The levelling-up agenda remains crucial, with people in the north of England, east Midlands, south-west and Wales in particular feeling underserved in comparison with the rest of the country, and COVID-19 has also accelerated questions about devolution. As discussed further here. Britons want public services to focus on jobs, and particularly opportunities for young people, as and when the country moves into the recovery phase. Although the pandemic still tops our Issues Index, we’ve also seen big rises in concern about the economy and unemployment, while professional footballer Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign about school meals has brought poverty and inequality back into the limelight.10
There are two pieces of good news for public services. Firstly, the public are looking for the state to take the lead (as we saw on behaviours around masks, for example).11 This was a trend we were already seeing before COVID-19, with the pendulum of public opinion moving towards a bigger state in response to austerity. But there are signs this has been reinforced by the pandemic, with strong support for many of the decisive actions that only government could take.
Secondly, despite the challenges, there is confidence in public services to adapt to changes that coronavirus brings. The upside of having to make the most of limited resources to come up with new ways of responding to the pandemic is that there may be more openness towards risk-taking and experimentation in the future.
The pandemic has brought many hardships but has shown how public services can deliver in an emergency. Necessity has provided a common purpose, more flexible working, new collaborations and openness to innovation. But a crisis-footing is not sustainable in the long run and, despite funding pressures, public services’ remit covers much more than just the coronavirus. Managing the transition to something nearer normality and learning the lessons of delivery in the face of adversity will be vital for public service leaders – and maybe, having a real conversation about what the British want from the state in 2021 and beyond.