A critical juncture for public services: lessons from COVID-19 Contents

Chapter 11: “From lockdown to lock-in”—how do public services learn?

202.Our inquiry uncovered many fundamental weaknesses in the delivery of public services. It also highlighted many innovations that public service providers will wish to sustain once the pandemic is over. Embedding this change was a central concern of service users. Agatha Anywio told us:

“I pray that a lot of the help that older people had during the lockdown continues. I pray that those who receive it continue to receive it, because if they do not it will lead to mental problems and for some of them it will be unbearable if nobody contacts them. Even just a phone call [from a volunteer] once a week: that makes a lot of difference for people like me.”212

203.On 15 July 2020, the Prime Minister announced a future “independent inquiry” to “learn the lessons of the pandemic”.213 We explored the approaches that public services might take in assessing their response to COVID-19. Our inquiry identified three phases of evaluation:

Rapid evaluation

204.Rapid evaluation can assess how well public services responded to the onset of the pandemic. Nick Davies of the IfG suggested that such an evaluation would enable the Government to prioritise resource allocation for ongoing waves of the virus and make public services resilient during the winter of 2020/21. Lieutenant-General Douglas Chalmers DSO OBE, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations), Ministry of Defence (MoD), recommended that public services learn from the MoD’s wide-ranging Mission Exploitation Symposium process, which was “used across the forces in Afghanistan and Iraq”, and involved participants from a number of Government departments.214

205.Early assessments of the pandemic response indicate that national services such as the NHS were able to draw on pre-existing centralised decision-making structures to manage the initial stages of COVID-19 relatively successfully. But public services that were not part of these structures—such as social care providers—were overlooked by those planning the response.215

206.Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang told us how public services in Taiwan (Republic of China) had learnt from the 2003 SARS epidemic that they needed to improve their decision-making structures:

“When SARS came the Taipei municipality issued reverse directions from the health bureau. [Current Taiwanese] Vice-President Chien-jen was the director of the health ministry at the time, and I think he learned the lessons. [Now] … anyone, be it a local level or a central level … automatically becomes part of the … command chain, the infrastructure. It has a very clear line of report. The municipalities are definitely in an implementing role instead of possibly issuing countering policies. That was a big problem back in 2003 and we have legal, design and regulatory remedies for that.”216

Embedding changes

207.Richard Sloggett of Policy Exchange recommended that the Government undertake an “evaluation of the services that have changed, build the evidence and lock that change … in the short term, evaluation of what has worked and what has not is definitely a good way to start to move from lockdown to lock-in.”217 Lieutenant-General Douglas Chalmers suggested that the Government use the digital platforms that had been introduced during the pandemic to facilitate consultation with stakeholders at all levels of public service delivery and ensure that a variety of voices are heard.218 Tracy Daszkiewicz, who oversaw the public health response to the 2018 Salisbury Novichok poisonings, stressed the importance of talking to people involved in responding to a crisis, to put any findings into a local context.

“The Novichok incident … set us up very well for our early response to COVID. As the horizon-scanning was going on … we could start those conversations with colleagues very early and start to put those systems in place, ensuring we had that dialogue across that local, regional and national interface … That helped us to plan. Sharing that dialogue across the layers of the system means that you can plan effectively … that is what we were able to do very quickly as we were coming on board with COVID in the early part of this year.”219

208.We heard that if such assessments were not carried out relatively quickly, innovations that developed during a crisis could be lost. As Josh Hardie of the CBI warned, “the gravitational pull of habits” should not be underestimated.220 Changing Lives were concerned that innovations in addiction treatment would be overturned: “Statutory services are already keen to return to ‘what was’, despite improved engagement [by service users], reduction in relapse and, in some services, fewer drug-related deaths.”221

Recognising long-term weaknesses

209.Lord O’Donnell GCB, Cabinet Secretary 2005–11, told us that governments tended to assume that the next crisis would be identical to the last: “You could do … things really well a second time. The problem is that you are coming up against a bunch of firsts.” While it was important to “learn the lessons from the past”, it was necessary to look at underlying weaknesses to ensure that the state was “flexible” and “resilient” to the various problems that it could face in the future. Lord O’Donnell explained:

“You can learn from the past, but … what we learned from [previous] health crises was about stockpiling antivirals, PPE and stuff like that, which we did for a while … It was incomplete, in the sense that there were other things that you might say were probably more important that we were not looking at, such as how you generate good data when there is none … and the need to spend money on prevention rather than cure.”222

210.In recent months, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office have argued that the pandemic offers a chance for fundamental public service reform. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has promised an independent inquiry to learn lessons from COVID-19.

211.Because the Government did not give oral evidence to the inquiry, and its offer to send written evidence arrived too late, we were unable to discuss how it intends to learn lessons from the pandemic in the forthcoming public inquiry and the approach that it will take to public service reform. We therefore call on the Government to carry out:

(1)a rapid evaluation of what worked well and what worked badly in public service delivery during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that services quickly learn lessons. The Government should carry out this evaluation within the next six months;

(2) an assessment of the changes seen in public service delivery during the first lockdown, to embed the innovations that worked well. To ensure that positive changes are not lost, the Government should publish its findings within a year;

(3)a long-term evaluation of the fundamental weaknesses in public services that have been revealed by the pandemic, to inform a major project of public service transformation.

212.We suggest that this report offers a starting point for any evaluation of how public services adapted to the pandemic, and the implications of COVID-19 for the future transformation of public service delivery. In order to lock in the remarkable innovations adopted by service providers since the beginning of the pandemic, we have set out eight key principles for public service reform. These principles should now underpin the Government’s approach to redesigning the UK’s public services for the twenty-first century.

212 Q 151

213 HC Deb.15 July 2020, col 1514

214 Nick Davies Q 9; Q 96. The Mission Exploitation Symposium was organised by the Army’s Lessons Exploitation Centre from 2010 onwards. It gave an opportunity for brigades to reflect on their experiences in the field before sharing their learning with the rest of the army. Each symposium was attended by between 500 and 1000 participants, including representatives from the MoD, other Government departments, non-governmental organisations, liaison officers from allied forces, and a cross-section of personnel from across the army. Tom Dyson, Organisational learning and the modern army: a new model for lessons-learned processes, 1st edition (London: Routledge, 2019), pp.85–6

215 Nick Davies Q 9. See also Q 36 (David Williams).

216 Q 124

217 Q 6

218 Q 96

219 Q 97

220 Q 51

221 Written evidence from Changing Lives (PSR0042)

222 Q 101

© Parliamentary copyright 2018