Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance
The great irony of any crisis situation is that, at a time when it would be most natural to revert to reactionary, kneejerk behaviour, it is cool-headedness and considered decision making that must prevail. When circumstances keep shifting and decisions need to be taken with ever-increasing speed, it can be easy to let process and governance slide down your list of priorities. However, during a crisis, I would argue that good governance should be embedded more firmly then ever in the decision making process.
Announcements on financial resources and legislative changes in response to COVID-19 are coming out daily from government, requiring local authorities to be swift in their response. How will vital emergency funds be distributed? What are the implications for our business as usual processes? What priorities will need to be downgraded as we ramp up our response to the issue at hand?
Local communities are looking towards councils to communicate clearly and transparently the actions they are taking. This can only happen when leadership teams with clearly defined structures and processes are supported by strong governance to make good, well informed decisions at speed.
Strong governance during a crisis also supports disaster recovery and resilience. Local authorities with robust systems of governance will be more attuned to risk. Proper risk assessment is critical when new risks are presenting themselves on a near daily basis. Those authorities who are ahead of the curve in evaluating their risks will be best equipped to take appropriate action to mitigate the long-term financial impacts that will likely exist well beyond the end of the pandemic itself.
Just as important as the responsiveness and resilience that good governance enables in an institution, is the public message it sends. Organisations across the country will be judged by the public on how they handle the crisis. Their reputations may be at risk if they have failed to meet expectations. However this presents councils with a prime opportunity to begin rebuilding public confidence. Many of the services councils provide, such as public health and social care, have a key role to play in fighting the current pandemic. In the current climate of fear, in which citizens are crying out for an honest and reassuring voice, a robust and transparent approach to governance can instil a much needed sense of stability, reassuring communities that the institutions they depend on are still very much alive and working on their behalf.
Part of that reassurance is the element of scrutiny and challenge brought into the decision-making process by the traditional meeting. The recent announcement from government removing the requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic is one that CIPFA welcomes because it means that elected members and other stakeholders will still be able to participate in council business. Councils will now be able to hold their meetings virtually, enabling them to continue making critical decisions at pace in a way that remains transparent and open to local residents.
Maintaining strong and visible systems of governance is going to take some time to get right under new and challenging circumstances. It will be for each individual authority to identify how they run remote meetings in a way that replicates the level of access presently enjoyed by the public and the press. But I have every confidence that this is yet another challenge the sector will rise to, as they have risen to the challenges presented by COVID-19 so far.
This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.