Today NLGN and Local Trust have published a new report ‘How is COVID-19 changing the relationship between public services and communities?’ Based on the findings of a literature review and a panel event that took place in May, the report outlines four of the main changes observed during the COVID-19 lockdown period so far:
1. In local pandemic responses, the partnership between public services and communities has become stronger.
In local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, most public organisations are helping to facilitate and raise awareness of the work of community groups rather than seeking to control their activities. Examples of this include: directories to promote community-run services (such as Ealing Together’s community support directory); and new grant schemes set up by councils (such as Croydon and Tewkesbury) to support local community and voluntary groups continue their important work.
Communities have also provided invaluable support to public services during this time. Councils such as Staffordshire have sought help from the community to help cover the vital work of frontline staff in self-isolation, while hundreds of thousands of people across the UK signed up as volunteers in response to an appeal from the NHS.
2. Digital technology is bringing public services and communities closer together.
Members of the public reacted swiftly to rally around each other when lockdown was called. Many set up or joined street-level WhatsApp groups and community mutual aid groups to help their neighbours in lockdown. For public organisations, the imperative to act quickly in response to the pandemic has brought about fundamental change in only a few weeks. Public services have been adapted for online delivery, council meetings are taking place using video conferencing, and the NHS has accelerated the rollout of technology enabling online consultations.
As we move beyond the first stage of the pandemic response, public services will need to ensure that communities with relatively low internet usage, such as elderly people and households without a computer and/or good broadband, continue to have access to important communications in other formats. But it can only be a good thing that public organisations are using technology and digital platforms with greater confidence, especially as 87 per cent of all adults used the internet daily or almost every day in 2019 and younger generations are particularly tech-savvy (95 per cent of 16-24 year-olds own a smartphone.)
3. Sector lines have become blurred, with local businesses stepping up to help public services and fellow members of the community.
Differences between sectors have become blurred as people from all walks of life come together to respond to a common threat. The impulse to act for the public good has proven particularly strong in small businesses, many of whom are based in one location and whose staff and services are rooted in the local community.
A few examples of how small local businesses have stepped up to support public services and the community: local businesses are working in partnership with Adur & Worthing Councils to support people presenting as homeless by regularly deep-cleaning the accommodation to protect against COVID-19 and cooking three hot home-cooked meals for those most in need; local businesses provided equipment to Gateshead Council officers to help them laser-cut visors to protect key workers on the COVID-19 frontline; and many small traders have adapted their services to offer home deliveries or click & collect in their community (see Shop4Plymouth).
4. Community activism has gone viral. It presents a real opportunity for public services and communities to unlock community power.
One of the most visible developments in the COVID-19 outbreak is the explosion in community activism. From the hundreds of thousands of people who volunteered to support local authorities and the NHS, to the hundreds of independent mutual aid groups that sprang up throughout the country to coordinate voluntary responses to the crisis, communities have been central and visible in the efforts to contain COVID-19 and help people in need.
There is real potential to convert this COVID-19-inspired public altruism into a new drive for community power for the long term. As NLGN recently highlighted: “If people have got to know their neighbours through community initiatives during the crisis, they are not going to ‘un-know’ them just because the lockdown ends. Community bonds and infrastructure created today may change as the times do, but they will not disappear.”
Public organisations that have developed the strongest and most productive partnerships with communities at this time are those that have taken a step back and made space for civic society to act and thrive. For community power to flourish, we urge all public service bodies to follow their example now and for the long term.