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The public sector in the new normal

Jenny Dickson sets out five trends that are likely to develop in the public sector in light of the coronavirus - and looks at their possible consequences.

The coronavirus has had an unprecedented effect on businesses and that includes public sector organisations and services. Here are five trends we have started to see in public sector organisations as a result of the pandemic.

1. Public sector organisations will face even greater budgetary challenges

The UK is facing a deep recession. Unemployment has already increased, particularly in Scotland, and unemployment figures are likely to increase further once the furlough period comes to an end.  The UK's debt has mounted as well, since the Government has been funding furloughed staff and business loans throughout the crisis. Public sector budgets, which have already been challenging in recent years, will be further restricted – and this may create a negative knock-on effect to public service delivery. A need for watertight budgets will be heightened but public organisations may need greater support or ability to raise funds in order to deliver service in the ways and at the speeds the public now expect.

2. There will be scrutiny over how public services have been managed throughout the pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK, legislation was passed quickly to deal with the emergency as it developed. This legislation made it a criminal offence to refuse to adhere to social distancing measures that were put in place. As well as this legislation being passed quickly, local authorities and central Government are having to make decisions at speed about how to deliver services in these difficult times.

However, not everyone will be content with the decisions that are being made, particularly those that involve a restriction on services and an assessment of the risks people are exposed to. Taking local authorities as an example, they still have obligations to deliver certain services, regardless of a global pandemic. The decisions they take may be open to challenge – we need only look at challenges to the plans for 'blended learning' for school children for an example. When there is more breathing space to do so, public sector entities will likely come under further scrutiny about how the delivery of public services has been managed.

3. There will be an increased pressure for digital transformation in the public sector

We are now all familiar with companies and products that many of us had not heard of before March of this year. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Houseparty are all now commonly used household names. Like all organisations, the public sector is having to keep up and ensure access to these technologies in order to continue to function while staff work remotely. A lot of work is required in the background to achieve this, particularly in public sector organisations where IT infrastructures can often be older to start with. They have had to consider what their systems currently support, whether new systems are secure, and indeed whether they comply with the greater security requirements which many public sector organisations adhere to.

In future, these types of systems are going to be even more important to the functioning of all organisations, including those in the public sector. While digital transformation in the public sector is not a new trend, the pace at which we are seeing it happen now is far faster than we may have imagined and hopefully, it won’t slow down. 

4. Local authorities have gone virtual – making it easier for communities to engage

A key way local authorities have adapted during the lockdown period has been through changes to the decision making process. While previously councillors would need to attend Committees in person, decisions can now be made virtually. This has allowed for decisions to continue during the pandemic and also makes for a more open and transparent process which the public can engage with more readily.  Virtual consultations with the public are also now commonplace, and look set to continue even when restrictions have been lifted.  The hope is that this will create greater engagement from communities in the council decision making process, simply because for some, virtual will be easier.

5. A greater reliance on online courts and online dispute resolution

One element of the public sector that is of particular interest to me has been the Scottish courts system throughout the lockdown, and how proceedings have – or have not - been able to take place over the last few months. We have, on the one hand, seen the speedy introduction of online courts, and criminal trials and civil cases in Scotland are now being heard online. However, there are considerable challenges to these hearings. Most obviously, all parties need access to the necessary technology, with suitable internet connections. Hearings involving witnesses cause greater difficulties, and concerns have been raised about this. Not only do the witnesses themselves need to be comfortable giving evidence from their own homes, but as it is not possible to see the full room the witness occupies, one cannot see whether or not a witness may be influenced by someone else who is "off screen" at their end. 

It is also not possible to conduct jury trials remotely, and a huge backlog has built up of criminal jury trials which are still to be heard. For many civil claims, there is a suggestion that mediation may become more popular, including by Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). That is a much faster and potentially more cost-effective method of resolving disputes. While this may work for the majority of disputes which involve money, it may not be suitable for much public sector litigation. Often a decision of the court is required to provide clarity and guidance on how to progress matters. For example, it may not be possible to resolve a judicial review without a determination by the court.

These trends will influence all aspects of the delivery of services by the public sector. In these fast changing times, organisations need to pedal quickly to keep up, while simultaneously ensuring they are prepared for the new normal in the future.

Jenny Dickson is a Partner and Solicitor Advocate on the Public Sector team at one of Scotland’s largest independent law firms Morton Fraser.