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Following on from our recent blog post on the principles that can underpin a new approach to learning and accountability, here we explore the imperative and opportunity to apply these principles in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a recent roundtable convened by GO Lab and Collaborate CIC we explored the need to reconcile flexibility for learning with accountability for public funds. In practice this is challenging, not least due to the layers of bureaucracy and structures that typically accompany approaches to governance and accountability, and a dominant focus on ‘demonstrating value’ over enabling learning.

COVID has created a unique context in which traditional accountability measures and approaches have had to be put to one side — while in some cases command and control approaches have dominated, in other cases, the focus has been on learning and adaption in a complex and fast-moving context.

Whether it’s multi-disciplinary teams responding to people as individuals rather than recipients of standardised services, Council leaders sitting around the same table as foodbank workers to share insights about what’s needed locally, or professionals freed up to use their judgement to adapt in real time, we’re seeing new learning-focused approaches emerge rapidly because the context demands it.

Importantly, COVID has also increased the visibility of the role of communities in driving change. There is a multitude of stories of how people pulled together to help neighbours in need of support and how mutual aid groups emerged overnight far quicker than any formal service could. In this there is important learning about what can be achieved when a range of actors in a local system are mobilised behind a shared purpose, and the new relationship required to enable this. For example, how can public services step back from delivery in places where local people and organisations have already mobilised effectively? Instead, how can they play an enabling role by acting on insights from communities about what is needed and finding ways to fix or ‘unblock’ aspects of services and systems that aren’t fit for purpose?

Trust and transparency are key to enabling this. At the recent roundtable participants described how good information shared openly is key to holding organisations to account for the quality of their response to learning and how they adapt in complex, uncertain environments. This means that all stakeholders have to engage with the data, and that judgements may not be clear cut.

The response to COVID provides important insights. In an interview with the RSA, Geoff Mulgan talked about the relative performance of governments around the world on COVID and what that means for their potential performance on other issues. He saw the distinguishing factor being about the richness and transparency of data openly shared with citizens so that there is a shared understanding of the problem and the decisions that flow from it. Similarly, Nigel Ball wrote recently about the need for well-designed systems of transparency to provide the missing link between trust and accountability both in immediate response to the crisis and longer term. He suggests that when working in an environment of high transparency, public officials have a strong incentive to uphold the integrity of public service delivery and to learn how to do things well.

The pandemic has forced us to rethink accountability in practice. This presents an opportunity to change things for the long term, but it is a fragile opportunity. As outlined in this Collaborate blog post, Anna Randle argues that we need to be purposeful if we are to create a new normal rather than revert to what we had before. Already there are examples of places and organisations defaulting back to traditional mindsets and structures, thinking about how to apply standard processes and to codify new approaches in a way that makes them feel more familiar and ‘safe.’ But in retrofitting bureaucracy, there’s a risk we lose what was different and effective about the new practice — the trust in communities and workers to do the right thing, the focus on shared purpose not organisational boundaries, and the flexibility to do what’s needed, not what’s always been done.

Clearly we need to ensure safety, to prevent misuse of public resources, and in what will be a constrained financial environment, to make informed decisions about where resources go. But this doesn’t mean we need to default to old accountability practices. This is a moment to reshape how we conceive the purpose of accountability and what a useful approach looks like. To think about what’s appropriate in what context, about changing relationships between citizens and the state, about how accountability can enable learning not hinder it, about how we can make more transparent and informed judgements, and about how we can do this together in a way that builds shared purpose rather than undermines it.