Four scenarios to help councils plan for uncertainty in the face of Covid-19

Published: 29 April 2020

FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
We recently conducted a scenario planning exercise for local government, exploring how local authorities could take positive action in response to coronavirus. 

The year is 1991 and South Africa is about to undertake one of the most successful transitions to democracy in history. But for Nelson Mandela and outgoing president FW de Klerk, the future is anything but certain.

Predictions of social conflict and forecasts of economic doom stoked divisive tensions. What they needed was a different way of thinking about the future, a process that would allow them to explore the different worlds they might inadvertently find themselves in. They turned to scenario planning.

Scenario planning

It’s a long way from Cape Town to Coventry, and from post-apartheid social upheavals to the Covid-19 crisis in the UK. But at times of extraordinary change and uncertainty, some rules stay the same: the challenges are epic, decisions are irreversible, and traditional planning tools aren’t up to the job.

What’s needed is a way to check our assumptions and allow ourselves to imagine that radically different futures are possible and plausible, or we risk entering the future with mindsets, ideas, and biases that no longer belong.

Scenario planning is one such approach. It has a rich history: a key feature of Cold War game theory, it is now used by Shell to map climate futures. The Singaporean government and the UK’s Government Office for Science use it for strategic planning, and US-based Innovation Labs has now developed 16 coronavirus scenarios for the global economy and governments.

Councils vs coronavirus

Councils are on the front line in the fight against coronavirus. We therefore adapted existing scenario planning methodologies to the current crisis and ran an initial exercise asking how councils can meet the needs of their local communities over the next 12 months.

We brought together 12 colleagues with operational and policy experience (including health, children’s services, employment, domestic abuse, community partnerships, local politics, data and digital) in a series of sessions over the course of a week. We assumed a gradual reduction in social restrictions to December 2020, and one further period of full lockdown in spring 2021.

Four scenarios, four different worlds

We developed four scenarios around two major uncertainties that are likely to impact the shape and nature of local government’s response over the next 12 months:

1. Responsibility — whether the crisis response is directed by central government, or whether leadership and decision-making is driven by localities;

2. Transformation — whether councils use the crisis to radically transform their operating models versus pressure to quickly return to more familiar practice and restore a sense of normality

By mapping these uncertainties onto a matrix, we were able to outline four different but plausible futures, as shown in the following diagram:

What makes scenario planning powerful is not just its ability to open minds to a range of possible futures, but also its impact on decisions that need to be taken here and now. 

Here are just three examples from our exercise of issues that will play out differently in each scenario:

  • Emerging demand: Those preparing now for future demand once social restrictions lift will be on the front foot. People-facing services (early help, children’s and adults social care, domestic abuse, homelessness, SEND etc.) and local health systems are likely to see secondary waves of demand overwhelm capacity. Councils may push their remit to help and prevent wider vulnerability, focus on core services, or even implement easements’ to statutory requirements. Will government try to direct local activity or allow councils flexibility to meet new needs as they differ from place to place?
  • National vs local priorities: Central government may come under enormous pressure to launch large social and economic quick-fix’ initiatives over the next 6 months. The impact and delivery could soak-up significant local resources, or, cut across and undermine local schemes put in place by authorities. Can local government leadership lobby for policy and funding with a coherent voice, or will local differences and political criticism embolden a top-down approach from Whitehall?
  • Workforce: Staff that can quickly learn and adapt during the crisis will make a huge difference, but could experience burn-out. There will be tough decisions about ways of working (e.g. virtual) and better ways to communicate with residents. Change fatigue may set in, and many staff members could find their skills and capabilities challenged by the new normal. Will senior management have a strategy to support staff in new ways of working and partnerships, and the capability to create more distributed forms of decision-making?

Many council teams are working round the clock to meet unprecedented needs, leaving little time to make sense of what might come next. We hope these scenarios are an initial contribution to empower colleagues in local government to shape the new normal.

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