Continuing our Spotlight Series on Leaders at Local Authorities, we spoke with Laura Taylor, Chief Executive Winchester City Council on how adopting a more agile way of working has helped them face the challenges of the pandemic.
Please could you give a brief intro to yourself and Winchester City Council?
“My name is Laura Taylor, and I work at Winchester City Council as the Chief Executive, a role which I’ve had for just over 4 years now.
The City of Winchester itself will be very well known for its cathedral, Christmas Market and Jane Austen but our district covers 250 square miles with 5 market towns, numerous villages and is home to around 115,000 residents.
We have a 450 strong team at the council delivering services everyone needs every day. We also have 5,000 council houses, including a brand new extra care setting enabling step up support for our most vulnerable residents.
As Chief Executive, a crucial part of my job is to work with other leaders to join up what we do, to listen to our businesses and communities and ensure precious resources are deployed in the best way possible.
But, since March, like all CXs, I have been leading the response to the pandemic.”
What have been the main challenges you have faced since the beginning of the pandemic?
“My first priority was to establish the response to the outbreak, so working with the County Council, we rapidly stood up our Local Response Centre to support our most vulnerable residents and delivered over 200 prescriptions, 500 food parcels and make essential welfare calls to over 1600 elderly tenants
A challenge here was to harness the upswelling of community and support our community team coordinated support efforts with over 40 community groups and nearly 50 parish councils. It is this heartfelt neighbourhood support and trusted voices that made all the difference to local people who may have been isolated and alone.
At the same time, we were responsible for the distribution of business support grants and issued nearly £29 million in business grants to over 2,300 businesses. We also issued regular briefings to our businesses, working with the LEP, Winchester BID and Hampshire Chamber of Commerce.
Our open spaces were kept clean and safe, we supported our taxi drivers with advice and a key challenge was to keep our core services running as usual. I was very clear that we needed to retain BAU as far as possible across all services – respecting restrictions, of course. Because of the commitment of staff and their willingness to harness the power of technology, we were able to offer the vast majority of our services at usual levels and, for instance, immediately offered video calls instead of face to face meetings for our residents.
All of our waste collection services continued, our Park and Ride ran, our Planning team, Building Control team and Environmental Health team were all available. Service might have been a bit slower than usual, but it was important that we were here for the community – whatever they needed.”
What learnings and takeaways do you have from those trying months earlier this year?
“We have to adapt, we have to communicate, we have to be able to work through ambiguity and complexity and as leaders we have to help people understand their part in achieving the common goal.
As the weeks moved on, teams were working on response, but others were focussing more on BAU. It was really important as a leader to recognise everyone’s efforts as equally important, and also to set the right expectations around what was a reasonable pace of work as we were clearly in this for the long haul.
Most importantly, to help people understand that they were working in the unknown. That is was okay to not fully understand and have to recalibrate our usual ways of doing things”
How have you had to adapt your leadership style to this new way of thinking?
“Crisis management is complex, but the most important thing we did was to try to anticipate what was coming. As we could see the infection increasing, we set up our internal emergency planning structures in early March, set up ghost webpages, checked that the IT infrastructure was going to cope with the switch to home working for so many teams, and started to brief staff. When national restrictions were put in place, we were therefore ready to shift to remote working seamlessly.
In that response phase, decisions have to be made and executed rapidly, sometimes with incomplete information. Situations change so information flows up and down the organisation were critical and everyone had a vital role to play – be that putting up signs in play parks, ensuring our park and ride kept to timetable to enable key workers to get to the hospital,sorting out the parking for NHS staff, supporting business, setting up virtual decision making – the list goes on.”
On top of continuing delivering vital services to the public, you have also had to adapt, like everybody else, to a more agile way of working. How has this been on your staff?
“Our staff have been phenomenal. A core team remained in the office throughout the first wave and everyone else started to work at home. Another key element of crisis management is recognising things are different – keeping the team motivated is critical.
We encouraged our people to meet informally every week on teams, in some way trying to replicate those casual team meetings that happen in every workplace. This ensured everyone had some contact. We don’t know about everyone’s home situation so wanted to be sure that everyone was able to at least speak to a colleague during the week. Our Mental Health First Aiders were – and still are – available to support anyone who wanted a personal chat, and information sessions for managers and their teams around mental health are still being rolled out as they went down so well during the lockdown.
We did weekly updates – formal and humorous! – held virtual All Staff meetings and, along with the Mayor and Leader, we have recognised the efforts of each member of staff individually.
We had started to bring more colleagues back to the office on a rota basis – but then national restrictions meant that we had to pause but we have a COVID-19 Secure office for colleagues to use when needed.”
How has technology helped shape your role?
“The demand for 24/7 access to services has fundamentally changed the way councils operate. The complexity is that we are not a fulfilment company – public services are delivered by people. So, a resident may contact us at 10pm and unless it is a completely transactional request – the response can’t be immediate. But we have used tech to streamline our customer journey and have 100% of our services digital at the front end.
In the last 6 months, we rapidly deployed virtual meeting solutions. All our council meetings moved online, we held Mayor Making remotely and maintained the full committee calendar since March. Of course, we have held internal briefings, but have recently held a 2 day Sustainability Conference with over 200 people dialled in.”
Looking to the future, how do you expect the pandemic will change working patterns and people leadership?
“Despite technology that has let us see more of people’s home life than we ever thought possible, we have probably become more insular within organisations. At some point restrictions will ease and, although I think a hybrid of home and office working will be more usual, we must find ways to bring our people back together.
Virtual meetings are great, but they are inherently static and 2-dimensional – people talk in turns. We will need to find a way to build creativity into our virtual lives. This is not an untrodden path in the private sector, we will have to embrace a more flexible approach to work.
The same applies to working across organisations and most importantly with our communities. Strong working relationships are built on many different levels and in the public sector we deal with the most complex issues. Collaboration, integration and honesty are crucial to maintaining an authentic relationship with our communities, and when the system has fundamentally changed, as it has done with COVID, we need to find new ways to keep serving our communities to the best of our abilities.