Resilience in local government – what do we mean? Blog by Katie Grigg, CfPS Research Officer

Posted on January 16, 2020 by Jenny Manchester. Tags: , , ,

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Resilience in Local Government

As the new decade unfolds and we reflect on the past 10 years in local government, it is timely to review the current position of local government and its ability to respond to austerity, uncertainty and how well it is prepared for future threats and opportunities. Whilst there have been some examples of failure, we would argue local government is a collectively a showcase for organisational resilience.

‘Resilience’ has become a buzzword across many disciplines, and for a concept traditionally applied to engineering, ecology and psychology its transfer to other contexts involves a degree of interpretation. The Latin root of resilience roughly translates to ‘bounce’, but as its use has widened the application of resilience to governance is open to debate. When we talk about resilience in local government, should it convey councils ‘bouncing back’ to a pre-shock state, or ‘bouncing forward’ by re-stabilising on an adjusted and improved basis? How do we identify the characteristics of resilient governance in practice? Does resilience come after, before or during the onset of a major occurrence? How do we assemble resilient local government?

Whilst this thought-piece won’t provide any definitive answers to the above questions, we think they are important points to raise and discuss, with a view to shape the way we think about organisational resilience in councils across the country.

Resilient characteristics are easy to advocate for, but maybe the conventional ‘strong, unyielding, relentless’ impression needs a bit more nuance. In our view, resilience is more than withstanding or mitigating risk, resilience is about being continually open, aware and ready for risk. Rather than a fixed outcome or an indicator to measure, it should be understood as an evolving process, the ability to negotiate flux on an ongoing basis. In the context of local government, resilience is the acceptance of risk, understanding that it’s unavoidably embedded into the process of governance. Resilient governance involves self-awareness, challenging ‘wilful blindness’, recognising inner dynamics and relationships with the wider locality. Resilient governance strives to bridge gaps in knowledge, learning from prior events and for future scenarios, identifying limitations, whilst seeking to address shortcomings. At its core, resilient governance could be compared to seeing things in slow-motion: with heightened perception where risk is anticipated, and behaviours are adapted in real-time.

But the challenge of resilient governance is in how to institute it, because with any feat that aims to change organisational culture, it will take time and resources. Resilient capabilities require cultivating, and accepted practices must be questioned. Assembling resilient governance is derived from internal conditions, through listening and support there should be a focus on human connections, especially how staff at all levels experience and respond to uncertainty and conflict. Whilst some contexts enhance the likelihood of risk – and local vulnerabilities must be understood – resilient governance is how councils respond to circumstances beyond their control. And, through a holistic approach, councils that collaborate with communities and partners will generate networks of trust and expertise that are vital in challenging times.

Essentially, when organisational culture is built around resilient capabilities and developing collective responsibility, councils are best placed at noticing early warning signs and coping with adversity. But, for resilience to be an effective framework in local governance, it shouldn’t simply be oriented to restoring the status-quo. Surely, it must have a transformative aspect, empowering councils to re-invent themselves. Resilience in local government should be seen as an act of solidarity, ‘bouncing forwards’ together, emerging more resourceful with dynamism and vision, driven to deliver quality public services, compelled by the will to continually improve and to learn from cautionary tales.

Watch this space later this year as we share the results of a research project looking at early warning signs of risks to resilience in governance.