Orchestrating the recovery and learning from the past

To tackle the pandemic and rebuild, we need to mobilise the whole of our public sector and its supply chain

As the lockdown eases, we’re making our first tentative steps back into a very different world and our attention is focused on recovery. In a matter of weeks, years of economic growth were erased and the UK is emerging as one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus.

Despite some great work in the coronavirus response, in particular digital teams delivering at pace under massive pressure, there are ominous signs that the crisis is undermining hard fought progress across the public sector, perhaps fatally. Central government in particular has reached for the comfort blankets of centralisation and large outsourcing contracts.

The public sector in the UK is made up of a sophisticated set of public institutions, from local authorities through further education colleges and universities to the big departments of state. To tackle the pandemic and rebuild, we need to mobilise the whole of our public sector along with the entirety of its supply chain.

But how do we orchestrate it? Well, to start with, you listen.

Listening is a superpower

I’ve written before about the power of institutional memory and how important it is to listen and learn from the past. So it was pretty unnerving to read a quote from a senior civil servant in a harsh critique of failings in the UK coronavirus response by the New York Times:

Serco are pretty much the only people who can stand up a work force in that time, and love them or hate them, it is about having the numbers.

And therein lies the problem. The most important goal of any test, track, and trace service is that it works, and just having the numbers is no guarantee of that. The ability to recruit large numbers of call centre operatives is one part of the puzzle. It’s even more important in a crisis that nationwide services meet the needs of the people who use them, the public, and frontline staff, as well as stakeholders in local and central government. That means rolling them out iteratively, testing, and making improvements based on real experience, not in one big bang.

This approach can deliver working services in days and weeks, not months and years. Operating in a pandemic adds urgency: if services don’t work, the consequences are preventable deaths. And as we’ve seen, handing contracts to people who have the numbers but not necessarily the right expertise, can also mean millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money being wasted. Money that’s in short supply for strained frontline services.

Government has been here so many times before and the institutional memory of failures past is either ignored or not listened to. The coronavirus response has been dominated by familiar name big suppliers, standing up teams rapidly. But experience shows that simply throwing people at a problem can harm your chances of success.

Central versus local

Contact tracing is also shining a light on tensions between central and local government. Local authorities have the capability to run track and trace services in their public health teams and there were frequent calls from them to build the service from that basis.

While there’s been progress by including local government in the test, track, and trace service, how much quicker and more effective would the roll out of a national service have been if we’d started with a more decentralised model in mind from the beginning?

We’re starting to understand the answer to this question. According to the British Medical Journal on 22 June, local health protection teams traced nearly eight times more contacts (77,642) than the national call centres and online service (9,997).

A lack of situational awareness

Dealing with coronavirus is fuelling traditional tensions, not just about approaches and ways of working but more fundamentally about structures.

According to most scientists, the virus itself is highly localised affecting regions very differently. A federal system like Germany with a strong regional government proved highly effective in the early stages of the crisis. In the UK, the tendency towards centralisation could undermine our response to both coping with the pandemic now and rebuilding in the coming months while coronavirus remains a threat.

Those central versus local tensions are never far from the surface. A small but telling example of one size not fitting all is that the process for booking a COVID test assumes you will drive to the testing centre. That’s not always the case, particularly in dense urban populations:

With many local authorities facing challenging financial circumstances, even before the additional pressures of coronavirus, there’s a risk that those who are best placed to act will be limited in what they can do.

This all hints at a profound lack of situational awareness. Mapping and horizon scanning techniques can help and add real value but again, listening to the people who are already working on this stuff is the most important thing to do.

SMEs can help

The Government set itself a target of awarding one third of contracts to small and medium enterprises (SME’s) by 2022. The intention was to ‘level the playing field’ and make sure the door is open to the expertise and approaches that exist outside the oligopoly of traditional suppliers. We shouldn’t forget the reason why the government made this commitment. If you give the right SMEs a decent portion of this work, they’ll do a better job.

Government is still spending vast amounts of money but it’s not evenly distributed across its supply chain. Many decisions are seemingly being taken on the basis of size and familiarity, rather than a supplier’s ability to do the work. In doing so, it risks ignoring its own learning and history. This might feel like the safer option but it won’t lead to better outcomes and in this case, better outcomes means fewer avoidable deaths.

Now more than ever, the Government must put its faith in the expertise and capability that exists both in its own digital teams and a rich supplier community.