Bad habits and old ways of working are making a comeback with COVID-19

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Working at the coalface of the COVID-19 response I am concerned that we, as public servants, are getting complacent.

If we don’t show that there’s a better way of doing things in the public sector, and demonstrate that it’s not only good for our wellbeing but also the public at large, we run the risk of allowing bad habits to creep back in. 

The ongoing pandemic is both forcing some of us to cling or return to old, bad habits but at the same time showing us new, better public sector possibilities. Teams all over the country are successfully pulling together things at pace which 4 weeks ago they would have never anticipated. This is what the Public Service is capable of and more importantly, this is what people within those services are capable of when unshackled from outdated processes and poor organisational cultures.  

The last weeks of my almost decade long public sector career have been both amazing and awful in equal measure. I am beginning to see some entrenched, poor habits of the old way fighting back when they should no longer have a place during and after this pandemic. My hunch is that I am not alone in feeling this way.

Epic, transformative change

I am a committed change professional having spent my entire career in a project-based environment focused on delivery in Wales and in England. As a change agent I want to get something “out there” for others to read to inspire people to take this experience for what it is — an amazing opportunity for change during really unfortunate circumstances. Yes, there are negative, dire consequences far beyond our control, but what we do have control over are positive changes that we can begin to make today and into the future to make us more resilient and responsive in future crises which are inevitable.  

We are living through change of epic and transformative scale. Some organisations are managing. Some are not. And now, more than ever before, I believe the difference is one single factor — culture. 

As the flames of the sudden crisis die down — productivity decreases, personality, and Teflon desking practices begin to creep back in, and the endless CC’ing is slowly starting again. A few weeks ago I was trusted and empowered to design and roll out a process affecting huge numbers of customers and staff mid-crisis with little approvals required. In contrast, just a few days ago I had to include 4 levels of management in a decision making process which had already been reviewed by every senior officer in the organisation. There comes a point where the value each layer of approval adds and the delays that result become muddled, questionable, and potentially destructive. Some of this creep needs to stop. We need to critically interrogate to understand and compare the value added and underlying “risks” of the examples above (quick and the beginning to slow down) so we don’t unnecessarily fall-back to the status quo of 4+ month delays for approvals. 

As public servants, this is our opportunity — we need to be critical of what “old” we resort back to doing and remain open to new, better, and more impactful ways of delivering public value and build the scaffolding necessary to carry them forward. We need to have a reckoning — is the difference now a burning platform or trust or both?

Cultivating a culture of preparedness for the next inevitable crisis

Organisations that have fostered a culture of agility and flexibility are thriving right now. Those that haven’t are scrabbling behind the scenes in a chaotic and awful way with disengaged and angry employees. 

To learn globally, adapt, and prepare for the next inevitable crisis (we have tangibly learnt that we are not immune), we need to be honest and transparent about what’s making the difference within those organisations.

There have been many positive changes that have occurred in the past week, but, to genuinely reflect to learn, we need to examine the good and the bad; we need to focus on transparent assessment and rooting out blame so people feel psychologically safe to evaluate and speak up.

And the sad truth is that there have also been things that were less than great that need to be debated and weeded out. Unfortunately, the culture within too many public sector organisations is one that has not allowed workers to transition to home working as smoothly as other organisations which invested both financially and culturally to enable real agile working in the last decade.  A lack of investment into basic IT infrastructure to support staff before COVID-19, as well as traditional ideas about needing to see “work” to believe it, left some workplaces crawling into remote working and still struggling to keep afloat.

COVID-19 is challenging the embedded practises of too many public bodies. For example, having a policy for agile working whilst requiring approval through business cases for low cost remote working equipment; now, the doors opened for people to purchase what was needed without having to make the case — is this burning platform or trust? And more critically, how do us as public servants now demonstrate to leaders, and the public, that the trust was not abused to fully transition away from unnecessary processes and procedures? 

There will also come a time when we need to challenge those public leaders that abolished their agile policies during COVID-19 and sought approval to keep work within their offices. Some were necessary and classified as “key work” but many public workers continue going into offices doing work that they are perfectly able to do at home.

Some organisations were not robust, prepared, or resilient, yet, they are or became essential services. Who will “pay” the consequences for this oversight/negligence, especially in cases where people are still forced into the office for jobs they could do at home? Public workers, their families, and the public who are staying at home to protect the NHS. These cases need to be recorded and surfaced not to blame, but so we can be more robust, resilient, and prepared in the future.

What can you do?

One thing you can do is to serve as a springboard for yourself and for others.

Sharing initiatives have sprung up across communities and the globe. A What’s the Pont post that has captivated many calls for us to deploy innovation and learning people as “observers” to capture learnings and novel practice. 

To make that call to action more tangible, I have broken my “observation” into the following five categories — change, understand, imagine, and sustain and created a learning loop to help myself and others to take action after finishing this article.

COVID-19 Continuous Learning Loop

To make the following learning points stick and collectively act on them, I thought a framework might be more visual and useful. 

We have all been thrust personally and professionally into complex, uncertain and emergent situations. A learning loop encourages people to reflect, iterate, and ask why. Loops focus on capturing what you know now to inform what you do in the future. Imagine what we could capture, achieve and springboard into if even just one worker from across the UK (and even your international context) committed to doing a leaning loop every week or two weeks?

Here is a template  and here’s an example of a learning loop.

1. CHANGE

Have you made changes to your role recently? Have you improved your process in any way as a result of COVID 19? Ask yourself what has really been different in the last two weeks – did a manager give you permission? If so, why? Did you make more decisions? Did you have less time to consult, engage, inform because delivery was the priority?

2. UNDERSTAND

Why have you been able to do it? 

Why is a three-letter word, with profound implications that should be asked repeatedly. Perhaps try doing the famous 5 or 9 why’s exercise to work through this or something like What, So What, Now What to reflect, understand and act.

We need to empower ourselves and those around us. We need to build systems of trust now and into the future; cultures where we confidently say that those around us have acted within the best interests of their organisation and are trusted to do so each day they wake up to work. To build a strong case, we need to capture where people have been trusted and prevailed, why they were trusted, and why trust made the difference. Trust in people’s best intentions, everyone, every day is bringing their best self. 

Never allow yourself to be subsumed by the organisational noise which usually prohibits transformation and change.

The moment is now, if you believe things can be better, now is the time to speak out. Remember, if your voice is heard and respected — you are in the right place; if not, some deeper questions need to be asked. If your organisation values hierarchy and “glory grabbing heroic” management styles, is this the right fertile earth upon which you can build long lasting change? If your answer is no, record why not and look for support externally.

3. IMAGINE

Can you imagine a UK public sector where change, agility and trust is the norm? This practice already exists in pockets, and I have been a part of it. I have felt the difference of delivery-focused organisations where genuine agility is embraced, and customers are the focus. 

Look at the Essex City Council response to COVID 19 — while many organisations cobbled together half processes in disjointed fashions, either to be the first (or because strategic response is not as commonplace as the shoot now ask later approach) they took their time, delivered a website with all the relevant information, data capture, and provided a collaborative, digital and strategic response. 

Bristol Energy is a company set up to tackle climate emergency issues and to create local energy production and supply. They are now moving this to the next level with the City Leap – partnering with the private sector to provide long lasting meaningful change with actual real chances of achieving carbon commitments. It’s inspiring. 

These organisational cultures enable their workers; they are not riskier or unsafe. Rather — they have robust governance structures in place, have mastered how to enable and trust staff to make fast, sensible decisions, and give them the space, systems, and resources for staff to do this.

In these organisations the culture enables error, in fact it encourages it because it’s a learning growing organisation. When you approach your manager with a “failure”, you sit and learn together and try again. 

In the past few weeks, if your organisation has responded well to the crisis, how has your work time been spent? Have you made more decisions, have you felt, despite the overlaying fear and panic, ever so slightly more engaged. Why do you think that might have been? If, like me, you invite challenge, change, pace and growth the last few weeks have been exhilarating, but, unlike your day job. How can you translate what you’ve done recently into long lasting policy changes or communication changes?

4. FAILURE

What the public sector would traditionally define as failure has been rife in the last few weeks. Look at the number of public announcements and protocols that have been reversed in the span of days.  But at the same time previously “risky” behaviour is being allowed. Suppliers are being paid daily, staff are buying agile equipment they have been requesting for months, decisions have been made at pace and at the right level in the organisation, waste services are being redesigned in weeks, not months, and trialled as prototype services, asking for understanding from the public. 

The public and the public sector have embraced shortcomings because they can finally tangibly comprehend the uncertainty and complexity that the public sector always faces (although COVID-19 makes things more complex and chaotic). Trust has increased during unprecedented times and we need to keep it. Currently there is an empathetic understanding that what has gone wrong has not been failure, it’s been iterative and adaptive — learn, improve and enhance with new information. This needs to become the status quo, our new Social Contract with the public, during and after the crisis. 

Communication, transparency and humility are key. Projects and systems haven’t failed – they’ve just been rolled out in an alpha phase and designed by the user. The end result? TOTAL engagement from teams with process, output and project along with accountability and robust systems. We previously functioned in cultures that perpetuated the notion that this was unimaginable. We were holding ourselves back and blaming fear of failure because we were comfortable. 

My organisation designed a community response process. Our offering changed every day for the first 10 days until we got the process right.

It wasn’t wrong, it didn’t fail, we just captured more data and knowledge and were able to quickly update and change the process.

I have been amazed and inspired by colleagues across my whole organisation demonstrating a can-do attitude and being supported by good management and leadership, even if original ideas needed refinement. 

This is what the private sector already does and we finally had the opportunity to demonstrate that this kind of testing can and does work in the public sector. We showed that “failure” was really learning; that process/policy roll out doesn’t need months of consultation, “engagement”, and polishing (the old way). Instead, we just need trust and humility about what we know, and the recognition that via honest communication with the public they will accept that things don’t always go to plan. 

5. SUSTAIN THE NEW

With trust, a common purpose, and an acute sense of urgency we have seen that it’s possible to create and enact processes, systems, and policies that are legal, compliant, and meet all the regulatory guidelines at speed. Please join me and other movements by recording these new policy responses and innovations either in the Call for Innovative COVID-19 Responses or the Government Response Tracker

Things have been done fast, because there has been no other choice, personality and polarising politics have been irrelevant, and should continue to be when making public-outcomes focused decisions. In the private sector the shareholders decide the direction of travel, but implementation is on the management and executive team – they make the day to day decisions with the knowledge that they are doing so with the backing and trust of the shareholders. 

It is a two-way street. Shareholders know the directors and management are acting in the best interests of the shareholders, and the company.

Our public needs to gain and maintain the levels of trust we currently have placed in public servants and elected officials, so we can continue to make fast informed decisions at the right levels within the organisation.

Trust enables us and it empowers us. Public accountability isn’t created by having every decision aired in public. Rather, it’s about having a transparent decision-making process with accountability and responsibility at every level, created by all working towards a common goal. 

With decision-making, we finally felt emboldened to abandon the traditional way of decision-making-by-committee that delays an outcome for smaller, more agile teams that deliver with quality at pace and move on to the next issue. It’s working. Corporate Rebels, Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree are huge advocates of this way of working. In our team, within the space of 48 hours we had dedicated a process owner, a data champion, comms lead, volunteer support liaison and designed processes and ways of working for each of those roles. Each role was supported by a team of staff who were engaged and communicated with on what was important to their role, but also kept up to date on strategic changes. 

But the reality is that until leadership is on board sustainable change is compromised. To get their fundamental commitment, we need to build evidence, momentum and critical masses of people dedicated to protecting and cultivating new ways of working that are better than the old. We also need to capture the positive steps leaders are doing that are enabling their teams documenting how they supported change, acts that demonstrated trust and the effects of that trust, and if/how cover was provided. That’s where learning loops, partners and recording continuously come in.

Now what? Join me, be a springboard

‘Muelle de las Almas’ (the Dock of Souls) in Chile

Soon we will see which organisational cultures in times of crises were springboard organisations and which were just getting by.

When the summer comes these organisations will see the last few months as something they had to “deal with”, “get through”, like a heavy snow, flood or the Olympics on your doorstep. Their workers are likely overworked, stressed, anxious, suffering in isolation, and may quit their jobs as soon as they can. These are likely the kinds of public sector organisations that haven’t invested in their staff for countless years — no training, no bonus payments, no proper performance management — not just the stick, the carrot too. This has to end.

Springboard organisations will view these unanticipated changes as an exceptional, once in a lifetime opportunity to create widespread change in a short space of time. Change that can improve the lives of the millions of people that interact with the public sector on a daily basis. If you can pay suppliers daily now, do it all the time. If you can run a leaner more efficient service, do it all the time. If your practice wasn’t there before, but has now gotten there, keep it. Don’t let the past logic return.

You can play a part in this — reflect, record and share.

Imagine what we could capture and achieve if even just one worker from across the UK (and even your international context) committed to doing this leaning loop every week or two weeks. Find a learning partner, someone who wants to support you to make sense of the chaos around you and hold you to account.  

If you’d like a template, check this out (filled-in example), and feel free to send it back to Alexis Pala, a researcher at Y Lab who has helped me crystalise my thinking around this topic, or find another learning/reflecting partner. Collaborate CIC has a Learning Framework and support as well.

Renew your flames, things can be much better. Use new opportunities as a springboard and begin to reflect, recover and build. Innovation and transformation are everyone’s job. And to those of us (like myself) who are employed to create change —encourage team leaders, managers, and those around you to champion the brave new world into which they can embark.

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