Looking back on 2020, it can be tempting to think of what we have lost, what we have missed and what we can no longer do. However, during this year we have also seen people do incredible things; grassroots groups forming overnight to help neighbours, local government staff creating new services from scratch and most importantly, people coming together to work in partnership.
As staff at the Carnegie UK Trust started to see and hear about communities coming together and responding to citizens’ needs in a way not seen before, we decided to contact people we had previously connected with to find out more about this local response to the global emergency.
Between April and September 2020, we spoke to people from across the UK to hear about how local organisations were adapting and responding to the emergency. Our conversations took place with people from boroughs in Central London to islands in the Outer Hebrides, from local authorities in large towns to grassroots groups in villages, coming together in our new report, COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response.
We heard how councils and partners worked quickly to create new teams to distribute food, including hot meals, that food banks were extended, and that new volunteer-run food and distribution centres were established. Over the weeks and months of our conversations, the initial focus on food expanded to social needs – supporting people living in poverty and facing financial hardship.
As well as a swell in volunteering, the pandemic led to an increase in partnership working between teams and organisations, due to the nature of the crisis. A significant finding of A Shared Response was the strengthening of relationships between the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector and local authorities. Formal partnership working through community hubs brought together a wide range of organisations from the public and VCSE sectors ‘under one roof’, including a range of redeployed local authority staff from areas such as libraries and health and social care alongside voluntary sector organisations.
Much of this partnership working was helped by the fact that many public sector rules were relaxed, with less red tape and more trust in communities. The risk of the pandemic seemed so great and so universal that other risks paled. This approach also empowered local authority staff to be responsive and intuitive – they could work with other organisations offering support in partnership to address individuals’ needs.
COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response asks key questions of policy makers, funders and leaders across sectors as we look towards planning for the medium-term recovery. How can we continue to build on new partnerships developed during COVID-19? How do we resist a permanent return to targets and red tape? How can we build more people-focused and preventative public sector services? The Carnegie UK Trust has been advocating for an Enabling State for the past 6 years, where the public sector and communities work collectively, drawing on each other’s strengths. Now is the time to put this into action. As Steve Wyler, Co-convenor of a Better Way commented, “we can’t take any of [this] for granted – if we want to see these things persist, we will all need to operate in a different way from now on”.