How should local government respond to the rise in community action?
From the 750,000 GoodSam volunteers registered in just four days to the millions of people who have joined local groups, it’s clear that the Covid-19 crisis has created a step change in community action and engagement. This includes local restaurants and community businesses that are providing meals and other services for key workers and people hit hardest by the crisis.
In ordinary times, it can take years to build even a fraction of this level of community engagement. As minds turn to “building back better”, local government should recognise this extraordinary starting point and use it to transform the relationship between government and citizens for the long term.
Supporting communities is about getting out of the office, working in the way the community works and in their language
Local authorities understandably have limited headspace for all the potential opportunities, but we believe that this should be a priority. When furlough ends, there will be less free capacity for help and there may also be less goodwill if the forecasts of increased social inequality prove accurate. Local councils need to know how to work effectively with different communities as the ‘new normal’ emerges and should plan for this now.
Social Finance showcased some of the community empowerment work we’ve done at the Stronger Things: Unleashing Community Power event in March, run by the innovation think tank New Local Government Network (NLGN). Below are some of the key learnings that emerged in conversations with over 50 local authorities about how best to engage communities.
Focus on real, mutual understanding
Sustaining community engagement is about listening and learning: developing a deep understanding of local needs and learning how to respond in a meaningful way. Opening up town halls and running a couple of focus groups just doesn’t cut it. Time and resource needs to be dedicated to building and understanding communities and participating in their existing forums. We’re talking about a mindset rather than an in-depth study before you start.
Black Thrive, a partnership addressing mental health inequalities in Lambeth, south London, has a staff team dedicated to building community networks and working groups across the system. They combine different methods of community engagement and ensure the dialogue is meaningful and authentic. This expertise with lived experience is vital within a system where alienation and racism drive mistrust. Mutual understanding is a key building block for progress, including opportunities for staff to share and be heard.
Enable structure but don’t stifle
Community groups can achieve more with resources and structure. This can require funding and the accountability that comes with it. Safeguarding and data protection are just two aspects. However, council procedures can stifle engagement and the new thinking that communities can bring. Supporting communities is about getting out of the office, working in the way the community works and in their language. The standard commissioning structures often aren’t relevant, and it often needs different skills.
For example, in Essex, the recovery community will be ‘Revolutionising Recovery’ by taking responsibility for the council’s drug and alcohol budget and the provider contracts. NLGN described this as “the most complete form of power and resource transfer [to the community].”
While the recovery community will be the decision makers, their decisions will need to be representative of different needs: fair and transparent for providers and grounded in best practice and academic evidence. A small team is proving practical administrative and communications support. Meetings start with ‘check-ins’ and are arranged via WhatsApp (not email) and often out of hours when the community has more time. The support system includes a mix of experts, processes and training that together will enable the community to become the most informed and authentic commissioning body in recovery.
Have a clear concept of success
The purpose and value of community is not always the same. It can be about representation, authenticity, or action. Be clear on why you are encouraging something, but recognise this might not always be the same for those involved. Local offers should help communities to build a unifying purpose around which everyone can recognise meaningful success.
Reset is an organisation that works with community groups to welcome resettled refugees into their local area. It provides training, workshops and resources to prepare communities and support them through the application process, in securing the necessary housing and after the refugee family arrives.
The purpose of community-led resettlement is to deliver resettlement places that support integration through language learning and helping accessing services and finding work. Its value goes beyond refugee-focused success measures. Integration is a two-way process with the community and thus it is significant that volunteers report that their involvement is personally transformative and that the process has strengthened their community.
So we have three learnings and three examples. All of them seek to close the gap between government and local residents. Together, they achieve more.
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