Through 2021 the Collaborate team is exploring how learning from the response to the pandemic can move us closer to the vision of a Collaborative Society through the Hope Inquiry. Here we publish a piece written by Donna Nolan, Managing Director of Watford Borough Council, about the council’s response to the pandemic and what this means for the future of the organisation and the place. Donna touches on so many themes we also focus on in our work — collaboration, system leadership, trust in and empowerment of staff and residents, new forms of help and public service, new operating models in local government — and, above all, the importance of hope and renewal.

‘It’s now that we need to be more imaginative and be bold in our vision for the future. Our focus is not on recovery, which suggests a return to what was, but upon renewal.’

There are really two parts to this story — firstly about how we responded to the COVID-19 crisis, and secondly about how we now hold on to and take forward the many positive lessons that have come out of the pandemic and build on them for the future.

There is no doubt that the crisis has been — and will continue to be — the catalyst for transformation at a pace we could never have imagined. We want to ensure that we do not roll back, but build on the opportunities that have emerged over the last year.

Adapting in response to the pandemic

If the past year has taught us anything, it is the need to be adaptable and responsive to change. From a very early point in the pandemic, it was plain that how we responded would become the council’s legacy, laying the foundations to steer staff, members and the borough through the recovery journey.

So, working with my leadership team, our elected mayor and the Cabinet, we rapidly established 6 new operating principles. They helped us very quickly to engage with our communities and build a shared vision and purpose which would see us through the crisis. They also gave us speed, flexibility and agility, and guided our operations and behaviours throughout — and they continue to do the same as we reset, stabilise and recover.

Taken from Donna Nolan’s presentation, March 2021.

The third of these principles — a flexible operating model — saw the council reorganised into ‘cells’ early on in the pandemic, each with an appointed lead and team, which could focus on the areas of work critical to the council’s response. Leads were not based on hierarchy, but staff from all parts of the organisation who were given autonomy and control. Multi-disciplinary teams were created overnight, with a clear and common sense of purpose, and built on mutual compassion and support. Everything, beyond business as usual, was referred through these cells — essentially, we rewrote the council’s operating structure.

I also reflected on my own role as a leader in this context. When the crisis hit, I had been Watford Borough Council’s MD for exactly one month — it certainly wasn’t the start I’d imagined! But looking back, I think being new had its advantages, because I was able to build relationships from the ground up and really focus on the areas which would have the biggest impact.

Collaborating to support communities and community efforts

As the pandemic hit, there was a tremendous outpouring from people keen to volunteer and offer support. There was also significant activity amongst established agencies and grassroots groups. To mitigate the risks of overlap and overlooking people who wanted help, the council set up Watford Helps to coordinate new volunteers, triage those asking for support and bring together the charities and community groups leading the volunteer effort in the town. This includes the foodbank, Salvation Army, faith groups, charities and residents’ groups, and has resulted in all the community and voluntary sector agencies coming together to support our communities under one vision.

We have also worked more closely than ever with our local business community, our cultural and heritage partners, and the local hospital, finding ways to support them through adversity and also to ensure they are ready and able to play their crucial role in recovery too.

Looking after our staff

I was very conscious in all of this change that we had to prioritise our staff. In years to come, staff won’t remember exactly the detail of decisions that were made, but they will remember how they felt during the crisis. We knew if we cared for the team, they would care for us, our community and our businesses. In the last year, the staff have really gone the extra mile for our community and truly risen to the challenge of what it really means to be a public servant.

This required our leadership team to opt out of command and control and adopt a compassionate and collective approach. We put a myriad of systems in place to truly listen to staff and genuinely strive to understand the challenges they faced — to empathise with them, and to take responsibility for helping them deliver the response they wanted to deliver. COVID-19 has radically strengthened the psychological contract between leadership and staff, and this is one of the key foundations for Watford’s post-Covid renewal.

Re-setting our strategic direction through learning

For Watford, a borough with the motto ‘to be bold’, the pandemic has not been a time for the council to retrench or be less ambitious. In fact, the opposite.

But it is also really important to take the time to reflect and learn from the past months. So from the early days of the pandemic I have made time with my team, the staff and our councillors to do just that. We have considered what worked, for whom, how, and what we should do differently or the same in the future. At Watford, ensuring we learn from COVID 19 is not a “nice-to-have,” it is a “must-have”, the legacy we are using to write the next chapter in our journey.

Our learning and experience have made us rethink our purpose, our focus and how we support each other and our community. We have examined the very heart of our strategy and the role of our staff and community — the crisis has shown us just how powerful empowerment can be and we don’t want to lose it.

We have developed a new council plan, complete with a new set of values and behaviours which better resonate with the organisation we have become and the organisation we want to be in the future. It is focused on the matters most important to our community and embeds all the activity that marks our path to renewal. And, importantly, it reflects a new organisational development strategy to embed agility, resilience, new competencies and behaviours.

The road to renewal

Our focus is not on recovery, which suggests a return to what was, but upon renewal. We have purposely chosen this word because we know that although recovery is an important part of our journey post-Covid, it’s not where things stop. Recovery hints at getting back to where we were before or as close to it as possible. But to renew — to start again, to do things differently and to try to do things better — is something worth striving for.

Our Road to Renewal Plan, in short, is about a holistic renewal of the town and council, from the economy and business right through to community. We are investing in projects with very clear renewal objectives.

Our largest project is a scheme to create a thriving new Town Hall quarter, with new homes, employment and public space, which will be underpinned by a revitalised creative, cultural and heritage offer. It’s a great example of where culture can play a vital part in stimulating the local economy, providing employment, and bringing life and vitality to the town; and a great example of how district councils can use their assets to demonstrate their confidence in their patch. It will achieve a multitude of social and economic benefits for the town, the community and the council — and, importantly — it weaves the council more tightly into the community it serves, which is certainly one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic we want to hold onto.

Taken from Donna Nolan’s presentation, March 2021.

Hope for the future

There is no doubt there are challenges ahead: the economy, skills and employment, health and wellbeing and community inclusion. But this is a defining moment for local government.

At Watford — and at district councils across the country — we are taking the experiences of COVID into our future. We have seized an opportunity to totally rethink and reposition our organisations and our areas, ready for the very different future which is on the horizon.

*This blog is edited from a speech Donna gave to the IGPP conference ‘The Future of Local Government’ on 17 March 2021