Blog

Have you shifted the balance? New research on a post-Covid future
Simon Kaye, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN, 27 July, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as producing huge hardship and challenges, was also a time that saw incredible innovation, resilience and compassion. NLGN’s new report ‘Shifting the Balance’, aims to capture the best examples of this, and set out how to build this new approach into our future public services and communities. We’re looking for case studies to inform this work – details are at the bottom of the article.

There is a strong consensus emerging that after the pandemic, we must ‘build back better’. An important element of this will be understanding how, in the heat of the crisis, communities and public services worked together to understand and respond rapidly to people’s needs. The new trust, kindness and recognition can form the cornerstone of a new way of thinking about public services and the relationship between institutions and communities.

Moving beyond this mantra to practical action will be a challenge. How can we crystallise these new working practices and sustain the partnerships that have started to emerge? Our new project, Shifting the Balance of Community Power, in partnership with Barrow Cadbury Trust, Carnegie UK Trust, and Power to Change, will consider just this. The project’s aim is to capture and share the good practices that have emerged in recent months and find ways to embed and build on them.

Shifting the Balance will seek to develop comparisons and consensus on a set of new practices post-COVID across England, Scotland, and Wales. And by contributing to this project, you can help us to understand where the successes have been and together start the hard work of preserving and building upon them.

There is an obvious appeal in the idea of sustaining some of the innovations that have emerged from an otherwise incredibly tragic time. Community groups and businesses are mobilising to help support millions of vulnerable, sheltering people – and along the way they are creating new networks, unearthing a great public capacity for neighbourliness and volunteerism across swathes of the population, and reprioritising much of the work that takes place in the public sector.

Meanwhile, councils are engaging with communities more, and experimenting with new ways to solve problems and connect with partners – breaking down departmental silos and organisational boundaries, empowering the people who are best placed to understand what is needed in each place. There seems to be so much promise that the post-COVID UK could be a little bit kinder, a little clearer about its priorities, and allow everyone to work with a little less inflexibility and bureaucracy than seemed possible before.

Realising these opportunities will require a concerted effort. Status-quo bias is real. The reassurance of returning to well-worn ways of doing things will tempt many of us back into old patterns. And the challenges ahead – a major economic downturn with all that entails, the return to work for so many of the people whose free time was fuel for the extraordinary expansion of community power during the crisis – will make it even harder to invest energy in developing and building upon new, emergent approaches. So as the immediate crisis wanes and our thoughts turn to recovery, all of the creativity of the last few months could easily be swept away by a return to the routine pressures of everyday public service.

To avoid this kind of slippage, Shifting the Balance will seek to answer some key questions – for
example:

  • What good practices have emerged? What is different about them, and what makes them work?
  • How have the relationships between different sectors – and across institutional and community boundaries – been shifting? What shifts in practice explain this?
  • How are new ways of working being established in areas with less existing (or formally recognised) wealth or social capital? How have less-advantaged communities experienced the crisis, and how can their voices be centred during the recovery?
  • How can the positive trends be sustained beyond the immediate crisis? What are the barriers against embedding them, and how can these be removed?

Addressing problems like these requires that Shifting the Balance function as a multi-layered research project, using research workshops, case-studies, interviews, and comparative analysis to discover what has worked well and develop proposals on how to sustain good practice.

Share your experiences

To get this right, we need to hear about how things have changed, and why, and for whom. We want to learn what has been happening across Britain so we can find patterns, draw comparisons, and make sure that our proposals make sense everywhere.

If you work for a local authority, public service, community group or simply have a story to share we’d be interested to hear from you.

We’re keen to gather a range of insights into the nature of the community response to COVID-19, the way that councils and other institutions have shifted their practices, and the new partnerships that have started to emerge.

If you would like to contribute your experiences to our research, please do contact me at skaye@nlgn.org.uk.