Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, and Stephen Crookbain, Director of the National Leadership Centre, report on what worked well and what didn’t during the pandemic response
In my last column for FIRE magazine, I wrote about the amazing work that fire and rescue services have done to support their communities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I also set out my commitment to you to dedicate my work to ensuring the Fire and Rescue Service in the UK is one that we – and the public – continue to hold in high regard.
The relationships we have with our peers across the public sector is a very important part of this, so I am delighted to be writing this column jointly with Stephen Crookbain, the Director of the National Leadership Centre and a key partner of NFCC.
The National Leadership Centre’s (NLC) mission is to help the country’s most senior public service leaders develop the skills, knowledge and networks required to address society’s most complex challenges. To do this, we work together to unite a network of fire chiefs, local authority and NHS CEOs, civil servants, vice-chancellors and more.
Recently, the NLC has launched the Public Leaders Report 2021 at NationalLeadership.gov.uk. The report illustrates what worked and how during the pandemic, and the lessons we learned from both successes and failures. Its aim is to celebrate the people and organisations on whom we all depended. We want to prompt discussions about what we must all do now to support them and others in similar roles in making 2020 achievements an enduring feature of post-Covid life.
Unique Pressures and Challenges
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything, including the relationship between public services, citizens and communities. To support the country during this time of immense challenge, public servants responded, adapted and worked together to achieve exceptional things, and fire and rescue services were at the heart of it.
Both of us focus our work on the challenges facing the public sector and helping people to overcome them. The pressures of Covid have been unique. Universal Credit claims surged in unprecedented numbers – just under a million in the fortnight after the first lockdown. Teaching across all age groups moved entirely online within days. Through great adversity our colleagues have worked together and made things happen in ways that nobody would have thought possible in February 2020.
Covid has not been the only challenge facing fire and rescue – and public services of course. Work to keep people safe, to protect the environment, to narrow inequality gaps in education and health, have continued. But the pandemic has placed an additional strain on people and organisations, complicating the strategic and operational landscape for the whole public sector.
Insights and Lessons
The Public Leaders Report 2021 captures what it was like to lead during such a tough year. The stories, including candid insights, reflections, and lessons on leading through the pandemic from 20 chief executives across the country, are compelling. They put faces, places and context to abstract terms like ‘collaboration’ and ‘ innovation’, and explain what we might retain for the future.
We were particularly pleased to feature the outstanding achievements of fire and rescue services across the country supporting the vaccination campaign. It is something we will all look back on with pride, and as Phil Garrigan – NFCC’s Covid lead – said in the report: ‘It is incredible how much has been undertaken in such a short period of time’.
The London Fire Brigade’s partnership with the London Ambulance Service also features in the report as another example of the public sector supporting the NHS in its hour of need. This model was also seen in many other parts of the country, and as well as celebrating this fantastic work, the lessons shared can help others think about the future of blue light collaboration and leadership.
In seven Portraits of Public Service Leaders, NLC’s interviews with CEOs capture insights we hope apply to many: business continuity, prioritisation, looking after your own physical and mental health and that of your teams, keeping perspective, focusing on the positive. Wayne Bowcock, CFO of Gloucestershire FRS at the time of his interview, shared his views on leading during the pandemic.
It is not just the stories that include fire and rescue services that are relevant. The campaign to support food banks by further education colleges can help you think about building and resetting relationships with people you work with on a regular basis. The partnership models that are featured from Newcastle and Leicestershire are different approaches to building relationships around joint community outcomes.
Together we are greater than the sum of our parts, and we hope you find this report refreshing, illuminating, and inspiring.
Working Together to Support the Public Sector
Relationships built in crisis will last. Both NFCC and NLC will do all it can to help leaders to keep these links strong as we recover and rebuild. We will also help leaders to ‘pay it forward’, supporting the next generation to build strong and deep networks, without the prompt of a pandemic.
It will be important to ensure a cross-public sector approach. Between us, we will share our research on what works to help design cutting-edge leadership programmes and network events. And the NLC is extending its offer and creating new connections between CEOs across the country, to help extend the links that have proved so vital over the last year.
In many ways, the work featured in this report has only just begun.
You can view the Public Leaders Report 2021 in full at NationalLeadership.gov.uk.