Learning from a crisis: how we need ambitious and enabling political leadership

blog | 27 May 2021

A conversation with Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Chris Naylor, CEO at London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen radical change in how public services are delivered. Many of those changes have been aspirations for public service reform for many years: a focus on people; local, cross-sector sharing of resource and responsibility to help people when and where they need it and, empowerment of individuals and organisations who are in the right places to co-produce solutions.

The question now is what it will take to embed the best of these newly realised ways of working for the long term.

Earlier this week, we were honoured to welcome the newly re-elected mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Andy Burnham, and Chris Naylor, chief executive of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, to a conversation about learning from innovation in a crisis, that can help us ‘design forward differently’ for the future.

We were also joined at the event by senior colleagues from  across the public and voluntary sectors, who are all deeply focused on the same mission: how do we embed and accelerate the extraordinary innovation that’s emerged over the course of this pandemic, in the partnerships between residents, local businesses, the voluntary sector and public services?

The fundamental idea under discussion was the need for ambitious and enabling political leadership. Many radical, community-led changes have developed in response to the pandemic. Local political leaders now have an opportunity and responsibility to promote and embed those changes in the mainstream. This is local politics to facilitate place-based action and priorities, not party politics.

Devolution of decision-making, resource and accountability was the natural build from this conversation. In particular, the devolution of power from Westminster to regional government within the UK – to mirror devolved power and resource from council chambers and mayoral offices to local partnerships of place.

Innovation Unit has been fortunate enough to have a chance to study bottom up innovation at close quarters over the last year. We’ve worked as a learning partner for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s public service reform team, to help them learn from and build on radical change driven by COVID19.

Between May and September of 2020 we spoke with over 100 people across 12 workshops, across public, private and voluntary sector organisations, and of course residents themselves. We looked in depth at early help in children’s services, at homelessness and community hubs and did a deep dive into the community response in Oldham. We clustered our learning around four, core themes:

In practice and citizen experience we saw the development of people-focused solutions. As the pandemic developed there was ‘far less assessment and far more help’ – away from programmes and projects, towards people. The shift to digital saw the emergence of anytime, anywhere support. As a result, people were able to access what support they needed it, when they needed it, where they needed it.

In workforce and culture we saw the creation of blended, multi-disciplinary, multi-agency teams, working effectively across silos and boundaries. It was not just public services, but also the voluntary sector, local businesses, and members of the community.

In leadership and governance, there was a much greater unity of purpose, that mobilised new, local leaders and bound together blended teams from different bits of the system.. Leadership was decentralised and distributed, and there was a focus on addressing urgent need. Rather than focusing on targets, teams tried to simply get stuff done.

And in system conditions, regulation, inspection and commissioning disappeared. In its place, grew mutual accountability, in which people worked together to sensibly manage resource and risk. This created more space for self-determination within communities, and it also created the conditions for intelligent data sharing, with the focus on risk balanced against need.

Andy Burnham spoke eloquently during the session about the need to pause, before we unlock and race forward with our lives, to reflect on all we have learned in the course of the last year and more. He spoke of how his work in Manchester has centred around developing a “names not numbers” approach, where the voice of communities is empowered and prioritised.

It is not easy to mainstream these changes. Instead, as the urgency and impetus of the pandemic fades away, there is a risk we will slip back into familiar ways of working.

There are six things, drawn from our work that feel like important next steps for leaders seeking to embed this ‘learning from a crisis’ into the mainstream for the future:

  1. Follow the energy lines – go where energy for new ways of working has become manifest.
  2. Work with the ‘new leaders’ who have emerged through the COVID work to prototype approaches to sharing power, risk and resources on behalf of the rest of the system.
  3. Create a new ecosystem of place which puts neighbourhoods and community voice at the heart of priorities and action
  4. Create flexible, interim local governance arrangements to give new collaborations legitimacy, support and ideas.
  5. Devolve some resource to this level, both financial and human, to incentivise and enable – and make one of the new leadership roles a ‘community connector’.
  6. Secure an external partner who will both facilitate and ‘hold you accountable to your aspirations’ when the desire to regress feels irresistible.

Glimpsing a plausible, desirable new future is an inspiration and a powerful tool. Doing something with it will require open, determined leadership and lots of learning as we go. It is heartening that there were clearly leaders at our conversation this week who are up for, and already embarking on that challenge.