In our Decades in Days series, we talk to the people leading change in local government. They tell us about their work, their place, and the effect of COVID-19 on both. We find out how they are dealing with the incredible demands of a pandemic, and how this moment might be used to shift and shape public services for good. This week, we speak to Kushal Birla, Assistant Director – Business and Customer Services, at NLGN member Warwickshire County Council.
COVID-19 has resulted in one of the biggest social experiments in peace time. Within days and weeks, the country, councils, the voluntary sector and communities came together to respond to a crisis which has no rules or boundaries.
It was transformational how we galvanised the whole workforce in days. We worked with district and borough councils, emergency services, community and voluntary sectors and military planners to put the shielding hub together; to ensure all our extremely vulnerable people were protected; we set up local delivery hubs, the new hotline freephone number and sent information to the residents. Council staff were reassigned to help in the shielding hub, with befriending calls, delivering library books – everything. It’s just amplified our can-do mindset. I’m very proud of my colleagues who have just got on with it.
Communities have shown they can just get on with it – they don’t always need the local authority there. During the pandemic, people have got down to basics; they haven’t unnecessarily complicated things. Things like putting leaflets through neighbours’ doors, volunteering, setting up WhatsApp groups asking, ‘Do you need anything? Shopping? Medicine?’
Sometimes local government should take the lead, sometimes we should co-produce and other times participate and support. Relationships and dialogue building are really important. We have to leave job titles and egos at home and focus on why we’re all here.
Handing over our libraries to the community was a game changer. A few years ago, we transferred around half of our libraries to community control. It completely changed what library spaces are used for, opening them up to do so much more for communities. They’ve hosted dance lessons, pantomimes, fish and chips suppers, film screenings as well as providing a library service. These libraries are now vibrant places that bring all kinds of groups together.
It sounds very sentimental, but it was the idea of public service that drew me to this work. Doing something for other people gives you a sense of fulfilment which is long lasting. It’s the reason we’re here – we are serving the public – and it’s very important we don’t forget that.
I grew up mostly in Kenya and Malawi. I first came to Leamington Spa to do a law degree. I must say, I find Warwickshire very beautiful. We have a lot of advantages – networks to connect into cities, but also lovely countryside. We’ve got diversity as well. I would describe myself as a townie – so living in Leamington Spa suits me well. What ultimately makes somewhere home is the relationships you make with the people living in the area. Family, friends and colleagues make this a rich place.
During the pandemic we’ve all had to work together and deliver services at pace – that’s what I’d like to bottle. Next, I’d like to think about the role of these communities in society’s recovery and ask how we as a council can strengthen the roots we’ve helped to establish.
I don’t think any other type of organisation can offer so much variety. I’ve done a number of jobs here it’s almost like I’ve worked for dozens of different organisations. It’s such a great career.