Community engagement and COVID-19

June 1, 2020

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By Jennie Dunlop, Community Planning Manager, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council

Community planning: a local wellbeing approach

Community planning brings the wellbeing outcomes based approach of the current Programme for Government to the local level in Northern Ireland. Like the Programme for Government, the purpose of community planning is to improve the wellbeing of each council area and the quality of life for those who live there. This sustainable approach of acting to improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing requires ways of working that include close collaboration and integration; evidence informed policies and programmes; and involving communities and citizens in decision-making and action.

Community engagement: involving communities in decisions

Community planning is an acknowledgement that some decisions are better taken at a local level. Councils are well placed to ensure that local communities, including residents, community groups and businesses, are involved in local decisions, and they have been given the role of facilitating community planning partnerships to do just that.

Community engagement is both a means and an end: the knowledge, wisdom and relationships of local people can lead to better services and plans and can unlock solutions to difficult and intractable problems and inequalities. But community engagement is also an end in itself. We know that our individual wellbeing is improved when we have some control over the decisions that affect us, and that organisations that practice good engagement enjoy higher levels of trust and confidence from the public.

Our community engagement strategy

With this in mind, we saw an opportunity through community planning to improve community engagement locally by working together, learning from each other, and trying new and innovative methods as a partnership. With support from the Carnegie UK Trust through the Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland project, our community planning partnership worked with Community Places to develop a community engagement strategy.

There are three main ideas in the strategy:

  • Understanding. The partnership uses IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation to promote a shared understanding of community engagement. The spectrum is made up of five levels of engagement: from informing and consulting about a decision, through to involving and collaborating which require more input and influence from communities. Our partnership includes a Community, Voluntary and Social Enterprise Panel to promote involvement and collaboration in the partnership’s decisions. Empowerment is the fifth level and puts the final decision in the hands of the community. Different levels are appropriate at different times, and the levels determine the best methods for each situation.
  • Quality. The partnership also adopts the Scottish Community Engagement Standards developed by the Scottish Community Development Centre. These standards are tried and tested and will help to ensure that as a partnership our engagement is effective and high quality.
  • Challenges. In developing the strategy our partnership was lucky to work with two Scottish academics, Dr Claire Bynner and Dr Oliver Escobar. Both played central roles in the Community Engagement and other work streams with What Works Scotland. They delivered training to our partnership and we drew on Oliver’s work on challenges to community engagement in the strategy. Oliver identifies three main challenges for effective engagement as delivering processes that are inclusive and diverse; with quality dialogue and deliberation; and that are impactful. Addressing these challenges gives engagement legitimacy and makes sure that no voices are able to dominate. It is also important that people can see the difference that their participation has made.

Covid-19 and community engagement

As the COVID-19 crisis hit, our partnership was working through the actions in our community engagement strategy, including planning a Participatory Budgeting project. That work was put on hold as we all focused on the community response to COVID-19. Public bodies moved swiftly to respond to the crisis, taking decisions to protect the public and their staff. Communities have been kept informed about what has been decided and the rationale. Providing clear and transparent information about decision-making is an important part of community engagement, especially now, when public confidence and buy-in for restrictions to everyone’s normal lives are crucial for keeping us safe and well.

Equally important during the current crisis has been collaboration between communities, statutory agencies and businesses. Communities have shown impressive leadership with sophisticated and speedy responses to the crisis for neighbourhoods and whole towns. In our borough, for example, Armagh Covid Response Committee quickly brought together over ten local community organisations and sports clubs to form a response for the Armagh area. The group is providing emergency food and care packages; sourcing and making PPE for hospitals, hospices, care homes and other front line services; and delivering shopping and medications, all with a team of 120 volunteers recruited within a couple of weeks.

Emanuel Church in Lurgan collaborated with other panel members and local services on a community helpline where people can access emergency food; practical, social and pastoral support; counselling services, and financial guidance. There are many more examples of community partnerships like these and as statutory agencies we are collaborating with them to support their work on the ground.

Recovery and Renewal

As we move through the recovery stage there will be difficult decisions to be made about priorities and services in the context of financial restrictions and the ongoing COVID-19 response. Many of the seemingly intractable problems and inequalities that existed pre-COVID-19 have been amplified by the pandemic: poverty; domestic abuse; mental ill health and social isolation. The social and economic impacts will be huge. There will be questions for our community planning partnership about community engagement. How do we move from informing communities about decisions to involving a wider group of stakeholders in the deliberations about recovery and renewal? How will we ensure that we can deliver effective community engagement in the future if social distancing is still in place? How do we learn from our recent experiences of collaborating with communities and supporting community-led responses? How do we employ community engagement to address the significant challenges of recovery?

There will be a range of answers to these questions. Some will involve technology and addressing the digital divide. However, equally, if not more important, will be strengthening relationships with local people, groups, and businesses and continuing to look to them for innovations and local solutions.