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What I learned from RBKC’s response to Covid

by | Apr 15, 2021 | Adult social care, Health and NHS improvements, Local government transformation, Place | 0 comments

Like in Apollo 13, we invented a way to fit a square peg into a round hole… rapidly

By Sophie Ellis, Director of Customer Delivery, Resources Department, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council

It’s just over a year since we set up our Covid Hub contact and support centre at RBKC.

This project was very much of its time. There was a huge sense of urgency that served to galvanise our thinking and energy, and a moral imperative to support the most vulnerable that we all found compelling. The circumstances provided clarity, focus and adrenalin. What we were doing felt important; it really mattered and had a real tangible outcome.

Whilst it’s unlikely that we’ll find ourselves working again in such conditions post-Covid, I’m convinced that the way we responded could, and should, be replicated.

With time not on our side we had to be pragmatic – identifying what we could build immediately and what would have to wait until later. But I would argue that if we had been given three months to build the service the result probably wouldn’t have been much different – the 80/20 rule really does have its advantages.

When summer arrived, we tried this ‘agile’ project management approach again. We had been working for over a year on a new adult social care pathway but had made few inroads; however, by prioritising our outputs to what could be done in six weeks we got it up and running before the second wave.   It’s a sharp contrast to other ‘waterfall’ projects I’ve been involved in that can seem to meander from meeting to meeting in an effort to get the perfect scope, plan and outcome, getting diverted by the complexity of the task along the way.

The objective of the Covid Hub contact and support centre was not overly complicated: to support vulnerable residents – a noble calling that resonated with and motivated staff and provided a clear focus when decisions were needed. So it’s hardly surprising that the staff who were redeployed to it brought such commitment and compassion. But, isn’t all the work of local authorities linked to this objective? So why don’t we always feel like that? Could it be that we are over-engineering our projects and interventions to the point where the people who work on them are disconnected from the end result? We talk about being resident-centric but sometimes I think we can slip into being profession-centric and forget that we and our teams need a worthwhile cause if we are to bring emotional labour and devotion to the task. My new resolve is to make sure that each initiative has a statement that links it definitively to tangible benefits for our residents. If I can’t make that connection, my team won’t either.

But I’ve come to think that the aspect of this project that had the greatest positive impact on the way we worked was that it was new, untested ground. There was no template or blueprint to follow. A recipe for chaos and disaster? Surprisingly not. I’m reminded of the scene in Apollo 13 where the fabulous Ed Harris tasks a team with “inventing a way to fit a square peg into a round hole… rapidly”. In a local government parallel, we pulled anyone who could bring any experience or knowledge to this problem into the team – people from across the council in different disciplines and roles, and partners in the public, voluntary and community sector all grappling with the same challenge. And this is the really interesting bit – we were monitored not on the process we followed but on the outcomes we delivered. That was really liberating. No highlight report or milestones, just deliverables. We had permission to work in the way that would get us where we needed to be most efficiently and so weren’t afraid to fail and learn – no idea was discounted until it was tested.

I’m not suggesting that we approach all of our work with a blank sheet of paper and adopt a ‘blue sky’ thinking ethos, continuously reinventing the wheel.  But I am suggesting that if we repeatedly approach similar problems in the same way we risk going into autopilot. Introducing a bit of adrenalin (by focusing on what we can achieve quickly) and drawing on the experience of others in a different field or indeed our own experience from a completely different context might sharpen our thinking, focus our minds on what we’re really trying to do, and prevent us from simply ‘going through the motions’ of work we’ve done before. This also allows progress to be measured more easily, preventing us from being lulled into a false sense of security by achieving milestones that are really an indication of how organised we are rather than what our output is.

I didn’t think I would ever look back fondly on that first week of working on the Covid Hub, yet strangely I do. We were all very much in the present, with keen minds seeking from ourselves and others practical and urgent solutions to a real problem. By focusing on what makes a real-world difference and can be delivered promptly, and by bringing others into the problem-solving space, I hope it’s a feeling I have again and again in the months and years to come as we continue to seek to make a positive difference to our residents’ lives.