Community Response to Coronavirus

From the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK, to the dreadful first wave that saw us move into a national lockdown, through the gradual unlocking over the summer months, and at the time of writing about to enter a second national ‘firebreak’ lockdown, our community response has been nothing short of incredible. Over the next few paragraphs I’d like to revisit the community response from my perspective as the County Councillor for the Llanrhian ward.

I learnt from the ‘Beast from the East’ water shortage in 2018 that there is an important local leadership role in being a Councillor. When the situation started to become very real and threatening in March of this year, it was clear to me that I needed to make sure that I was available and present for those who might need help, so my approach has been to:

  • Help lead a co-ordinated approach, but not tread on other’s toes
  • Communicate regularly and effectively
  • Offer help and support

On the 16th March I posted via my Facebook page and email newsletter a call for volunteers. Within a matter of days nearly 70 people had responded offering to help – in addition to all the ‘silent’ helpers who were already caring for loved ones, friends and neighbours across our community.

As the national picture got worse and worse, with an increasing death toll and giant field-hospitals being built in a matter of weeks, there was a real sense of fear and uncertainty, especially for older people and those with what the government described as ‘underlying health conditions’. By the time the UK had moved into lockdown on 23rd March though, our community was already supporting itself. We had volunteers doing shopping, our local shop and others from St Davids and Fishguard had set up systems for local deliveries (especially valuable as it was taking weeks to get a delivery slot from the big supermarkets), we had a process for prescription collections from St Davids and Solva, our local businesses had set up take-away operations, ‘Hello I can help…’ leaflets had been delivered across the area, and establishing a network of key contacts from Abereiddi to Castlemorris, it felt like a ‘connected community’ that was ready and able to deal with whatever was coming.

Tom’s thumb – an outstanding volunteer and individual

The community spirit didn’t end there: we had a ‘guide to zoom’ written and a number of zoom socials, a ‘Connected Community’ App built and a facebook page established, and a magnificent effort from local residents making facemasks free of charge for those in the community and key workers, along with the PATCH and St Davids Food Pod volunteer efforts to help those less fortunate than others. We also had people making friendly phone-calls, taking out neighbours bins, and supporting those who were later instructed to ‘shield’ themselves.

From that initial flurry of activity, things settled down, people established routines, our local shops and establishments adapted, and the amazing community spirit saw friends, family, neighbours and volunteers all helping each other out. On the flip side, there were some community tensions, especially around the visitor economy and interpretation of the rules and guidelines, but thankfully, most people followed the regulations, and where there were genuine concerns these were directed through the correct channels.

Cleo’s mass production of face masks

We then started to see a gradual ‘unlocking’, with new initiatives like booking systems for the Waste & Recycling Centres, schools reopening before the summer holidays, boats back in the water, the ‘stay local’ restrictions being lifted, and of course unlocking tourism from early July.

The visitor economy is worth £585m p/a to Pembrokeshire, and supports over 11,500 full time equivalent jobs with 80% of tourism operations being micro-businesses. It’s hugely important to our local economy and the council prepared for the unlocking by putting many new initiatives in place. When we did reopen the doors though, Pembrokeshire felt like the busiest place on earth. Throughout that time I was able to support individuals and help local communities, but there were some things that really stretched us across the whole of the county and put a huge strain on council resources. So whilst the council didn’t get everything right, I am encouraged for the future in that the ‘zero to 100’ arrival of tourism highlighted, with a fresh view, the impact of tourism on our communities. It’s something that we definitely need to heed for the future.

Over the past seven months, I’ve never been busier as a County Councillor. I’ve been privileged to be able to support many people and communities, I’ve enjoyed writing a regular email newsletter that now reaches around 250 people, and I remain committed to the principles I outlined above as we enter what might be a long and difficult winter. Looking ahead it’s important that we hold on to that community spirit and continue to support one another through the turbulent times still to come. The last word, however, goes to a Croesgoch resident who sums up our community at its best:

We have never been ones to go out and meet lots of people but we have known that over these last months we have so many ‘friends’ that are there if we needed anything. We have a genuine  support system in Croesgoch which we hope never diminishes.

Croesgoch Resident

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.