COVID-19: 100 days later
I heard recently that local government achieved more in digital transformation in the last 3 months than they have in the last 2 years. I can certainly see why that comment was made.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Covid-19 Coordination hub has been up and running since the middle of March, and celebrated its 100 days of operation last week. Within days of creating the new service, the team had created new end-to-end services for the 32,000 strong shielded population in the county and an accessible ‘front door’ for anyone who felt they needed support.
We designed new ways to request and provide help and redeployed staff have been proactively contacting people to ensure their health and wellbeing. As well as this, community support teams have been set up in each district, each District and City council are offering help and support to people who need it and a food and PPE distribution hub has been established with deliveries by the Red Cross and Rubicon.
We have created this slide deck summarising our digital response.
So how have we done this? How have so many organisations across local, central Government, health and the voluntary sector managed to do more in a few weeks than would usually happen in months? What can we learn from this extraordinary time and take with us into our future way of operating?
Here are some of the things I learned in my 100 days at the hub:
Importance of a shared goal
From the very beginning, representatives of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s public and third sector organisations shared a common goal which was to support people through the pandemic . In ‘normal’ times, getting to the point where everyone agrees on one vision can be tricky, with everyone having different strategic aims and priorities. What we learned is that when all of the organisations agree on one goal and commit resource to making stuff happen quickly, the impact of the joined-up effort was felt by people and communities within days, rather than the months it can sometimes take on joint ventures.
When the hub started receiving the shielded data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, we regularly shared this data with our partners so that they were aware of the most medically vulnerable people in the county.
The Business Intelligence teams from different authorities have been working together to share data in order to identify the most vulnerable people in the county. They used various data sources such as social care data, assisted waste collections, health data, homelessness referrals and council tax data which is still enabling us to be more proactive. The pandemic was the catalyst that allowed this kind of data sharing and analysis to happen, and happen quickly. It does beg the question that if we can share data now for the good of Cambridgeshire’s residents during the pandemic, how could sharing data help us work together to identify and solve other social or economic problems?
‘Try it and test’ mentality, trust and permission to act
As an entirely new need, we had no historic or trend service data to go on when creating our new service, we just had the here and now. We needed to respond to unfolding events within hours or days, learning as we went. We set up new online services and tested them in a live environment, monitored how customers engaged with them and developed referral pathways based on that.
We naturally found that with focused minds, permission to act and staff outside the hub who were willing to prioritise our requests, things that would usually take weeks or months and be talked about at length and need to go through levels of approval, were suddenly getting done in hours. We experienced first hand what it is like to be trusted to experiment – to create something and try it out. We put services live and learned from mistakes. We learned that we could very quickly make our offer better by iterating on it in a live environment by responding to real users and their real experience using our new services.
Multi-disciplinary team and digital ‘going native’
The hub is made up of a range of people from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Councils with different strengths, skill sets and perspectives. People from Communities, Transformation, Housing, Environmental Health, HR, Children’s, Highways, Audit, Digital and more play their part in the effort. The military, Red Cross and Team Rubicon also worked alongside us and played major logistical and practical roles in our coordinated response. To me, it really proved the value of how much a focused multi-disciplinary team can achieve in a very short space of time with the right attitude, dedication and leadership. It’s worth noting that we had no official restructure, no consultation period and no line management changes in order for this team to come together, hit the ground running and achieve so much in a very short space of time.
Being a digital service designer, I usually work on a project basis working collaboratively with a team for a period of time to redesign their service. However, I have never actually ‘gone native’ and worked with a front line team every day and become a part of them. I learned that as a trusted member of the hub team, I could use my skills to lead the digital work and collaboratively design the new services much quicker than usual, mobilising the skills within LGSS Digital and IT to deliver MVP (Minimal Viable Product) solutions that we could iterate on. One of the best things we did was to develop a case management system (named SHIELD) in one week. You can read more about how we did that in this blog post.
Reaching out to people
Creating great online content and digital services so that people can find help is only part of the picture for our response to COVID-19. I think one of the most exciting things we have done is to start proactively and regularly contacting the 7.5 thousand Cambridgeshire & Peterborough residents who registered as extremely vulnerable and needing help. Teams of people also went out and knocked on the doors of over 4000 shielded people who had not registered online and had not yet responded to phone calls, to check if they were okay. So far, we have made over 40,000 phone calls and more recently, we have started emailing and texting people who would rather not receive a phone call by integrating our case management system with GOV Notify (I really must write a blog post about that too!).
The idea of proactively contacting people, of going to them and asking if they are okay and if they need anything, is not something I have ever seen before in my years working in local government. I am used to creating easy to use ‘frictionless’ pathways and co-creating human-centred iterations to existing services… but there is something new, invigorating and fundamentally different about this new way of working.
Our assumptions have been challenged when it comes to public service provision, we have reflected on how hard we can sometimes make it for people to ‘qualify’ for services. If you consider that of the 32,000 people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough who are shielding and are entitled to free food from the government, under 4,000 took this offer up, that is pretty astounding.
It was incredible to see how instead of ‘managing demand’, we can actually initiate demand ourselves and offer our support in a caring and supportive way. Learning how we can create a long term, preventative strategy which stops people getting into difficulty, then helps to reduce crisis intervention further down the line.
We learned that many people we contact don’t actually want or need practical help, and many of them are motivated to help themselves. It’s incredible that proactively contacting people has not increased demand on our service, it’s created a more balanced, human relationship with the councils and we have received really positive feedback.
Taking the learning with us
I remember the first day I walked into the hub, it sometimes feels like yesterday and others like eons ago. The welcome was so warm and the feeling of belonging was instant. We have learned so much in these last 3 months, so how might we use this experience to work together to solve social problems in the long term?
Being a part of an emergency response effort is exciting and motivating, but how can we keep some of these values, principles and learning and apply them in ‘normal’ times? It took a pandemic for us to realise that building a multidisciplinary team, having a common goal and taking risks in a safe environment is a really effective way of working. These approaches meant that we have achieved more in a few weeks than we had ever thought possible, not just in the COVID hub, but throughout the councils, where ‘normal’ ways of providing services became impossible and many services had to get creative overnight and start offering services in different ways. I know that in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, there is enthusiasm, drive and ambition to continue thinking differently and applying these learnings into future practice, which is most certainly a positive we are taking forwards from this very difficult and momentous time.