The public sector isn’t known for its rapid delivery of, well, anything. This unfair perception was turned on its head during the pandemic when public services demonstrated what we can really do. We delivered financial support to businesses, food to residents, and we tested and traced millions of people. And we did all this pretty flipping quickly; we delivered to, frankly unreasonable, but essential timescales, and we did it well. As we emerge from the blur of the last couple of years, a new type of delivery pace has been set and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Depending on your area of our public sector, you’re facing any combination of delivery challenges at the moment. For local government, it’s funding. More specifically it’s funding applications, funding agreements, funding delivery, funding reporting, and funding evaluations. And it isn’t just one fund. Or one cycle. Or one central government department. Or one policy agenda. You get the picture. Whether it’s Levelling Up, UKSPF, the remainder of COM-F or any of the other multi-million-pound funds in between, we’re dancing to the beat of several drummers right now and it can feel overwhelming.
This funding system doesn’t appear to be going away. Colleagues I talk to aren’t even surprised anymore when a new, MASSIVE, fund is announced with very little warning and a due date of a week on Tuesday. So, what are the main challenges and what are we doing to adapt to delivering at pace?
(Disclaimer: I’m not saying I forced the alphabet into this, but I’m also not not saying that.)
A is for Anticipation
At this point we shouldn’t be surprised by the short-term turnarounds on major funding delivery. The Levelling Up Fund is a great example – successful recipients will need to demonstrate capital spending in the first financial year and will need to spend up in most cases by 2025. For large infrastructure projects this is minutes. Are you thinking ahead at the broader funding landscape – are you anticipating new grant applications, bid models, short term settlements, short turnarounds, are you ready for the next one or are we still firefighting the ones that come in? Anticipating our own needs means having project management infrastructure in place, workable governance, and staff trained to deliver projects, and change. If you haven’t got these tools in place in anticipation of the next fast-paced delivery demand, you might struggle.
B is for Bums on Seats. (See, I said this wasn't forced)
B is also for how bloody frustrating recruitment is right now. The great resignation of 2020/21 has turned into the great recruitment race of 2022. Keeping hold of good staff is tough, finding new ones is even tougher. In an applicants’ market, we need to think differently. Recruitment in local government has been, shall we say, “traditional” for a long time. We recruit for experience and we promote from within. Getting a foot in the door for local government is relatively easy at entry level positions, but the higher up you get, the harder it is to compete with local government lifers moulded into shape and brought up through the ranks. That’s not to say those people aren’t amazing, but they already have demanding roles, areas of expertise and are pretty much at capacity. What we need at the moment is project and programme discipline, flexible capacity and people we can trust to make decisions and deliver on time.
Overhauling our whole recruitment process isn’t a sensible option in the short term. But for crucial roles needed to deliver quickly, going back to the drawing board and laying out what skills we actually need might be. What other sectors’ skills can we draw of for project management? Where can we look for people with hard deadline experience? How do we find leaders who can organise and mobilise people to get results? And how can we attract them? Are you thinking differently to get the right bums on the right seats at the right time?
C is for Communication
By now we’ve anticipated our delivery demands and we have our infrastructure in place. We’ve also recruited a small team of flexible project managers who can turn their hands to absolutely anything. Now all we need to do is make sure we’re all on the same page. Communicating a vision to enthusiastic people tasked with delivery and raring to go is every leader’s dream; a rousing speech, punctuated with all the good we’re going to do feels great to hear and even better to deliver. When we treat communications as an integral part of our delivery, we increase our chances of success.
A great change comms strategy will include repeated messages in multiple formats – if you’re recording videos for your team, back them up with updates on your intranet. Post minutes of meetings in a shared project folder, or host FAQs online, and whenever anyone asks a good question, send the question, and the answer, to everyone. Think about the timing of your communications – if you’ve delivered verbal instructions, have written instructions ready to go as soon as you finish. Eliminate the spaces where misunderstandings build and your project will stay on track, and might even look like your original intentions at the end!
D is for Decision Making. And Delegation. And Delegated Decision Making.
From strategic decisions to flexibility on the frontline, decision making makes or breaks rapid delivery. Centralised decision making takes time and gives only the illusion of control. If every decision needs to be fed back up the ladder, we create bottlenecks, our decision makers become overwhelmed and everything slows down. And I know we’re on D right now, but this type of centralised decision making takes us back to B – for Bureaucracy.
Delegating decision-making involves trust, empowerment, and leadership. And it can feel counter-intuitive. And scary. What if someone makes the wrong decision? I’m accountable, not them! By leading and teaching your teams to make decisions within workable parameters, teaching them how to make decisions, and empowering them, they will be more committed to the project, more willing to work towards shared goals, and ultimately better at their jobs. The result isn’t just rapid delivery through deliberately faster decision-making processes, it’s more confident, empowered staff who will improve with every project they deliver.
E is for External Support
External support isn’t a sign of weakness, or that you haven’t got the skills to deliver. External support is a flexible, experienced, bespoke resource to be used to support specific projects so your teams can learn, develop, and have room for their day jobs. External support is the sensible option when delivery at pace is needed. Good external support will bring bums on seats, communications support, decision-making infrastructure and project discipline. Great external support will also bring varied perspectives from work with multiple clients going through the same processes. We know, because this is what we do.
Procurement can be challenging, but there are frameworks – and right now, when looking at recruitment, procurement could well be the lesser of two evils.
We love to talk about all things local government, so get in touch. If you want to talk about our services, that’s great. And if you don’t, that’s also great. We’re keen to hear from anyone working in our exceptional sector right now, and if you can think of the F, G and H of funding delivery, perhaps we could build it together.