Learning the lessons

Certain key public services are best delivered locally, according to a landmark review of the pandemic.

A comprehensive analysis of how public services have responded to COVID-19 has concluded that many public service providers and councils developed “remarkable innovations” to meet the challenge of the pandemic.

The report, from the House of Lords’ Public Services Committee, discusses lessons to be learned from the pandemic and recommends a number of principles to transform public service delivery.

The LGA submitted written evidence to the committee’s inquiry and LGA Deputy Chief Executive Sarah Pickup also gave evidence to Peers, with the report reflecting many of the points we made on behalf of councils.

It includes recommendations around tackling inequalities, social care, financing of public services, prevention, the approach to public health (best done locally), devolution, data, and digital innovation and skills. 

There are also points where the report recognises the work of local authorities; for example, in re-housing rough sleepers, and quoting Ms Pickup’s comments about the importance of sector-led improvement and peer review to improving the integration of local health and care systems.   

Lack of integration – especially between services working with vulnerable children, and between health care and adult social care – is a key concern of the committee, alongside insufficient support for prevention and early intervention.

Its report says preventative services are “vital” to reducing the deep and ongoing inequalities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. 

The Government should recognise that investing in prevention and early intervention can reduce pressures on the NHS and the justice system, and that supporting children to avoid poor life outcomes brings financial savings and economic benefits. 

COVID-19 has also accentuated the systemic frailties in the care sector, with the “tragic consequence” of many care home deaths. “Reform is now more urgent than ever,” the committee concludes.

Its report highlights how the pandemic has demonstrated that certain key public service functions are best delivered locally, including the public health response, the recruitment of volunteers and contact tracing. 

“For too long government has prioritised services delivered from the centre”

The report also states that the underfunding of local services in recent years has left them ill-equipped to deal with the resource pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“For too long government has prioritised services delivered from the centre, when many of the services that people use every day are organised at local level. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink how central government funds and supports local services,” says the report.

And it calls for White Papers expected on English devolution and social care to set out how government will ensure local areas have the means and autonomy to develop a placed-based approach to delivering public services, adding this should be “the default approach to reform of public services”. 

Councils have played a crucial role during the pandemic and have demonstrated the strength that comes from local leaders able to work with others and their communities.

This wide-ranging, comprehensive report provides some good recommendations for how we can build upon the relationships between central and local government, to ensure our local public services are better prepared and our areas more resilient to any future health crisis.

As the committee makes clear, the coronavirus response has proved that certain key public service functions are best delivered locally, alongside the funding and flexibilities to do so.

‘A critical juncture for public services: lessons from COVID-19’ is available at www.committees.parliament.uk/committee/430/public-services-committee/

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