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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic presents many challenges for local government. While local government themselves are complex medium-sized businesses experiencing many of the same challenges as other small to medium businesses, they are also the first point of contact with our communities and play a key role in supporting our local businesses and communities during times of challenge. 

 

Local Governments are often the first line of connection to the communities they serve. During the coronavirus pandemic, they are being enlisted to enable and enforce the federal and state government’s restrictions in regards to their communities needing to be physical distancing and self-isolating. Many of our essential services are delivered by the local councils, and often involve a high degree of interaction with vulnerable members in our communities through their provision of services such as public health and aged care; meals on wheels; community services and waste management.

Local governments are also complex medium-sized businesses. They have customers, they have a large number of employees, key services, and costs and revenues to be managed during this time. While they face some unique challenges, many are also very similar to what other businesses are experiencing and similar approaches need to be taken.

Our communities and local businesses are all facing unprecedented challenges and stress during this time and are increasingly looking to our local councils for help – however local government do not have plans in their budgets for crisis management, placing additional financial pressure on them as they continue to deliver essential services and support their communities.

Local councils are quickly realising that they are not well-equipped from a technology and workforce mobility perspective. While they are working hard to fast track work arounds and changes that can be made immediately, this internal effort is impacting all areas of their workforce from customer service, back office, community workers and field services. Local councils now need to review their priorities and redesign their approach and resource allocation to determine how essential services can be delivered and how resources can be redirected into areas that are now facing increased demand. There is also an increasing realisation at the executive and councillor level that the priorities placed on investment in these areas for the longer term is now more important than ever if councils are going to be able to manage effectively through situations such as this in the future.

We have identified some key focus areas and themes to consider to assist local councils as they navigate through these challenges.

Operational resilience

Now more than ever our communities will rely on our local governments, it’s important to consider your operational resilience in the face of great challenges. Start by conducting a whole of organisation risk assessment to get a clear view of the key priority areas. Ensure this is all managed from a central point by putting in place a centralised risk management platform. Clear messaging is paramount, so create a central management and co-ordination point for the coronavirus pandemic response – consider using an emergency command and control structure, similar to what organisations such as the Red Cross do. This structure should kick in during emergency times, and stands down afterwards.

Develop a structured program and project management capability to co-ordinate all the different activities that will be required. A governance structure for decision making around the pandemic should be put in place – make sure it’s right-sized and appropriate. Victorian councils should however also continue to move through the compliance requirements for the new Local Government Act.

It’s important for local governments to understand the need for any short term capacity requirements, and where these capabilities can be accessed from, including the redirection of resources from other services facing lower demand, or potential to partner with other third party organisations and community groups. Communicating with the community is important, so establish an emergency messaging (text to the community) plan and bring the mobile providers on board with execution plans.

Local councils will also now need to be prepared to bring forward some investments and to make significant business decisions to implement needed process, policy and business model changes, to ensure they can continue to provide the necessary services. At the same time ensuring they do not close down important strategic priorities that will position the council well for the recovery and the future beyond the pandemic. A good example of this is the need to close the Customer Service centres and move this entirely online and via phone. These decisions need to be made quickly and effectively, with the right policies and processes put in place that do not put anyone at risk, and at the right level of investment to ensure a sustainable solution is put in place.

If council elections are coming up, consider the impact this may have on the community. If the advice is to continue with elections as planned consider:

  • options for early voting
  • facilitating and enforcing social distancing
  • increasing the time the booths are open to reduce queues (earlier and later)
  • provide instructions to ‘how to vote’ distributors.

Financial resilience

Local governments should revise short and long term financial planning immediately – 3, 6 and 12 (and more) months – based on different scenarios for infection rates and what the resource implications, economic impact on rates and impacts on revenue based services might look like. Consider the profile of your budget/financial obligations during the crisis and beyond.

Through this planning you should develop scenarios and assess the income and revenue implications that are associated with the reduction in revenue generating services, offset against the potential increase in community support packages, and the increase in demand in non-revenue generating services.

Local governments may need further funding, so assess the progress of short term funding options – i.e. banks or government long term financial plan implications. Any current budgeting that is in flight may need to be changed. Look for new budgeting methods based on Essential Services, such as zero based budgeting, and ensure there is a real understanding of the cost to serve on key services and a clear benefits case for investments still continuing.

Service delivery

Local governments should now start business continuity planning reviews and updates for all services. It will be important to clearly define the Essential Services priorities and understand current objectives, costs, KPIs, assets and resource allocations for each of the services.

To assist with this an impact analysis should be performed, with a focus on identifying the services to be scaled down due to health concerns or reprioritisation of resources (both human and financial). Creating a scenario analysis for Essential Services will help identify where there will be increases in demand and where resource will be needed.

Local governments should also consider any potential impacts on asset management and the associated maintenance programs.

Customer and community engagement

To avoid crowds while still providing customer and community engagement local governments will need to determine how resources and centres will be moved to digital centres (and associated implications) and the closure of customer service centres by conducting a channel assessment around demand analysis. This will change the way you and your staff work, so retraining staff around new processes and engagement models will need to be undertaken.

Many members of the community will be going to their local government websites for information, so consider your current website presence – does it have online portals and mobile-enabled content? Once your sites capabilities are assessed, start planning your external communications strategy and execution.

Local governments will need to assist with community education and communications plans:

  • register with state alert services
  • establish distribution list with external agencies
  • on receiving alerts, notify the crisis director and pandemic team
  • regularly monitor state health authority updates
  • implement the pandemic plan and communications plan
  • monitor pandemic advice from relevant state health authority
  • establish contacts with external agencies
  • community engagement via push notification (for community that opt in for the service).

Identifying the support that can be provided to the community, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable will be important during this crisis. 

Technology continuity and mobility deployment

Our technology and use of it will be important during this crisis, performing a disaster recovery and business continuity planning session will help identify any areas of weakness.

As the workforce turns to remote working, local governments have been forced to quickly enable modern and agile ways of working (collaboration, communication, etc.) ensuring they are capable to support at scale work from home. For many this was a realisation that their technology is not where it needs to be to support the current environment. Quick decisions and action may have been taken to get things up and running, but it is critical that local councils also consider the safety and security aspects that need to be addressed:

  • perform required load testing
  • specify the tools and systems that will be supported and have appropriate policies around this
  • train and upskill staff to leverage new technologies through digital channels 
  • step up digital help and learning resources to support users
  • ensure you have the right policies and controls around this to ensure this is sustainable and it is not exposing the organisation to undue risk.

Immediate attention should be given to procuring any necessary hardware to support a mobile workforce including laptops, screens and charges, considering different funding options, such as as-a-service rather than asset purchases and thinking about the long term profile required for a mobile workforce.

With this increased reliance on technology and being online, cyber security awareness, testing and analysis needs to be front of mind. Ensure the appropriate safeguards are in place around cyber considerations. Refer to our article COVID-19: Protecting your business from cyber crime for more information.

It is also important that local government start considering and reprioritising long term strategic technology investments now to ensure that you are positioning the organisation well for the future beyond the coronavirus pandemic, where business and working practices will be changed forever.

Continuing with, or bringing investments forward, may seem counter intuitive given the financial and health challenges currently being faced, however never before has a focus on digital transformation been so critical for local governments to ensure that you can continue to serve your communities in the new environment. Now is not the time to avoid the much-needed work to be done around technology modernisation and transformation.

Workforce

There are many considerations that need to be made around managing the workforce through this current situation. Differing demands on the business need to be properly resourced to ensure that capacity load is identified across the entire business and staff are redeployed to support areas that are facing increased pressure.

Capacity can also be managed through considerations given to annual leave and what provisions there may be around leave policies and special leave provisions. It’s important for leaders to ensure staff feel supported and engaged throughout a time of crisis, especially as they are working remotely. This will be a new environment for many and will take considerable adjustment.

Refer to our article COVID-19: Workforce management and remote working for more information.

Local economic support

Local governments have a number of tools to hand that can help with local community economic support and we are now seeing a range of these packages being released representing millions of dollars of investment, including:

  • permit relief, ranging from refunds to suspending fees for new permits and easing processes to enable fast tracking of permits and applications
  • rent rebates for tenants occupying council buildings
  • grants for businesses to help them move online or digital
  • interest free rate deferrals and payment relief 
  • establishment of business networks for support and information 
  • offers for using community venues for emergency response.

These are however unbudgeted items and, coupled with the impact of reduced revenue, will have a considerable impact on the financial position of the council and its ability to deliver services, and to invest in the areas necessary to ensure sustainability into the future.

Councils need will be considering how this can be funded by conducting modelling and impact assessments and the impact on the current budgeting processes, particularly when many are already facing financial challenges over the medium and longer term.

Information accurate at the date and time published.

 

If you have any questions regarding the content of this article and would like speak to someone from our team please contact us.

 

 

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