From Community Empowerment to Community Power – what COVID-19 is teaching us about the relationship between citizens, communities and the state

May 22, 2020

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by Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve personal, community and societal wellbeing. Many of the issues that we work on, and the partners and groups who we work with, are deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blogs with reflections and questions across these different aspects of wellbeing. We are interested in learning from others, so please get in touch to share your reflections on how communities, networks and organisations are responding.

‘It’s community development on steroids: the partnership working, communities empowered, the generosity, the kindness’.

As part of our contribution to the COVID-19 emergency, we have been talking to people we know in towns and communities across the UK to hear their stories of what is happening on the ground. These conversations are with a range of people from volunteers, to business owners, to staff in charities, to public sector employees. They give us the opportunity to look for the common threads in people’s experiences to help us understand what we can do to #buildbackbetter once the initial emergency phase has passed.

We have been moved and inspired by people’s willingness to talk with us and by the stories they have told of mutual support. These include: food parcels for children missing out on school meals; pubs delivering meals, checking in on regulars and asking how they feel; school kitchens cooking for the community; street performances of opera and bingo; chefs arranging the distribution of fresh, local produce; arts groups collecting people’s stories or going online but also calling and mentoring people who are digitally excluded.

Individuals and friends in many communities were quick to respond to the crisis themselves – setting up WhatsApp and Facebook groups, rapidly bringing people together to help. For example, in Todmorden, Your Tod Squad was started by one person just before lockdown and, like many other spontaneous groups, adopted a boots-on-the-ground approach, distributing leaflets with a phone number offering support.

The success of these efforts comes from people working together. In many of the stories we are hearing, both local authority and third sector staff have ‘stepped up’ alongside volunteers to meet people’s basic needs. Generally, councils first focused on setting up systems to cater for the shielded population and people over 70 and living alone. Some places, like Lancaster City Council – which covers Lancaster and Morecambe  – have gone beyond this, developing new lists through pooling their knowledge with others, like the fire brigade, parish councils, and the third sector, bringing together information from charities that have often been working in only one sphere, like employability or homelessness. The Council has contacted 16,000 people who they consider vulnerable proactively – including traveller communities, people who have recently applied for universal credit and new parents – who haven’t used social support before. In other areas, local government already had and now is relying on ward or community development workers, who know well communities’ needs, for information on needs. These stories give us a glimpse of the power of bringing together information to support citizens and communities.

Councils have supported third sector and business organisations too, for example with funds to tide them over until UK Government funding stepped in. The most fruitful partnerships are where there was already a culture and system of working together. Towns that have responded to floods over the last four years already had emergency systems in place and were able to use those. But often it is more than that: it is about a way of working in which people recognise the value of the skills and networks of others. In one community, local emergency co-ordinators said ‘tell us what do you need to do, what you want to do, and we’ll help you’. This reflects a change in public services’ approach to delivering services. One the Trust advocates for in the Enabling State, which calls on public services to ‘create the conditions in which individuals and communities are equally able to take action to improve their own and others’ lives’.

The COVID-19 emergency has let us see what only the state can do (set up hospitals, fund research into a vaccine, shift resources to the front line) and what only communities can do (mobilise and respond quickly by building on existing relationships, pool collective resources, think creatively about what assets are available). The crisis has, at local government level, allowed the state to let go to allow others to step forward. Red tape has been cut, with businesses and voluntary organisations able to access grants more quickly, and regulations, such as restaurants being able to provide outside catering, relaxed. It has brought a desire to be and work together: both in neighbourhoods and perhaps also between communities and their local governments, with one council citing FOIs and complaints to councils drying up as a sign of a community’s support.

Of course, greater mutual support is not universally true. We have heard examples of where local government has not been visible or was in the way of a rapid community response. We know that not all communities have the same capacity to engage: there are inequalities in social capital within and between them. Now, as the initial phase of contacting shielded individuals plateaus, many workers are wondering about people who have not come forward for support. Council employees and activists alike talked of ‘listening to the silence’ and their fears for those who might need support, in the longer terms, but who have not been in touch.  People whose mental health has suffered from the stress, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the under employment, the poverty, the loss, the isolation of the epidemic. People living in places where the networks of support weren’t already there to reach out. Families whose main contact with the state was through school, who are not ‘known’ to health or community services. We heard of a young people’s support organisation delivering menus and food appropriate for primary school aged children because they are preparing the households’ food where adults can’t cope. Community workers are concerned alcohol consumption has increased amongst people who habitually drink more.

Soon, the state, community and individual responses to the pandemic will move on from emergency mode – providing food and health care. Learning from the positive stories of community action and where the state has given communities more opportunity to shape the response, can encourage lasting change. There may be some way to go in resetting the relationship between the state and communities but in the emergency we see green shots, which we will continue to explore and plan to use to inspire wider and longer-lasting change.

 

For more on the Enabling State: see A Route Map to an Enabling State https://d1ssu070pg2v9i.cloudfront.net/pex/carnegie_uk_trust/2016/02/pub1455011471.pdf

https://vimeo.com/118465906