At the start of the year, you would be hard pushed to find anyone who didn’t think the Brexit transition would be the political hallmark of 2020.

Friday, 23rd October 2020, 7:00 am

Some court proceedings have started to take place virtually to enable trials to go ahead, a development previously not expected for years, says Maggie Moodie (Picture: Jamie Callaghan)
Some court proceedings have started to take place virtually to enable trials to go ahead, a development previously not expected for years, says Maggie Moodie (Picture: Jamie Callaghan)

And while the year isn’t over yet, it suffices to say no one could have anticipated a global pandemic, and the subsequent restrictions on our everyday way of life.

As a result, many of us may turn a closer eye on governments to see what steps are taken next. Lockdowns on a regional or national scale, the furlough scheme, decisions around returning to education – all of these are just a few examples of a fast-moving feast with drastic implications for many.

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And while Brexit fell off the mainstream radar for many months of lockdown, attention to it is rightly seeing a resurgence as sectors identify how it might make an impact, especially as the UK government pushes to agree a trade deal this month.

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This all begs the question – how might these events, and the precedence public services are setting in their responses, impact our expectations of public services going forward?

After a year when many decisions have moved quickly, will we expect faster decision-making to be ingrained in the future? After days of daily government briefings, will we demand the same levels of communication and greater transparency when these events are both in the rear-view mirror?

Rapid decision-making has created a potential opportunity for public sector leaders to make change more quickly when they feel it is needed. But rapid movement also reduces time for debate and scrutiny so we may only know the outcomes in hindsight. It’s unlikely to see this period pass without questioning of the decisions made and implemented faster than we have seen before, and while pace has increased, an expectation of evidence and accountability may increase as well.

Decision-making aside, public services have digitised a number of services in a short space of time. In the Scottish legal sector, court proceedings have started to take place virtually to enable some trials to go ahead despite distancing restrictions. This is a development we didn’t expect to see for years, let alone weeks.

The Registers of Scotland also created an online service so that land transactions could proceed. Then there are the local authorities that now hold virtual consultations.

Pre-pandemic, this type of digitisation may have taken some years to move from concept to implementation. And, as consumers quite widely expect to access more digital services, more often, consumption of public services is likely to trend in the same way.

This puts pressure on the public sector to offer more frequent, user-friendly digital support. More digital capabilities could improve engagement with public services – virtual consultations may make a good example of this – simply by virtue of making access easier for some.

The last couple of years – and especially the last few months – have likely changed public perceptions of public services in a variety of ways. With changing perceptions come changing expectations. Just as no one could predict the events in 2020, only time will tell whether these changes are the starting gun for what’s to come.

Maggie Moodie is chair and head of the public sector team at independent Scottish law firm, Morton Fraser

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