Opportunities for the Civil Service to learn from lockdown

Reflections from a Senior DFE Civil Servant now working in Spain

Director, Delivery Associates

A postcard from Madrid

The civil service and I are ‘on a break’. My husband’s posting in Madrid gave us an opportunity too good to miss, not least the chance of fluent Spanish for our boys. It was strange to leave a job, a home, family and friends I love – no push, only pull. As I sit here four years on in one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, I wonder what I might have been doing now if we’d never left. I imagine the demands for data and information, the hunt for what works, the next-steps planning, the impossible decisions with no clear answers, and above all, the deep commitment and tireless work of my colleagues. So, I’m sending this postcard from Madrid, not to wish you were here, but to wish I was there, and since I can’t be, to offer some words of encouragement, support and reflection. Because we’re only on a break, after all.

Learning from the rest of the world

A chance for genuinely global learning: a lot has been written about how lockdown and home working is an opportunity to make new connections. Distance doesn’t matter anymore because everyone is equally remote. As we face a set of uniquely-shared challenges across the world – re-opening schools, services and transport systems, phasing the physical return to work – the civil service will be striving to understand what others are doing, what’s working and what isn’t, what lessons are being learned, and what innovations are emerging. The question is not just when will we re-open, but how? It’s all too easy at these times of crisis to focus inwards, to think we don’t have time to survey the scene or start building new relationships. But it’s more important now than ever before. I’m sure that many of my former colleagues are already taking advantage of this new environment to facilitate leaning and collaboration within their systems – between MATs, Local Authorities and partners – but I wonder about the extent of global learning.  Are we setting up practice-sharing calls with Departmental counterparts across the world? Are we trying to overcome the ‘our-context-is-different’ refrain that so often prevents us from learning from and adapting approaches taken elsewhere? If we go in with a simple set of questions, if we’re persistent in getting to the root of why ‘what worked’ actually worked, we have the chance to bring about the much-lauded but rarely achieved goal of “sharing best practice” across the world.

Pulling together

We all fear for the cumulative impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable in our society. Women locked-in with domestic violence. Young people locked-out of education, employment and training. Children with special needs set back in their progress. News of schools like Surrey Square finding new ways to play their central and essential role in the community, far beyond teaching and learning, is no surprise. The reality of our best ‘frontline’ has long been a story of integration, of teams pulling together around the need, not the name of the service on the door. We need more of this and we need it across the system. The crisis management mindset (and machinery) helps here; I never saw better joint-working than around the COBR table. The level of collaboration, information-sharing and interaction between Departments may well be at its height now – it’s an operational necessity. My hope is that we don’t retreat to our respective corners when the immediate threat is gone. Children, families and communities hit hard from all angles by this virus will need the civil service to keep working together to help re-build better. Can we sustain and even institutionalise our ability to unite in a crisis? Can we agree to work together towards goals shared across Departmental boundaries? If the civil service can identify and celebrate what joint-working achieves now, if we can debate and understand what drives that success and if we can keep those incentives alive in the future, we might be able to take another step towards our second holy grail of the joined-up, responsive services that people need and deserve.

Force of Habit

The world has, for better or worse, been changed as never before – or so much of the commentary would lead us to believe. Blogs abound on how we will ‘never go back’ – whether to our now archaic practices of actually needing to be together in a room to get our jobs done, or to our isolationist / polluting / capitalist / other (delete as appropriate) practices that led us to this place. The civil service will be grappling with modelling, planning and risk-management in the midst of these competing visions of the future. Scenario planning is important, and I expect many of my colleagues are taking sensible steps to stress-test policy choices against different assumptions about what is to come. How willing will teachers be to return to the classroom? How might the value of education change now that we’ve all had a taste of home-schooling? My only reflection here is not to underestimate the force of habit; the ability we all have to revert to earlier behaviours and choices, because they’re comfortable, because they work, because it’s what we’ve always done. New Years’ Resolutions are a minor example – that hangover, that ‘never again’ feeling, lost within a few days or weeks. I’m no behavioural science expert, but I know from personal experience that even a pretty major health scare, one that makes you promise to completely change your routine if only you get the all-clear, can quickly fade from memory. The effort to change your ways, is just that: an effort. I hope that the optimistic and opportunity-driven predictions come true – that we can and do re-build better – and that the doomsday scenarios prove unfounded. But both outcomes will take concerted and consistent effort. The civil service, like all of us, will need to be active in learning the lessons of lockdown, to set conscious goals to ensure we act on that learning and don’t just fall back into old habits. Unless of course, those habits, like hugging each other when we meet, were good.

Every evening at 8pm I join my neighbours on balconies and in gardens to clap, usually for the health service but sometimes for children, sometimes for supermarket staff. It’s an uplifting moment, with ‘Resistiré’ (I will survive) always blasting from speakers somewhere. An hour later I don’t go outside as some of the same neighbours perform their pot and pan protest against the government’s handling of the crisis. I wonder what they expect, what else could be done, whether they really believe that the ‘other lot’ of whatever stripe, would have done it better?  I know there won’t ever be a Banksy portrait of a civil service hero, so tonight I clap for you.

Wish I was there,


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