How One Local Council Team Went From Chasing Debt To Issuing Grants
Meet David. Three years with Stratford District Council managing a team of 120 with a diverse remit – business rates, customer services, benefits and information technology. He’s worked in councils of all shapes and sizes but nothing in his twenty plus year career could have prepared for the pandemic. He says his world has been turned upside down. Yet a month on David feels on top of things and immensely proud of his team, thriving even. This is his story.
When lockdown started I felt totally out of control
“We do business continuity plans but these are for flooding and local events, nothing like this. When lockdown started I felt totally out of control. I’d be watching the Coronavirus briefing at 5pm, Government would be making announcements that we hadn’t been privy too. The next morning the phones would be ringing from businesses and residents, yet we didn’t know any more than they did.”
One of his first challenges was working out which of his team should be classed as key workers, not least his IT team who had to quickly get the vast majority of the council – 200 more people than usual – working from home. As David says, “Getting laptops was like sourcing gold. But we did it. The problem is that the whole world wants to homework now.”
Calls went up by 50%
His customer services team have certainly been key workers too, calls went up by 50%. As David says, “We were getting calls from people about benefits that had never called us before. They knew nothing about the benefits world other than maybe Child Benefit. Now they had no income and wanted to find out how to claim, they assume that because they’ve paid tax and National Insurance they will be eligible. We have to break the news that it doesn’t work like that and explain how to apply online too. People are really worried about their health with the virus – and on top of that how they will feed their family without an income. Our team need huge amounts of empathy to take these calls.”
Getting out Government grants to businesses
Perhaps the biggest change for David’s team is the work to get the Government grants out to businesses. Normally David has staff chasing people for non payment of council tax and getting money owed back into the council, this all stopped. Now his team are getting the Government grants of £10k and £25K to eligible businesses. As David says, “it’s a completely different role for the team. They are working weekends to get the money out to businesses. One long standing member of staff recently emailed saying how much he was enjoying the change in role. If we phone and ask businesses for their bank details to pay the money into their account they think it’s a scam…so we’ve been working all hours to get them to give us their details online so we can get the money to them.”
So far £22 million has been paid out to thousands of businesses and they’ve been really appreciative too. As David says, “it’s been heartening to get such lovely feedback. One from AND Home Care Services says, ‘thanks for getting this grant to us, it’s been a difficult time for all and I commend the staff at SDC – it’s brought out the best of British.’”
The lockdown will change how we work forever
David sums up, “There’s a sense there will be a ‘new’ normal. The lockdown will change how we work forever. Home working, online meetings, including council meetings, people pulling together to do what’s needed will be the norm. We’ve had our leisure centre staff getting food parcels together and out to residents. That flexibility of getting on with whatever job is needed is here to stay.”
Would he recommend the council as a place work? “If you want a challenge and to make a difference this crisis has proved beyond doubt the critical role of councils. So yes. If you asked me a month ago when lockdown first hit I might have had a different view, but today we are on top of things and all pulling together and getting on with what’s needed to help our residents and businesses.”
One of his colleagues Beverley had this to say about David, “David’s been a great support to his staff and remained in the office most days to support his services, including buying chocolate.”
To relax David is making sure he uses his daily outdoor exercise to enjoy the amazing scenery around Stratford by walking and cycling and by watching Money Heist on Netflix.