Back to Normal or Back to Better? Building on Positive Responses to Covid-19 in Northern Ireland


THE initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic was necessarily fast, with some new and reconfigured services being put in place in a matter of weeks, and it prompted a new level of collaboration between the public, voluntary, community and business sectors.

It seemed to illustrate that more effective ways of working, with potential to support longer term transformation of public services, were possible.

‘Back to Normal or Back to Better?’ explores what has been learned from this experience and what steps might be taken to build upon the positives so that they are sustained into normal ways of working in the future. (You can find it attached to this article or access it here: Back to Normal or Back to Better_.pdf

This new publication follows SCI's Communities and Covid: Stories and lessons from grassroots activists which captured the incredible grassroots response to Covid in the early stages of the pandemic. Communities talked about new forms of collaborative working with government, business and other communities.

It also follows on from a joint publication in Jan 2020 between SCI and Deloitte, Shifting Gear, which identified possible ways to accelerate the transformation of public services in Northern Ireland.

For ‘Back to Normal or Back to Better?’ SCI interviewed senior figures from government departments, health, education and the voluntary sector who had been leading change in response to the Covid-19 crisis. They spoke candidly to us about how they had worked differently, what factors enabled change and what had been learned for the future.

Leaders described the different phases of the crisis, from the significant anxiety and uncertainty of the initial response, through a period of consolidation where services got into a ‘new rhythm’, to the current period involving a return to pre-covid pressures while continuing to respond to the pandemic.

Some of the changes seen in ways of working related to:

  • A sense of common purpose - a reconnection with public service values and a shared sense of working in the public interest enabled more confident decision making, and shared development of solutions within and between organisations.
  • A challenging but rewarding time for staff - workers carried a heavy burden but in some ways their wellbeing had a higher than usual organisational priority with more focus on staff communications and emotional support. Some people in middle management roles were empowered to create solutions and take decisions and found that fulfilling.
  • More agile working - in addition to the shift to remote and flexible working across the public sector, there was a more agile approach to transformation - less striving for perfection and quicker deployment of solutions with improvement in the field.
  • New attempts to collaborate - many leaders reported greater collaboration between different parts of the public sector and between the public and other sectors (though this was not universal). There was a view that a new appreciation had developed of the respective strengths of the public, voluntary, community and private sectors. Developing new relationships in a crisis was difficult and pre-existing collaborative mechanisms provided a better starting place. Lack of engagement with citizens and service users was identified as a major shortcoming requiring immediate remedy.

According to leaders involved in the research, the key ways to sustain and build upon these developments involve supporting and investing in staff, opening up mature conversations with citizens, service users and advocates about the future of public services, continuing to build collaboration within and between sectors, and embedding the use of innovation methods that can speed up the implementation of change.

This report is part of SCI’s work on Making Change with Government, which draws on the lessons from the £62 million Atlantic Philanthropies partnership with Government and practice elsewhere to encourage public service transformation. SCI is keen to engage with organisations interested in building on these lessons to support those hardest hit by the pandemic and to improve outcomes for people living here, tackle disadvantage and make public services more sustainable into the future.