There is an urgent need to involve communities in post-Covid policymaking, but we must respect that rebuilding has to be a truly shared endeavour.
Across communities of every type, the question of whose responsibility it is to tackle many of the most pressing challenges faced today looms large. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, people felt communities were already bearing a heavy burden, plugging gaps in local welfare provision left by austerity, or finding voice and taking leadership on issues when local or national government action is perceived as too slow or insufficient. The last decade and most acutely, the last five months, has shown in practice how community has become the ‘shock absorber’ where much needed government action has been absent.
But is this a sustainable path? Is expecting communities to take so much responsibility an adequate response in the face of grave and globalised societal challenges that layer on top of structural inequalities and economic precarity? The sharp end of these intersecting forces is often most acutely experienced by people and places, but with limited recognition of their experiences and their – often voluntary – capacity for action within policy responses. And where community muscle has flexed, showing again how it can be a source of innovation, agility and power – how can this be properly resourced and recognised within models of policy and recovery that make it a shared endeavour, and do not leave communities in the lurch? These are questions communities are asking as economic recession and a possible second wave looms large within a local landscape in need of levelling up.
New research from the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) shows that responsibility for welfare in communities emerged strongly as a potentially uncomfortable or overwhelming burden and an area of significant uncertainty. The divide is by no means generational, but rather is dictated by an individual’s needs, priorities, resources and capacity. These are individuals and families making choices between their economic mobility and the growing burden of care for ageing relatives or unemployed young adults, because secure employment or accessible services are not available readily, nor close to home. These are communities voicing concerns that as local populations age there is insufficient capacity to look out for and care for the vulnerable; as health and social care systems struggle with funding and the risk of loneliness and mental health is exacerbated by the experience of the pandemic.
It is crucial that we listen to and respect what communities are asking: ‘who’s role is it anyway?’ We see every day the success and strength community leadership and ownership can bring to local problems, whether the revival of local businesses or the survival of a well-used library; and we are supporting the growth of these capabilities through the Community Leadership Academy. But equally – we must not assume that people have the capacity and will to step in where authorities withdraw or take the wrong action. For some, being involved in local or national civic action and seizing responsibility is a positive opportunity to grow and create change. But our research shows that for the (often quiet) majority, it is very distant from their understanding of what the social contract in the UK should be in times of non-emergency. Research and voice exercises all too often omit that much of our understanding of the power of community is drawn from those who are already engaged or active and thus. Whilst we hear encouraging discussions of how the relationship between communities and public services strengthened in many areas during lockdown, what does the balance of responsibility over pressing needs look like as we move into the complex phase of recovery?
In growing numbers, communities seek influence over the issues that affect them. They want greater influence in decision making; more power and rights over what they care about, and more direct forms of representation of the lived experiences that drive the changes they see as needed. But many tell us they do not feel comfortable with having to bear the brunt of responsibility alone. There are also concerns over a lack of ‘entry points’ into participation and leadership that feel inclusive or accessible in certain places and on certain issues and furthermore – chosen by communities.
From the ICS research approach, we are understanding with communities not only what issues matter to people but what the challenges and opportunities are in how people and policy should intervene to address them. We understand from communities how inbound investment can exacerbate inequalities within places rather than ‘level’ the playing field, if delivered through a top down approach. How our town centres and local economies can deliver as much in community capital as they do in commercial benefit and how the ‘centre’ of a community could thus be reimagined sustainably. How the social fabric is fracturing as inequalities in race, opportunity, wealth, debt, responsibility, voice and mobility become increasingly visible, and trust between community and government becomes progressively weaker. And what the implications are for our local resilience and our social cohesion. We understand that communities can feel abandoned by government and are skeptical that when the road to recovery does come – it may be grand in gesture but minimal in its local understanding and impact.
This call from communities raises critical challenges for all of us working to strengthen the involvement of communities in the research, social innovation and policy making needed in the recovery from Covid-19. We may have tried and tested engagement methods and inclusive practices in our civic toolkits – but have we actually paused to engage effectively in what social and civic future – in terms of ownership, responsibility and accountability – communities want? The UK Research and Development roadmap is just one example of opportunities to disrupt the status quo in how we listen to what matters to communities and to chart a new course in how we research, drive innovation and make policy, putting communities at the heart of the process and taking full account of their needs, experiences and voices.
Our responsibility at the Institute for Community Studies is to be a faithful platform for what matters to communities in their own voices, a supportive facilitator for inclusive research into their experiences, and a connecting point for the meaningful involvement of people in research, policymaking and evidence. It is a shared – and civic – responsibility that all those in positions of power recognise the experience of communities is a vital part of the collective intelligence needed to inform recovery; and listen to and act on what communities tell us matter, if they are to expect communities to play a vital role in return.
Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies