Sunderland City Council: Taking positives out of the pandemic

Leaders at Local Authorities. Leadership through the coronavirus crisis. 

In this edition of our Councils Futr Spotlight Series, we caught up with Sarah Reed, strategic director for Sunderland City Council, to share her thoughts on the crisis, their response, and the implications for the future. 

Please could you give a brief intro to yourself and Sunderland Council?

Sure no problem, my name is Sarah Reed and I am the strategic director for Sunderland City Council, leading on all things transformation and change. As for Sunderland, it is a large metropolitan city in the North East of England, situated by the sea and serving a population of roughly 380,000.  

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced since the beginning of the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit there were two key challenges that we needed to overcome, the first challenge was in terms of understanding the vulnerability across the city, and reacting accordingly to provide support and guidance where possible.

This involved a lot of collaborative work with other key providers – care homes, hospitals, fire services and so on – that went on to identify and collate a list of vulnerabilities to tackle. 

The second challenge was in supporting our own staff and their welfare. A lot of effort went into really working on our data so we could effectively oversee and effectively manage (on an hourly basis) which staff were in and which staff had vulnerabilities. We also took measures to understand which services needed further resources to support citizens where staff absence was expected.

How did the council manage to adapt to the changing guidelines? 

We swifty went into emergency mode…Lots of communication went out to residents and staff, highlighting that this is a marathon not a sprint. And then it was about really working with people to make sure they were further supported going forward, both from a staff perspective and citizen perspective.

How has technology helped during this time? 

Over the last year we’ve been transitioning to Office 365 and rolling out the likes of Microsoft Teams. As such, by the time the pandemic hit the foundations were already in place for agile working. 

When COVID hit, we quickly achieved what would have taken three years of culture change in normal times. By this I’m referring to the embracement of remote working – using tools like Teams, issuing laptops and whatnot. We transformed overnight.

Looking to the future, how do you expect the pandemic will change working patterns and people leadership?

We have used a lot of what we’ve learned over the past several months and this has shaped how we’ll come back to work in the future.

Next autumn, we are planning on moving to the city centre in city hall, where we’re already looking to be able to reduce how much time people spend in the office. Rather than seven desks for every ten people, we’re probably looking at five to ten now.

That being said, within local government there is a love of meetings and so face to face is still important to us. As such, we’re also looking at having innovative ways to have more collaboration areas within the new office space. 

Final thoughts? 

There is no denying that the past seven months have been challenging. Yet a number of positives will remain with us into the future – both in terms of cultural change, a reduction in carbon footprint and adopting a new agile way of working.

Follow the Spotlight Series of the Futr blog to discover our other conversations with local government leaders and get insights into the transformative power of technology. Contact the Futr team to see how we’re helping councils improve the accessibility of their services with live chat and chatbots for councils.

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