Jacqui Dixon, Chief Executive of Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, discusses her pride in frontline service continuity throughout COVID-19, as well as the ways her Council as embedded a culture of employee engagement in spite of the threats to jobs and services.
In December 2020, I was invited to share how Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council in Northern Ireland continued to provide high performing frontline services during the COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 at the APSE Performance Networks Seminar. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested all of us, staff, management team and Elected Members but I am very proud of our response.
Our local community - residents and businesses – needed us in a time of crisis and through our employee engagement strategy and the close working relationship with our Elected Members, we helped them in every way possible. Essential services were delivered and additional requests from Central Government for local support were also taken on and the flexibility shown by staff made this possible. I am confident that the important role that local government plays in the lives of citizens is recognised and valued going forward.
Our immediate focus was on cemeteries in the rapidly changing landscape in early spring. This area of life, so sensitive and so difficult was the first to experience changes, in the small number of mourners who could attend, new procedures at the grave side and how staff looked – hazmat suits, gloves and masks – not a sight people were used to. Our cemetery staff were truly at the front line and really did not know what they were facing. They addressed their own fears and concerns for themselves and their families and ensured that committals were as dignified, respectful and sensitive as possible in the circumstances.
For a fairly lengthy period our cemeteries were closed to visitors which itself proved very difficult for some residents. Other challenges included staff shortages both due to additional staff being required for committals and staff either testing positive or self-isolating. We could not afford for this front line service to be impacted and assistance came in the form of some very enthusiastic volunteers from our leisure centres which were closed. A small but committed group put themselves forward and offered to help in any way they could. They were quickly redeployed to cemeteries, waste and to other community facing roles. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these fantastic members of staff and their can do attitude ensured that service delivery in high profile frontline services could be continued. We were overwhelmed by the response and, as their Chief Executive, I was pleased and proud of them.
As an example, Brian Creighton, from our leisure team who worked during COVID-19 in a number of key roles but mainly in cemeteries, said, “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a total transformation getting out of the office and into the fresh air, working with the public and different staff. The cemeteries are areas you drive past every day and you never think much about it. It is only when you are involved, or you have to go to a funeral that you realise what an important role they play and what goes on in the background to prepare a site for funerals and the sensitivities that come along with that.”
Moving through the season our focus on cemeteries meant that normal grass cutting was not completed and our summer plants had arrived. We did not have the staff to plant them. The leisure team again stepped up and helped with grass cutting as complaints were on the increase – despite the pandemic. We put a callout to the community to help and we had dozens of volunteers who came out to help us with our planting and indeed who looked after watering and weeding over the summer period.
In terms of Waste and Recycling, the immediate concern again was the safety of staff. Personal Protective Equipment, perspex panels in vehicles and providing vans to transport staff to various locations across the Borough because they couldn’t travel in the same vehicle were all provided. We kept our refuse collections going throughout the restrictions and our waste teams received thank you notes on their vehicle windows as well as sweets/biscuits and Easter eggs from residents. The closure of Household Recycling Centres was another difficult decision to implement with considerable complaints from residents. Re-opening inevitably led to unprecedented demand, however our IT staff developed an online appointment system which is still successfully in operation.
Our Environmental Health team has never been busier, various demands on them resulted in increases of 14% for noise complaints, 17% for online dog licence renewals and a staggering 55% for fly-tipping. In addition, they were responsible for the enforcement of social distancing in businesses and the various changes to restrictions across the business sector.
It will not come as a surprise to emphasise the vital importance of communication through all channels - with our residents, Elected Members and staff throughout that difficult period. Enhanced Customer Service through the introduction of a ‘live chat’ facility resulted in resident satisfaction rates of between 84% and 92%. As you can appreciate, social media played an extremely important role in terms of our COVID-19 communications strategy. Our reach increased by an unprecedented 47% to 9.65m. We even received a few compliments and we don’t normally get many of these! These referred to improved online booking for a range of our services/fitness classes, professionalism of staff, customer excellence and hard work and dedication.
The Registration service for Antrim and Newtownabbey remained open throughout the pandemic. We put new arrangements in place to protect staff and the public and continued to provide the high calibre of empathy required for this important service.
Bearing in mind that Northern Ireland Councils have no responsibility for social services, we worked alongside local community groups and foodbanks, to ensure that our community response was targeted, efficient and addressed the very real needs of residents. When asked by the Northern Ireland Executive, we mobilised our staff to set up the logistics to distribute over 18,000 food boxes to the most vulnerable in society. Again our staff across the Council willingly volunteered their services to achieve this extraordinary community initiative. We also put in place daily telephone calls to the most vulnerable to check that they were well, thereby providing an opportunity for the only chats that some people had over the course of the lockdown.
To show our gratitude, we realised it was important to recognise key community workers, community groups and businesses in our Borough. The Mayor was involved with visiting these outstanding people and presented thank you certificates.
Remote working became the new norm for our staff underpinned by the IT infrastructure and new forms of working such as ‘live chat’. Up to 250 staff, including our customer service and business support teams, were equipped in a short space of time to continue to handle calls from the public from home.
Staff health, safety and wellbeing has been at the forefront of everything we have done during COVID-19. We set up a dedicated Human Resources Support Hub which has received over 1,000 calls to date, a much appreciated resource for our staff during times of uncertainty and anxiety.
Our Elected Members were stalwarts to say the least, for residents, community groups, businesses and staff, quickly stepping up in their civic leadership roles. They also adapted very quickly to new ways of working now that our Council meetings are virtual.
Like everyone we are planning for recovery and a return to ‘business as usual’ along with addressing the challenges presented by Brexit. However, I’m optimistic about the future and realistic to know that rebuilding our economies and supporting our communities will present further demands. As experienced public servants we recognise the benefits of working in partnership with our stakeholders in both the public and private sectors.
I genuinely believe all of the councils deserve an enormous amount of credit and recognition for their leadership in meeting the extraordinary demands that this pandemic has presented and it has emphasised the civic leadership roles that Councils perform on a day and daily basis within our societies and hopefully this recognition will continue into the future.
• Jacqui delivered a presentation on how frontline services are responding to the new normal at the APSE Performance Networks Seminar 2020. You can watch a recording of the presentation here.