First published on the 24th of February in The MJ. By Rachael.
Purpose and humanity - the meaning of life? The reason you get out of bed in the morning? Or don’t? Local authorities can’t (and often don’t) resist the urge to put people at the heart of their strap lines – but are they really at the heart of our post-pandemic plans? We’ve researched local government change over the last 18-months and we’ve found six key ingredients needed to drive successful transformation.
Coming in at numbers one and two are purpose and humanity.
Is your purpose on purpose?
It’s a big one, purpose. Purpose is passion, meaning and ambition. Purpose drives change and defining it is the first step to building sustainable change. Purpose communicates your change, it motivates us and keeps us on track. We know our purpose, right?
Pooling our resources and providing services for the good of the group has never been particularly profitable. But that’s not the point. Local Government serves local communities, it’s what we do best. Pre-pandemic (this is how we measure time now), after a decade of falling resources and increasing demand many local authorities went into the ring as the under-funded underdog, finding themselves providing more resident-focused services than their marketing lines would have you believe.
Overnight, local government was providing food, shelter and heating vouchers. Nice-to-have notions of agile workforces were suddenly, actually, agile within days. We didn’t mess about, our purpose was clear and people were our focus.
Not renown for our pace of change, local government performance during the pandemic provided an opportunity to compare change methodologies between ‘business as usual’ and reactive, dynamic change. The aim of our research was to find out how local government managed to pivot from slower, bureaucratic change to overnight pop-up community hubs, food distribution and flexible working practices.
So, what changed?
We had a purpose. And that purpose was human. It might sound glib, but it is what it is: people are motivated by a. having a clear purpose and b. that purpose being other people. This is doubly true for the public sector.
Our early-pandemic research looked at emerging change methodologies. We examined how staff were motivated to take on new roles, what controls and governance were maintained and which processes were abandoned. We looked at how the pace of change impacted the success of project delivery.
We spoke to over 160 people from 44 different organisations including local government, higher education, NHS and charities. We hosted online panel discussions with chief executives, directors, HR specialists and political leaders and our research have moved from reactive fast-paced project successes to reflective learning and analysis of how to bring structure and governance back to local government projects without losing the pace and success we’ve seen since the first lockdown.
In July 2020, we wrote a white paper - Lessons Learned: Managing Change During the COVID-19 Crisis. We found six recurring themes that contributed to successful change delivery: purpose, humanity, clarity, collaboration, action, and perseverance.
Beneath these headlines are case studies of local councils collaborating, meaningfully, with third sector partners – one local authority built a network of 40 organisations and got them working seamlessly in under a month. How? Their purpose was human, it was communicated clearly and they took action, quickly. They mobilised and persevered.
Putting people at the heart of everything - but really.
Being human is the least you can do. You can do nothing, at all, and still be human. Focusing on people for services is messy, they are unpredictable and chaotic. Yet we found that the most common theme in all our discussions was people.
Our collective crisis led to collective purpose and change leaders became aware of each other’s emotions. Sometimes for the first time. Our panels told us there was a sense that everyone was ‘being more human and less hierarchical’ in their approach. A greater level of emotional intelligence was used to enable the passion and purpose to drive change. Staff were motivated, thousands of residents volunteered. Partnerships and collaborative working increased, providing opportunities to foster creativity, which in turn inspired and empowered people.
Individuals and teams were given space and permission to fail and try again. Or put another way, to be human. Leaders checked in with their teams to ensure clarity of purpose was still driving change and people were able to progress forward, fuelling perseverance and motivating action. One big happy circle of human change? Yes, kind of.
Our research continues, as does our mission to do change better for local government. Our next Change Chat panel discussion on Taking Action is on Friday April 29th at 10am. Join us – it’s free! Register to join us.