In which everything is STILL extremely very important and urgent

the view from Headen Warren

I wrote about our approach to prioritisation a while ago and we have been progressing the work. Spoiler alert: its still really bloody hard and there is still more stuff to do than time (or people) to do it.

The cost of living crisis that we see unfolding in front of us feels almost unreal in terms of its scale (have a look at this data from Citizens Advice to see what I mean). This is a crisis which is highlighting the fragility of the housing sector and the precariat state of people who didn’t believe that they were in a precarious position – let alone the people who were already experiencing poverty. As a sector we are seeing exponential growth in terms of people coming to us for help and we know that is replicated throughout the system.

That being said we have responsibilities and pressures which go beyond what we are seeing at our front door and in the data we have about our communities and we have internal pressures as a result of inflation on our running costs (energy! construction!) and also on our staff.

These are things which are being talked about in many places with many Big Ideas and Solutions suggested. But we need to respond right now in a practical way, we can’t assume help is coming from central government and that means we need to prioritise.

Prioritisation is best done from a place of calm, a place of knowing that you share a view of what is important. As we know from the pandemic – a crisis can actually create this calm as its clear what’s important and get it done. We can score stuff, we can rank stuff, but when prioritisation actually works it means something to people and they take collective responsibility for making it happen.

Prioritisation is important beyond the need to create a sustainable organisation that operates within its resources – but also in terms of clarity and focus – good prioritisation makes it clear what you are doing and why.

Leaning into the thinking, feeling, doing work I talked about here, we have started to test our corporate priorities with a wider group of people and we have also done a few forced choice exercises where we look at our collective view around where to focus. With the lens of the cost of living crisis being our focus at the moment it was not a surprise to find keeping people in their homes and making sure that people have the basics of what they need coming strongly to the top – but it was striking the consensus that the choice game showed us.

More technocratic ways of scoring and prioritising often send us to the place shaped by our constraints where collective wisdom will show us what we all know – our priority is to look after the people who need us most. This shift in how we do this requires a leap of faith that I hope we are able to make.

We are going to need to go deeper into this and work out what we can put down to prioritise what we need to but as I write I am also starting to ask if there is another lens to look at which is the generational one – how do we avoid prioritising today’s crisis over tomorrow’s? I see the consequences of short term prioritisation all around in public services where we have chipped away at the work we do to prevent problems being part of the reason why we are seeing such need now. We are also seeing the consequences of a failure to really attack our dependency on overseas fossil fuels with acute energy insecurity which only compounds what we are seeing now.

But while I can talk about how we are honing our priorities down – the truth is it is always more complicated than that sounds. While our priorities are clear it doesn’t mean these are our only responsibilities. Our foundational services – the one that keep the bins emptied, our places clear and our services running are vital to the resilience of our places and are also priorities. Stepping back and looking at the whole – we are being forced once again into difficult choices.

As well as the prioritisation being driven from our corporate plan —which in turn is in service of the political manifestos of our two councils — work we have also been trying to throttle our in-year spend as a number of facets take us well beyond budgeted spend (energy!). This is also bloody hard. Teams are already over stretched and work programmes are there for a reason – we didn’t go into the year with a luxurious set of optional projects. Its also complex – reducing spend in one area almost always pops up as a cost or stretch somewhere else.

But the same problem can’t have two different answers – and so we are using our collective wisdom to look at in-year costs. Rather than a top down approach to managing staff costs our in-year prioritisation work is starting to bend towards our corporate plan sooner rather than later. Rather than small cuts we will stand back and try and try and make some bold choices – it feels like our biggest priority is to make sure that we can do that without breaking anything.

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