Scotland's recovery from COVID-19: learning

This report was developed with the Covid-19 Learning & Evaluation Oversight Group. It synthesises evidence from evaluations of Covid-19 interventions and workshops with senior leaders held over summer 2023. The findings reflect work being progressed as part of wider public service reform activity.

3. Learning from COVID-19 workshops

This section of the report summarises key points from the four workshops that were held between late August and early September 2023 with around 50 members of the COVID-19 Learning and Evaluation Oversight Group, the Public Service Reform Steering group, the Reform Action Group, the Covid Recovery Programme Board and a small number of officials from relevant Scottish Government policy teams. A full list of participants is included in Annex C.

The workshops were set up by the Office of the Chief Social Policy Adviser to draw on the expertise of people from across the public and third sector who had been involved in Covid Recovery work.

3.1 Context

These workshops were designed to reflect on the key themes from evaluations of COVID-19 interventions (found in Annex A). Participants were asked to consider what they wanted to keep, what needs to change and the opportunities that exist to embed the change they want to see. Each of the workshops were structured around a small number of cross-cutting themes as set out at the end of this report. This section of the report draws out the key overarching points that emerged.

3.2 What do we want to keep?

Workshop participants were asked to identify those areas of policy and practice they would like to keep. When discussing this, participants suggested that in a number of areas there has already been a reversion back to pre-pandemic practice. Therefore, in some cases the discussion was more accurately about what participants wanted to bring back rather than 'keep /embed'. Participants also made the point that we should be careful not to prematurely 'romanticise' aspects of the pandemic response as some of the effects are only now starting to be seen, and may take years to be fully understood and evidenced.

The key themes identified by participants are set out below:

3.2.1 A singular and shared clarity of purpose

The emergence of COVID-19 resulted in a 'clarity of purpose on a small shared set of outcomes across sectors'. This served to 'identify the areas to prioritise and the ones which organisations needed to work together to deliver'.

'COVID-19 created a burning platform'

There was a sense amongst workshop participants that post-Covid organisational objectives had become more diffuse and fragmented and we had lost the 'burning platform' that Covid created. It was suggested that the sense of emergency had dissipated and there was a perception that the sense of urgency wasn't being applied to acute but longer term 'emergencies' related to areas such as the climate and poverty.

3.2.2 Improved collaboration between organisations

Attendees were keen to 'keep and build on the excellent cross-sector relationships that were established due to the pandemic'. It was felt that there was a greater 'willingness to cut through siloes and organisational boundaries' and 'noticeably more willingness on all sides to 'step up' and take responsibility'.

'Spinning up "hurricanes" of multi-disciplinary teams to tackle specific challenges that cross traditional boundaries'

New multi-agency frameworks were put in place (such as SGORR and resilience partnerships) that ensured there was still structure and governance as "normal rules" were put aside.

3.2.3 Organisations and individuals empowered to act

Participants argued that local government and third sector organisations were given greater autonomy to act. In many instances this resulted in improved outcomes.

'The increased autonomy given to Third Sector organisations enabled the development of better services through local knowledge and lived experience'

Participants were generally positive about the relaxation of stringent reporting requirements. This enabled organisations 'to use and share resources without burdensome reporting and monitoring'; 'Improving collaboration, driving innovation, and building trust'.

3.2.4 Recognition of the importance of data, evidence & expert advice

Participants argued that COVID-19 resulted in an enhanced appreciation of the importance of data, evidence and expert advice. Several attendees provided examples of how the pandemic resulted in improved sharing of data between organisations. In the words of one attendee 'data sharing was really important and worked well - we overcame many Data Protection / Information Governance challenges at pace'. Information was shared across organisations 'Local and National politicians had access to the same data and sit rep'.

Workshop attendees felt that advances had been made as a result of the pandemic and that some of these changes had persisted.

'The use of data was brilliant during the pandemic, informing policy and decisions - more of that; and addressing data gaps (e.g. GP) which became evident during the pandemic'

'…we became really innovative with the use of technology and data - and now adopting in current working practices'

However, there was an acknowledgement that despite some improvement in practices there was still more that needed to be done – especially in relation to understanding the equalities impacts of decision making.

3.2.5 Greater value given to the importance of local knowledge

Participants suggested that the pandemic resulted in a greater appreciation of the importance of local knowledge in developing and targeting interventions to individuals and communities. This was an element of the pandemic response that people were keen to retain and build on.

'Maintain recognition of importance of place in building trust. Local partners have trust in the bank. Continue to build on that trust'

As part of this there was support for involving people more actively in developing policy responses 'Develop mechanisms through which community engagement, and engagement with those suffering most from inequalities, can actively inform service design and policy', 'We want to keep elements of co-production with partners and communities, services much closer to - delivered by and with – communities'.

3.2.6 A flexible and responsive approach to funding

Participants felt that the greater autonomy provided to local and third sector organisations to flexibility use funding enabled 'local leaders to utilise the resources as required to meet outcomes that mattered'. There was a perception that there was a 'greater willingness to push out funds in larger amounts with less direction supporting local decision making on meeting needs – based on trust/ immediacy'.

Participants also stated that during the pandemic there were 'more rapid appraisal routes for grant funding' which were considerably quicker. Participants felt that this was something that they would like to retain with 'appropriate scrutiny'.

'The processes we normally use to distribute funding are too cumbersome'

3.2.7 A more measured approach to risk taking

Participants argued that they wanted to 'keep the appetite for risk-taking alongside a concern for accountability - so we want to take risks but understand what that leads to'. Participants also made the point that in some instances, maintaining the status quo should be seen as a risk.

One of the positive shifts seen in response to Covid was thought to be a 'greater awareness and analysis of risk/opportunity in advice and decision-making'. There was also perceived to be a greater willingness on the part of the Scottish Government to share risk with local government.

'Recognition that taking risk doesn't automatically mean risk is not being managed'

3.3 What needs to change?

Workshop participants were asked to reflect on the key themes emerging from COVID-19 evaluations and identify 'what needed to change?'.

As part of this discussion, participants were quick to point out that it is important to review and learn from the large body of work that already exists relating to renewal including the recommendations of the Social Renewal Advisory Board [2], the Citizens Assembly [3] and the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery [3].

Many of the ideas for change were related to the themes identified within the first section of the workshop where participants were asked to identify what they wanted to keep from the pandemic.

The section below summarises the broad overarching points in relation to what attendees felt needed to change.

3.3.1 Visible leadership & a sustained focus on reducing inequalities

Workshop participants suggested a number of ways in which we needed to learn from COVID-19 (e.g. the COVID Expert Reference Group on Ethnicity) in order to bring a sharper focus to our work to reduce inequalities.

'Understanding of how the pandemic consistently affected particular groups worse than others (i.e. COVID mortality by SIMD) should be used in preparedness for future health shocks'

A number of participants discussed how we need to invest in and work through sensitivities and practicalities in order to collect and actively use more 'granular data' relating to equalities in designing, delivering and monitoring the uptake and impact of public services.

Participants argued that we need 'more visible leadership' to 'set higher standards and expectations' and avoid equality and inclusion being 'an afterthought'. In the words of one participant 'It would be lovely to keep that sense of momentum that stakeholders would like to keep - a sense of common purpose'.

Several participants referenced the importance of co-design and argued that we need to 'develop mechanisms through which community engagement, and engagement with those suffering most from inequalities, can actively inform service design and policy'.

Finally, several participants suggested we needed a more targeted approach to delivery. In the words of one attendee 'Don't be ashamed of targeting interventions towards those who need it most at the expense of universality'.

3.3.2 Greater value placed on collaboration

As noted above, the spirit of collaboration across sectors during COVID-19 was something that participants were keen to retain. In order to embed this change they suggested that greater value within the system needed to be placed on collaboration.

'Relationships and networks are the work ... they're often diminished, particularly for more junior public servants whose value can be reduced to delivery of tasks and outputs'

In order to incentivise and value stronger collaboration there was a need to build collaboration and partnership into training programmes, recruitment practices, performance management and objective setting. It was also suggested that there was a need to look at organisational structures 'Systems produce the results they're designed to, so if Collaboration & Partnership is not instinctively happening, then we need to reflect on system blockers'.

3.3.3 Prioritisation of new approaches to funding

Reflecting on COVID-19 evaluations and their own experiences participants suggested that new ways of delivering funding should be prioritised. Three broad ways in which funding could be improved were identified including by:

1) Making multi-year funding a default position to support longer term planning and sustained progress in relation to outcomes

2) Introducing a greater degree of flexibility to funding to allow partners to match funding to local needs

3) Introducing incentives and permission for (local) budget holders to pool budgets with other organisations

3.3.4 Clearer collective priorities

When discussing the singular and shared clarity of purpose that COVID-19 created, participants argued that post Covid, further work needed to be done to 'define clear collective priorities' and more effectively link them to 'long term budgets/ funding' and lines of accountability.

'A radical decluttering of the policy landscape'

There was also a view that as we emerge from the pandemic there has been a layering of priorities and that there was a need to 'collectively agree, between local government, Scottish Government and partners, the small number of well-defined outcomes that we're working to achieve and make them our national priorities'. It was suggested that this could involve 'Streamlining the number of organisations involved in delivering public services'.

3.3.5 Improved data sharing and use of evidence

Several participants talked about the need for 'better collective data sharing protocols across all partners' and the need to 'breakdown administrative/IT barriers to data sharing'.

'Scottish Government needs to share more information with partners as they did during the pandemic - fewer things as 'official sensitive' - using that only when absolutely necessary'

Participants talked of the 'need to invest in our data infrastructure in a joined up way across organisations and sectors with more standardisation of systems and approaches' and the importance of 'leadership that routinely looks for and uses evidence and data in decision making, sets the tone for others'. This included 'drawing on partners from across the system, including academics' and creating 'regular forums for sharing information and reaching collective decisions at pace'. There will also be a need to think more creatively about digital citizenship and the implications of AI for public services.

3.3.6 Empowered, flexible and local services

Across the workshops there was a broad consensus around the importance of allowing local flexibility in the delivery of services. In the words of one participant this involved 'central government providing more autonomy to partners and 'getting out of the way'.

'Permission to groups to be agile, solve problems, but with clarity on budgets, outcomes and limits'

The challenge is to 'find a way to keep appropriate governance but maintain the pace and flexibility' this was likely to involve some 'organisational agility with teams and hubs focused on the highest priorities (and leaving some work on pause)'.

3.3.7 An approach that considers the risks of inaction

A number of participants discussed the higher risk tolerance that existed during COVID-19 and a concern that we have now reverted to more risk averse approaches. It was felt that leadership on risk was needed in order to give people permission to take risks. This leadership was required to 'set the tone on risk appetite from the top to ensure decisions made at all levels are aligned to that appetite'.

'Consider the risks of inaction for the most disadvantaged groups'

It was argued that we need to retain 'a greater understanding of risk appetite and how it can provide frameworks for taking risk whilst retaining appropriate control levels'.

3.3.8 Key strategic opportunities to embed learning

Workshop attendees were asked to identify key strategic opportunities over the next two years to embed learning from evaluations of COVID-19 interventions. The section below draws out six key broad opportunities identified by attendees.

1. The Verity House Agreement [6]

The Verity House Agreement was raised as a 'key strategic opportunity' at each of the four workshops. The Agreement was seen as an opportunity to agree shared outcomes, provide greater autonomy (through for example the commitment to a default position of no-ring fencing), build trust and drive forward public service reform.

There is a striking similarity between the language used within the Agreement and the key cross-cutting themes emerging from evaluations of COVID-19 interventions. This is perhaps not surprising given that the Agreement builds on the joint work progressed under the Covid Recovery Strategy.

Recognising the crucial role that the third sector played during the pandemic workshop participants questioned what the broader implications of the Agreement were for the third sector.

2. The National Performance Framework refresh

The National Performance Framework refresh was seen as an opportunity to re-affirm a joint commitment across public services to the delivery of key outcomes.

Workshop participants talked of the shared sense of purpose that was felt during the pandemic which enabled organisations to work together collaboratively and at pace. The NPF refresh was seen as an opportunity to re-affirm a commitment to shared outcomes.

COVID-19 was seen by many participants to have led, understandably, to a focus on short term outcomes linked to reducing direct health harms from the virus and maintaining vital public services. The NPF refresh was seen as an opportunity to re-focus priorities on longer term more preventative outcomes and move out of a short term 'emergency' mindset.

3. Scottish Leaders Forum

The Scottish Leaders Forum (SLF) is a collaborative forum of over 300 senior leaders (Chief Executive or equivalent) drawn from across public services, third sector organisations, equality groups, and organisations that are delivering public services.

Several participants suggested that the SLF, with its focus on collective leadership, was a key forum for applying the findings from COVID-19 evaluations. There may also be specific opportunities to inform particular areas of work such as that of the Incentives & Accountability Action Group.

4. Legislative opportunities

Participants identified a number of Bills to be introduced over the course of this Parliamentary term where learning from COVID-19 evaluations could be embedded. This included:

  • The Promise Bill
  • The Public Health Bill
  • The National Care Service Bill
  • The Human Rights Bill
  • The Wellbeing and Future Generations Bill (and specifically the creation of Future Generations Commissioner)
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Bill, and
  • The European Charter of Local Self Government

5. The Four Harms approach

During the workshops the way in which decisions were made during the pandemic was discussed. Several participants mentioned the framework for decision making [7] and more specifically the four harms approach as a model for future policy making.

It was suggested that we should learn from this approach and evolve it as both a means for navigating trade-offs transparently and building consensus around shared outcomes.

6. Scottish Budget 2024/25

Several participants described how the public health emergency associated with COVID-19 created a shared sense of purpose which allowed public and third sector services to work together in new ways collaboratively at pace.

It was suggested that the current fiscal challenge has served to create a new 'burning platform' and an opportunity to radically further reform public services focusing on prevention and outcomes, demand reduction and the need to take bold decisions on dis-investment. In the words of one participant we 'Need to think long-term about what we need rather than fiddling with what we have now. Be decisive and strategically consistent about what we keep and what we ditch'.



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