We are all facing a new normal. Whether it is the way we meet friends and family, complete our workdays or access public services, the coronavirus pandemic has redrawn the parameters of our day-to-day lives.
In the private sector, the unprecedented scale of the furlough scheme and a subsequent need for redundancies has caused immense difficulty. Yet the public sector has also had to evolve. The NHS naturally took much of this strain, but there were also profound changes to how schools and the government operates. The logistical challenges are well documented, but the pandemic has also unearthed numerous opportunities for the public sector. Increased flexibility and improved technological solutions should make us all question whether a return to ‘Business as Usual’ is what we really want.
Embracing Flexible Working
In operational environments such as hospitals and classrooms, flexible working is understandably less viable. However, the Civil Service has benefitted from a shift online. Improved connectivity stemming from Microsoft Teams and more has made the institution more accommodating of difference.
Working from home benefits those who have children and other caring responsibilities, while also presents the potential for greater productivity. Instead of a rigid 9 to 5 schedule, online workplaces afford a broader coverage and can accommodate both morning larks and night owls. Perhaps more importantly in the long term, this shift has also challenged the London-centric nature of central Government. If key meetings and discussions can be held easily online, why should Whitehall remain the epicentre? Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, was already keen to reform the Civil Service, and to move more staff out of the capital. Yet there may be further complications when regular governmental work resumes in earnest.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the pandemic has forced many face-to-face interactions to shift online. This has been more successful in some areas than others. The NHS has benefited from being able to push a greater proportion of outpatient appointments online or over the phone, thereby freeing up clinical space. Two difficulties quickly arise though. Firstly, there is a lack of technological consistency from one Trust to another, meaning collaboration within integrated care systems is potentially hindered. A second challenge will be ensuring technological expediency does not interfere with excellent patient care.
Meanwhile, in schools, virtual learning has been made viable by the ed-tech resources on offer. The enormous challenge is ensuring that this technology is accessible to everyone, regardless of socio-economic background, family context or language barriers. The pandemic has already highlighted – and in many instances exacerbated – existing inequalities. It is vital that any long-term solutions are cognisant of this, and do not allow disadvantaged students to fall further behind.
What unites both healthcare and education is that changes need to be enacted from the bottom-up, not top-down. Central government needs to listen clearly to what is happening on the ground, as opposed to just imposing new solutions. Similarly, the private sector needs to work closely with educators, clinicians and managers thoroughly before attempting to solve problems.
A frequent gripe with NHS England is that it is unaware of the operational challenges which many hospitals face. Pushing for futuristic technology is one thing but trying to crowbar this into hospitals which still regularly use fax machines and paper-heavy systems is naïve. The same is true of education. Government is right to push for a more technologically literate classroom, but there needs to be assurance that all students can access this.
Transitioning out of a pandemic was always going to be difficult. Yet configuring the public sector’s ‘new normal’ undoubtedly has the potential to be exciting, too.