What do we mean by public service in the age of coronavirus?

At Waltham Forest’s last council meeting, I was proud to present our public service strategy. It was in circumstances I never thought we would face as a borough, not least because, like my council colleagues, we had taken the unprecedented step of carrying out all meetings remotely and instead of across the chamber we carried out the meeting from our living rooms. It served as yet another reminder that coronavirus has changed absolutely everything we do – including what public service means to all of us.

It is no exaggeration to say this has been the challenge of our lifetimes. In Waltham Forest, we’ve seen the community pulling together like never before, whether through mutual aid, informal help or the thousands of volunteer shifts local people have put in with the council’s Community Help Network, delivering food and medicine and carrying out welfare checks to those most in need. Equally clear was the critical role of local and regional government in this crisis. We don’t always get it completely right, but I am incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to meet this challenge.

We’ve seen staff redeployed to new roles or even setting up completely new services overnight. As I previously wrote for LabourList, it’s been councils who have been on the frontline, delivering vital services, despite a decade of austerity and Tory funding promises being broken even in the middle of a pandemic. But it’s also been local and regional government providing the leadership we need: compare Andy Burnham or Sadiq Khan, standing up for their communities, with Boris Johnson’s rudderless, feckless approach.

Time and time again throughout this crisis, the government has boldly announced new measures only to then ask local government to carry the can – and rarely giving them the resources to match. It was in the context of these two developments throughout coronavirus – the incredible dedication of our community and workers, and the leadership shown by local government – that we developed our public service strategy.

But these times also call for us to re-evaluate what we mean when we think of public service. Gone are the days when we should see public service as solely the preserve of a person behind a desk in Whitehall or even the town hall, important though their work is. We must recognise that our residents can only get through the coronavirus crisis through the incredible contribution of a huge range of people: from our council and public sector staff to the retail workers keeping key services going, to the countless volunteers stepping up to serve. As our superb chief exec put it, “in Waltham Forest we see public service as the act itself”.

Which is why, as part of building this public service strategy, we carried out our widest ever public consultation, with over 11,000 people taking part via surveys and focus groups, and will consult with a 75-member citizens’ panel representing all communities in our borough. It builds on our ground-breaking work in engaging our diverse communities across Waltham Forest, such as the Citizen’s Assembly on Hate Crime – the first of its kind in the world – and the Connecting Communities programme.

Our residents told us loud and clear that jobs are their top priority, so it’s ours too. As it has across the country, the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on our residents, with claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance up by over 120% and over 38,000 residents furloughed in May this year. We’ll do everything we can to help our residents back into work, including holding a jobs summit of major employers, training every council worker in signposting to help and support, and working with higher education providers and employers to provide new opportunities for young people.

We are also looking to the future. Our commitment to tackling the critically urgent challenges of the climate emergency is weaved throughout all our priorities. Our plans for a 15-minute neighbourhood model builds on our world-leading Mini-Holland/Enjoy Waltham Forest programme. In it we will support low- and zero-carbon transport and support and develop local community assets to ensure our residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or cycle, in green and people-friendly streets.

In support of this strategy and to provide the support and assurance that our residents need throughout coronavirus, we also recently published our 12 commitments to residents. These include ensuring that vulnerable residents and families and residents do not go hungry over the winter, providing residents with face masks and our care homes with personal protective equipment, providing local contact tracing and doing everything we can to make sure nobody has to sleep rough. It’s just one more example of local government stepping in where Westminster government has failed.

With England back in lockdown, the coronavirus crisis is clearly far from over. We will still be dealing with the fallout for years to come, even if the government gets its act together and provides the leadership and support that has been utterly lacking so far. It is only through the inspiring commitment and ingenuity of this new generation of public servants that we will get through this crisis – and for them, I am profoundly grateful.

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