November 2020: How Surrey Heath’s virtual internships became a ‘bright spot’ of 2020

Surrey Heath Borough Council’s summer internship programme had been going from strength-to-strength since its inception in 2017, delivering real benefits for the council and the students taking part. But COVID-19 meant there were real doubts whether it could happen this year in a meaningful way…

photo of Surrey Heath interns

Alex Buckwell and Sarah Bainbridge from the Transformation Service at Surrey Heath tell us what they learnt from ‘going virtual’, why they would recommend internship programmes to other authorities and how this year’s programme unexpectedly became a ‘bright spot’ of 2020.

Pandemic problems

It’s odd to look back to March 2020, when ‘Zoom’ was most likely to conjure the image of a rocket-shaped ice lolly...

Back in March we had just closed applications for our paid summer internship programme. We were delighted to get 100 high calibre applications from students across the country and even abroad. We had the budget for eight placements and an assessment and selection day planned for around 50 shortlisted candidates in mid-April.

Then… Covid Lockdown. Overnight we changed to working at home and 80 per cent of our workforce redeployed to some extent to help with the council’s welfare response supporting the most vulnerable in the Borough.

Surrey Heath’s Corporate Management Team were keen to go ahead with the programme and saw it as a way of supporting the council’s recovery work. But we worried about how we could make it work, although at that stage we hoped we might be back to some state of normality by the summer. How could we finish the recruitment and selection without our assessment day? Would the placements still be viable? What sort of experience would the interns get if they couldn’t come into the building?

Looking back to the start – from small acorns…

Louise Livingston, Executive Head of Transformation, shares how and why the internships started at Surrey Heath and grew to the current programme.

“Like much of local government, our council has an ageing demographic in its workforce so we wanted to look at initiatives to introduce younger people to local government, giving them live projects to work on and learn about all of our different services and that would also benefit the authority.

So, we decided to take on undergraduates over the holiday periods and the scheme started in 2017 with the employment of one undergraduate who reported directly to me in Economic Development.

Our intern successfully worked with the Media and Marketing Team to organise a regeneration promotional event. This was a new and different experience for our intern, but it was also a learning experience for me because she came up with different ideas and ways of doing things that I perhaps wouldn’t have.”

Making it work in 2020

An online questionnaire and numerous virtual interviews gave us eight fantastic candidates. We matched them with their interests and skills in placements throughout the council. But as the summer grew closer, it became obvious that our hopes of being back to any sort of ‘normal’ would be dashed and most of the interns would be working entirely remotely. One benefit of that was we were able to offer placements to students from across the country – from the South Coast to Northern Scotland – and they were easily able to take part.

We put in place some things to give them a good insight into the organisation while remote working:

Mentoring scheme – we trained five members of staff to be mentors for the interns and they held virtual sessions with them throughout their placement. As well as the positive feedback from the interns, this was a great development opportunity for existing staff. We’re now planning to extend this scheme to our apprentices.

Friday catch ups – a weekly virtual get together where the interns shared what they had been working on. We had a ‘guest’ each week from different parts of the council sharing their work – including front line and support service managers, an Executive Head, the Leader and a colleague who had joined the Council as an apprentice.

The feedback about these sessions was glowing. “This was one of my favourite aspects of the internship”; “made me realise the wide range of responsibilities the council has – something which I didn’t expect to get such an appreciation of when I started” and “it has made me realise how many unsung heroes there are within local councils.”

Without wanting to sound cheesy, these sessions became a high point of each week for us too, (and a very welcome escape from COVID-related work). Not just hearing what the interns had been up to, but also having the privilege of hearing our colleagues talk about the work of their teams. We are looking for ways we can expand this for all new staff, and perhaps existing ones too.

Feedback from the interns

We asked the interns how they had found the programme. It was clear that despite remote working, they had delivered a lot of meaningful work during their time with us, and they had really valued having ‘real’ work to do and a sense of trust and autonomy. They had also been struck by the wide range of services delivered by a small borough council and the commitment and dedication of our teams. One intern reflected that, despite working entirely remotely, she had felt a real sense of community through her interactions with staff.

The things they felt we could improve for future were making full use of their capacity and ensuring they all got regular feedback from their managers, together with more opportunities to work together as a group. We will build these suggestions into our future planning.

Tash Durie completed her 2020 internship with the Community Services team, who provide vital services supporting vulnerable residents to continue to live independently in their own home as well as remaining active within their local communities. She told us:

“Through my internship at Surrey Heath Borough Council I hoped to gain insight into how Local Government balances national, political, and local interests.

I was given a lot of independence with my projects. By being given a problem to solve rather than being given smaller tasks I was able to conduct my own research, understand the wider implications, and take ownership of my work.

This internship gave me a greater understanding of the role of local government within the networks of the voluntary sector, healthcare sector, and national government. The internship has given me invaluable experience in project management, research and presenting as well as allowing me to make a positive contribution to the work of the Community Services team. The skills and knowledge that I developed during my internship will be highly influential and beneficial in my future career in social research.”

What we learned from our 2020 internship programme

The summer internship programmes have always delivered demonstrable benefits for us as an authority and having this extra resource particularly over the summer months is so useful. Our interns deliver excellent work, but they also give us a fresh perspective and learning as an organisation and benefits for existing staff such as our new mentors. We would highly recommend it to other authorities.

There is also a great opportunity to link in with schemes like the National Graduate Development Programme (which we promoted to our interns) and we want to explore this more in the future.

Despite our misgivings a virtual internship was entirely possible and positive, with the added bonus of enabling applicants from across the country to participate easily.

It is definitely a challenging time for students and young people in general. There was a great deal of uncertainty about what their return to university and studies would look like, and what their job prospects are when they graduate. We feel this is a really important time to promote the public sector and local government as career paths for talented young people. If all the interns we met this year took up career paths in local government it would be in good hands!

And finally, particularly through our weekly catch-up meetings, we took away a renewed pride in our colleagues and services and what we deliver to the community. #CouncilsCan

We would be happy to share our experiences of running an intern programme – please do get in touch if you want to know more – [email protected] or [email protected]