiences will be the same, but I hope that my thoughts above will help anyone brave enough to enter the democratic arena survive and thrive in the first year of elected life.

Community Consultation

At Llanrhian Community Council, we’ve been thinking about what to do with the playpark and pavilion in Trefin. You might not even know it’s there, but some years ago the field was transformed into a multi-sports court, a pavilion, a playpark, a small astro-turf area and an open community space. If you know it, you’ll also know that it’s now looking very sorry for itself.

That’s why we want to get the community involved to offer some ideas for what it could be used for again, and so there’s a ‘Community Consultation’ event on Saturday March 14th from 10am to 1pm at Trefin Village Hall, where you can say your piece or just find out more. Even if you can only pop in for 10 minutes, it would be great to see people there to contribute. The event is being supported by PLANED, and whilst it’s a starting point, it’s an important starting point to see how we can take things forward.

Finally, and really importantly, this is not just for Trefin! We would love to see people coming from elsewhere in our locality, as it’s a facility that could be of great benefit to all. Please get involved!

Llais Rhian Column, Oct 2019

This is my fifth column for Llais Rhian, and incredibly, means that I am half way through this electoral term (2 ½ years gone, 2 ½ left)! Looking back over the last few years I realise what a steep learning curve it has been and I’m constantly balancing my time between helping those in the community, fulfilling my internal Cabinet responsibilities, and working nationally to help improve local government. I’ll touch upon all of these in the following paragraphs.

Starting locally, there’s been a lot going on. This has included from some improvement works being completed in Heol Rhian in Llanrhian, which included the removal of the old phonebox, replacement signs and a new timber fence to replace the rusty old railings. I also spent a fair amount of time researching and preparing to represent local residents at the Council’s Planning Committee a few months ago regarding the proposed ‘nutrient store’ (slurry lagoon) at Llwyndyrys farm in Square & Compass. This is not something that I am against at all, but there were concerns raised over the lack of an odour management plan. This is something that I continue to work with the planning department on to make sure that residents concerns are heard.

The old rusty railings have been replaced

During the last two years I’ve learned that things don’t happen quickly in local government – especially true when there is little money to spare. It can seem like a battle to make progress, but there are some plans for our community in place, including new road signage and markings in Square & Compass to remind motorists that there is a speed limit there. I’ve also got agreement from Council staff to complete a feasibility study on building a footpath linking Croesgoch to Pen-Y-Groes Villas. Before anyone gets too excited about this, the idea is to scope out the works, including costs and land issues, and then to explore how we might be able to fund this. I’ll keep you posted.

Another thing that is making slow but steady progress is the Croesgoch Community Hub. As a reminder, this idea came about through the Enhancing Pembrokeshire grant, and will see the school hall being made more widely available for community use after school hours. Some building works are needed to make this a reality, but the good news is that the funding has been approved in principle, is supported by Llanrhian Community Council, and we should be in a position to proceed later this year / early next. On a similar note, I was happy to support the Mathry Forum & Mathry Community Council bid for improvements to Mathry Village Hall and the installation of a defibrillator in Abercastle.

Ysgol Croesgoch

Abereiddi has been a constant feature during my time to date as a Councillor, and at the time of writing, I have just returned from attending a public inquiry on the matter where the Welsh Government’s Planning Inspectorate have heard the views of both the National Park and the Operator (appellant). My understanding is that the Inspectorate are intending to make a decision relatively quickly, which will give a clear directive of what can and can’t go on, and hopefully will help us move forward and come up with the right long term solution, which has always been the ambition.

It’s a busy and demanding role, but it really is a privilege to serve and I’ve just highlighted a small selection of issues above. Whether it’s a housing query or planning issue, I’ve lost count of the people I’ve met or helped over the 2 ½ years so far, and whilst I won’t get everything right, I always try to do my best for our community.

Turning to what’s going on inside the Council, I’ll mention a few things that might be of interest. As a cabinet member I have political responsibility for delivering the council’s change programme, which is picking up speed. In trying to create a more modern, efficient and cost effective council that spends its money on the services that really matter to people, at a time when local government funding is in sharp decline, you realise that change can be hard for many people. Despite this, our ‘smarter working programme’ that has seen the biggest change to the council’s working practices in over 20 years, will soon result in us being able to vacate the Cherry Grove building in Haverfordwest (amongst others), saving us a small fortune in ongoing maintenance and running costs.

Another change that is coming soon are the changes to waste collection. There is a lot of information on the Council’s website about this, but in essence we are trying to increase recycling rates whilst reducing the amount that gets sent to landfill. There can be polarised views on this but with Welsh Government targets and ambitions for a zero waste economy, we all need to play a part. There may be teething issues in the early days of the changes, but I’m sure it will settle down over the next few months once people can establish new routines. To help remind people of when their next bin day is, it is well worth subscribing to the council’s free text message reminder system which can be accessed at this link: https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/online-service/notify

New recycling lorries operating across the County

Linked to the above, and with climate change being such a critical issue, the Council has committed to become a carbon net zero council by 2030, and so I was pleased to be nominated to be part of a working group to help us achieve this. Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

Those of you that know me well will know that I’ve worked with local government in my previous career, and so I’m delighted to have been appointed as Vice Chair to the Improvement & Innovation board at the Local Government Association (LGA) with responsibility to lead on ‘productivity’. The LGA represents local government in England and Wales and means that I am exposed to best practice and innovation in Councils across the UK, which in turn helps contribute to the change agenda closer to home. I’ve been able to bring a few ideas back so far, and there will be more to report in the next column.

I’m always happy to help where I can, so please do feel free to get in touch via email at neilprior@outlook.com, you can call me on 07834 093181, or for those who are more inclined to use social media, I’m on Facebook at @CllrNeilPrior or on Twitter @PriorNeil. I’ve also started doing an e-mail update for interested residents, so if you’d like to be added just let me know.

Thanks for reading, Neil. October 2019