The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global disruption, unlike anything most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. This is no truer than in the public sector, where leaders and managers have been presented with numerous challenges requiring an agile and rapid response.
The impact of the pandemic can be broken down into three phases:
Looking ahead 12-18 months, beyond the Recovery phase, two main uncertainties are likely to shape the world we will be operating in.
The first is the pandemic and the way the economy overall responds. This will be influenced by the possibility of a second wave of outbreaks, likely with the approach of winter, and the underlying shape of the economic recovery - ranging from V-shaped to U-shaped or L-shaped.
The second is EU Exit. The Government will not extend the current transition period beyond 31st December 2020, with or without a trade deal with the EU. A no-deal end to the transition period means that the UK would be headed towards World Trade Organisation terms for trade with the EU. This will, presumably, lead to a very challenging, if not chaotic, economic period coupled with potential effects in the UK’s other interactions including travel and migration.
By combining the above, there are four main scenarios to consider:
Depending on the outcome, there are stark differences in the starting point for organisations to reach ‘the new normal’.
It is not clear yet what the ‘new normal’ will mean. It could be a real historic turning point, but it may simply be a faddish cliché. In thinking about the ‘new normal’ it is perhaps worth considering four different aspects.
The first is the collection of changes and responses we have seen during the lockdown, as below. We have seen these in operation, but will they stick?
When it comes to change, it is worth thinking whether there has been a change in behaviours or in beliefs and values. There is evidence from the realm of public health that if we adopt a new behaviour for about 10 weeks it tends to stick. Therefore, we should assume that some new habits will remain.
However, the change in context means that the community spirit may evaporate as we are no longer ‘all in this together’. Without an end in sight, the challenges for some people and organisations will become too much to manage indefinitely.
Furthermore, some of the changes in behaviour are underwritten by Government support, including the Furlough scheme. This has changed levels of spending unimaginably – just think back to the General Election. While there is room for debate on the manageable level of public debt, it is unlikely that the government can maintain this level of state support indefinitely.
For these known unknowns, the jury is out.
The second group of changes are trends that have simply been accelerated by COVID-19. In this group we have, for instance, remote working, a shift to digitalised services, and rethinking supply chains and ‘on-shoring’.
These trends pre-existed COVID-19 but many had been put off until there was no alternative. A clear example is the introduction of remote GP consultations. Resisted for a decade, in the space of a few weeks official DHSC/BMA guidance has now moved to a principle of “digital first” in primary care. For many this is better, cheaper and faster.
Some of these changes appear to have positive effects, for example, increased diversity in the workplace. Carers, disabled people, part-time workers and geographically remote workers might now be able to take on work from home. People are commuting less and air quality has improved as a result.
With more work being done remotely, there is an opportunity for the nations of the UK and English regions to level-up in terms of economic activity as some choose to move away from the expensive offices and often awkward commutes in London. The strengthening case for onshoring more of the public sector supply chain will also play a role. The current, and very welcome, increased readiness to test things out should help implement innovation in this area.
There are, though, challenges. Remote working has highlighted the ‘digital divide’ for workers, consumers and citizens. Life under lockdown has exposed inequalities. There are personal challenges too. Managers and supervisors need to learn new skills to manage remotely and most of us have had to develop our resilience to cope with so much change.
Overall, these changes are the ‘safe bets’ and look as if they’re here to stay as part of the new normal.
The next facet comprises the mega trends that may have fallen from the headlines but are still rolling ahead. These are familiar – climate change; the shift in demography – with an older population and more diversity; technology – most of which we can see is already here, but just that it is not evenly distributed; and the changing nature of work – with some jobs being automated, others working on new models, brokered like Uber and almost all jobs experiencing some forms of digitalisation.
This corresponds to the new normal that we were already expecting in the old normal. However, we have the chance to respond differently now, learning from how we responded to Covid-19.
Finally, it is worth looking again at the big risks. A pandemic influenza was the highest impact and most likely risk in the Hazards, Diseases, Accidents and Societal Risks in the National Risk Register, but we seem to have been less well prepared than this status might have suggested. Had the National Risk Register led to enough risk management, with real preparation and practice?
The fourth group, then, is the major risks. These have not gone away.
We can see that in the UK we are now transitioning from Phase 1 – the immediate reaction – to the recovery in Phase 2. We now need also to think ahead to the new normal, in Phase 3, if we are to be ready to respond to the challenges and seize the opportunities. We think that public sector leaders and managers may want to work through four steps.
Looking at these steps in turn, this is what they involve:
If we follow these steps we will be in a stronger position to navigate a successful path through the uncertainties and make the most of ‘the New Normal’, whatever this turns out to be.