COVID-19 learning project – some emerging themes on re-introducing service delivery

11 June 2020
  • About the COVID-19 learning project and some emerging themes on re-introducing service delivery

    The purpose of this project is to support public sector efforts by sharing learning through the pandemic. This is not an audit project, it is intended to help prompt some thinking, and hopefully practice exchange. Our first output from this project sets out some learning as some services, closed down as the pandemic took hold, have begun to re-open. The learning mainly comes from the re-opening of some waste recycling centres, but should be transferable as organisations begin to plan the re-opening of other services.


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    Communications and involvement

    Emphasis on this can help to avoid unhelpful spikes in demand and help improve the efficiency of service re-opening. This could be through up-front work to involve service users/potential service users to understand demand under current circumstances before re-opening services. It could also be to communicate what services will be available, and what alternatives are available. Also key to smooth transition is being clear and unambiguous. Setting out and widely communicating new procedures or rules will avoid confusion and unnecessary demand pressure. This goes hand in hand with agile communication, as rules may change as we adapt to problems or events. We’ve seen some good use of social media to get clear messages across, and where this has been done well it seems to have had some success in alleviating ‘over-demand’ for services in some areas. A comprehensive and multi-platform involvement and consultation strategy is likely to help with service re-openings.

    Managing and preventing demand

    Understanding, predicting and planning for the demand is fundamental to the smooth re-introduction of any service. However, it’s very difficult to predict demand for some services, and sometimes you can predict demand but still be unable to meet it. But having a thorough understanding of demand and having clear and easily implementable contingency plans in the event of more demand than anticipated can help to alleviate pressures, improve customer satisfaction and help to keep people safe. Introducing trigger points to intervene to change service delivery or communications where demand is being exceeded can also be an effective way to prevent service overload. This could be as simple as regularly updating communications on recycling centre queues, placing personnel at key points in queues to advise on waiting times and identify any refuse that is likely to be turned away. The use of booking systems or alternating days by car number plates at recycling centres, are also relatively simple ways that have been used to manage spikes in demand. Preventing spikes in demand through meeting needs differently is also a learning point from re-opening services – even something as simple as providing extra recycling refuse bags to residents, or the use of ‘pop up’ facilities to reduce the need for unnecessary trips to recycling centres, ways in which reducing demand has been approached. This has also probably reduced the need for essential travel with the associated potential public health benefits.

    Monitoring and adapting

    In unprecedented situations where demand is very difficult to predict, monitoring service usage and being able to adapt quickly to absorb more demand or prevent further demand is even more important. The examples of long queues at re-opened recycling centres demonstrate the difficulty in dealing with pent-up demand for services. For example, monitoring take-up and adjusting booking slot times based on real-time information to enable additional bookings, is a simple example of how more demand could be absorbed efficiently.

    Transferable learning points

    We understand that booking systems for recycling centres are already being considered as a possible permanent arrangement in some areas. There is now an opportunity to pro-actively consider whether initiatives such as booking systems for recycling centres could be applied to other services, not just to solve today’s issues, but potentially on a more permanent basis. For example, the possibilities to better manage demand and deploy staff and other resources more effectively, might prompt a re-think about which other services may be better delivered though booking systems or other mechanisms that manage or control demand. We’ve heard that in some areas the use of digital channels for communication and to access services has increased. Now is the time to build on this to move more quickly to digitally enabled services that could free up time to focus on other communication channels for those not able to access digital channels and those in vulnerable groups.

    Where next?

    Look out for further updates as we continue to capture and share learning through this project particularly as the focus for many organisations shifts towards recovery planning.  Our focus going forward will be more explicitly on the things that public bodies feel they have learned so far, what they would do differently ‘next time’ and what they think other public bodies should know about what’s worked well or not so well. We will also be tweeting (follow @WalesAudit [opens in new window]) about specific examples of interesting or novel practice as we come across them.

    About the author

    Tim Buckle Tim Buckle is an Audit Manager with responsibility for the design and development of the local government performance audit programme, as well as performance audit work at two councils. He has been with Audit Wales since 2013 and before this he worked for the WLGA as well as three 3 local authorities in south Wales.

    Photo credit: Welsh Government motorway and trunk road information [opens in new window] and Traffic Wales [opens in new window] for the lighting.