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:

  • Lockdown – Public sector leaders and managers have been forced to react to the crisis, cope with the pressure of ensuring that essential services are delivered whilst managing (often remotely) a reduced workforce and closing some services which could not be operated safely.
  • Recovery - we’re starting this now. This is the transition back to business as usual – as far as possible. It involves unlocking and resuming services safely whilst reducing risks of a second wave of the pandemic. Much of this can be based on what yesterday (the pre-COVID world) looked like, taking account of lessons learnt from Lockdown. Phase 2 may take up to 18 months, perhaps longer.
  • ‘The New Normal’ - we could be here in 18 months.  If we agree that the crisis will have lasting impacts on the way we work and live, there remains uncertainty. When will it start? What does it mean? What resources will be required?  Scenario planning, design and testing new ways of delivering public services needs to start now if leaders and managers are to avoid simply reacting to events.

Setting the scene

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’.

New normal – paradigm shift or facile cliché?

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.

Known unknowns

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?

  • An increased appreciation of community and the value of strong families, friends and neighbours
  • A greater value placed on the environment and access to nature
  • A dramatic shift from austerity and limiting the scope of the public sector, towards a new-Keynesian policy and possibly an entrepreneurial state
  • Rethinking the value of globalisation, with concerns about the changing balance of power and the need to retain our sovereign capability in key areas of the economy. 

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.

Safe bets

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 new normal, a bit like the old 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.

Risks – not gone away yet

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.

So what?

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:

  1. Review the lessons learnt from Phase 1 and consider the emerging findings from Phase 2. This could include adopting and refining the reactive measures that have proven to work better than the old ways of working and mitigating against their inherent risks (e.g. making sure that citizens on the wrong side of the digital divide are not left behind)
  2. Based on the four basic scenarios (the Covid-19 and Brexit matrix), identify the common threads and specific challenges and opportunities. Review the “known unknowns”, “safe bets”, “old normal” and the risks.
  3. Analyse the most significant challenges and opportunities, looking at the options for service design and simulating new operations.
  4. Having defined the priorities, develop and refine the plan for new operations in the context of the controllable challenges; and refresh the business continuity and disaster recovery plan for the less controllable challenges

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.

Would you like more information?

If you want to get more information about this insight please get in touch with our experts who would be pleased to hear from you.

Next Generation Public Services for the post-pandemic society and economy
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