The local response to Covid-19 has seen local government work in close partnership with the voluntary and community sector, delivering some impressive results. As we move into recovery, this way of working needs to be sustained; but with the hurdles that lie on the horizon, is this just wishful thinking?
Cast your mind back to February, when councillors were voting on their local authority’s budget for 2020-2021 – Covid-19 was not a major talking point. Whilst behind closed doors council chiefs were drawing up contingency plans in the event that this virus could grow into a global pandemic, in public, Covid-19 did not feature as an agenda item of particular emphasis within the council chamber.
Fast-forward six months and the situation is completely different. Covid-19 dominates both the political and operational programme of local authorities across the United Kingdom, as well as the rest of the world. Topics that once lay on the periphery of local government sphere now find themselves being discussed at daily conference calls with a range of external partners.
Interestingly, some see the local government response to Covid-19 as particularly noteworthy because of the increased partnership working it has been able to bring about, and all within such a short space of time. It isn’t an exaggeration to state that local government could not have responded the way it has to Covid-19, without the input and support of the voluntary and community sector (VCS).
Mapping out such important work usually demands a comprehensive set of objectives and responsibilities, all signed-off and agreed at various levels of the business. Yet this unprecedented situation saw local community groups immediately jumping to the challenge; for example, when the Government made its announcement about a call for NHS volunteers, some local areas argued that this was too late and not necessary, as local groups had already risen to the task at hand and were meeting the needs of their most vulnerable.
What is significant is that no corporate objectives and responsibilities were required to rally the VCS and local authorities around a common goal. There were certain needs and the community responded, in whatever way it could. For some, the jury is still out on whether benchmarking is valuable. Maybe the local response to Covid-19 clarifies the case: it’s not always important, especially when you are trying to do something new or different.
During the response phase, Councils and the VCS organically devised solutions for a complex set of problems: from ensuring access to supermarket priority slots, to organising transport for the delivery of food parcels, to providing digital infrastructure to those isolated, or who needed to continue their education. Talking about increasing the use of digital channels, as the chief executive of a Local Citizens Advice succinctly put it: ‘what we had been slowly moving towards for the past 18 months, we just did overnight’. Evidently, the Covid-19 Local Government and VCS partnership delivered impressive results.
However, the story doesn’t end there. As with all tales of endeavour and triumph, there’s always a plot twist. In this case, it’s how to maintain this joined-up way of working and ensure that the momentum from partners does not fade. A key issue here is the fact that during the response phase, many organisations and individuals provided their services free of charge. Now that we’ve accepted that Covid-19 is more of a longer-term challenge, it is no longer feasible to expect people to work at such a capacity and for free. In other words, there is now a consensus that Covid-19 will continue to be a lingering part of our “new normal”, whatever that may mean.
Rightly so, the VCS argue that some of the services they have been providing to support Councils would ordinarily be part of a package of commissioned work. Add this to the fact that many charities are flagging that their financial sustainability is no longer certain. Therefore today, in the recovery phase, when the VCS are offering to support Councils, they naturally want to know what local government can provide for them in return.
As these financial challenges cut across the public, private and voluntary sectors, perhaps the best local government can do is commit to ensuring that their VCS partners will continue to be involved in crucial conversations; co-producing action plans and influencing their local authority’s direction of travel, especially when it comes to communities. Councils can continue to empower their local community groups to deliver innovative initiatives, with the question of: ‘What can you do for us?’ being re-framed to ‘What can we do together?’ It will be key that the VCS feel equal partners with their local authority for this approach to work; yet another challenge in itself.
When time is tight and budgets are stretched, maintaining local government’s strong partnership working with the VCS is a tough ambition, but if the results delivered in the response phase are anything to go by, I am optimistic that it’s one that can be achieved.