BER20: Change and innovation in pandemic times

Birmingham City Council 

This blog post was produced for inclusion in the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020.

The annual Birmingham Economic Review is produced by the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, with contributions from the West Midlands Growth Company. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.

This post is featured in Chapter 1 of the Birmingham Economic Review for 2020, on Birmingham’s Economic Outlook Before and After the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Click here to read the Review.

Coronavirus-19 first appeared in the world in December 2019, arriving in the UK in February and Birmingham in the second week of March 2020, and although at the time I knew my team and I were facing challenges, I had little understanding of the depth of innovation and change that we would need to adapt in the days and weeks to come.

I joined the City Council in February 2019, taking on a multi-disciplinary team that had been through multiple restructures and I was their fourth DPH in two years. Over most of 2019, we worked together to refresh and rebalance the team and set a clear focus and a strong approach to community engagement and partnership. The political and partnership support for public health has been strong and we are fortunate to have a cabinet and opposition who value and support public health.

Initially, as the situation evolved we could manage this as part of business as usual but things quickly needed to change and by early March I moved the team into emergency continuity mode, stepping down the normal business to free staff up to focus on translating the rapidly changing national guidelines and predicting as much as possible the next moves of this dangerous disease.

In the early days before lockdown, we set up a public health response room, using large whiteboards to track guidelines and actions, moving to a daily rhythm of internal briefings and rotating staff through the room daily. In this early phase, the team developed new skills at pace, individuals teaching each other and finding solutions to challenges. Working with the University of Birmingham when hand sanitiser was running out we created a large batch, which the team then scoured bottles from across the city centre and funnel filled and labelled ourselves before distributing to front line social care staff and essential council staff.

When lockdown came, we moved virtual in 24hrs, prior to lockdown we had started the transition to Office365 but social interaction and large team meetings were the norm so we had to adapt and innovate. The team quickly set up a virtual kitchen space that alternated between pet pictures and sharing tips on keeping healthy in mind and body during lockdown. We built on this to launch monthly virtual quiz nights where members of the team developed quiz rounds, as lockdown went on these got more and more inventive – the most recent quiz included a conveyor belt generation game memory round complete with the cuddly toy!

One of the areas we have worked to get right has been line management support. As the pressure has ramped up and the team has had to take on very different roles, learned new skills, and wrestled with different dashboards and data sets, making time and finding connection has become harder and tempers and relationships have been frayed. Making it clear that 121 sessions were important and should be scheduled and respected has been important and modelling this from the top has been key.

In June we ran a staff survey across the team to reflect on how home working was impacting people and also capture ideas and thoughts on how things could be improved as well as a questionnaire about my own leadership style and then discussed these at a virtual team away day.  

Handling these changes has not been easy but it has been helped by having open and honest conversations about the challenges and as a director talking about how hard some of this experience is, encouraging authentic conversations and sharing tips and hints.

Innovation hasn’t just been about social skills, we have had to find different ways to talk to communities and listen as well as inform. Over the last three months, we have done engagement through a wide range of different formats. Working with community partners we have done Instagram live with young people, BSL interpreted Q&A sessions with our deaf community and live online TV interviews in Mirpuri and Punjabi.  

There have been moments where we have had to innovate at pace designing services and solutions within hours or where we have been lucky days. This has ranged from a rapid solution with local university labs to a lack of hand sanitisers to designing an outbreak response support function and surveillance approach to give support to complex situations in our communities.

Innovation has required an open and authentic management style, talking about what is working and what can be improved, being honest about the challenges, and allowing space for everyone to contribute, although I don’t think our virtual whiteboard jams should be saved for posterity.  Over the last six months, we have laid strong foundations but this pandemic is a war not a single battle and the strategy and approach requires continued innovation and adaption and there are many more that will be needed in the weeks and months ahead.

Dr Justin Varney
Director of Public Health
Birmingham City Council