I remember, when I tried rowing, every outing we were told to work together to balance the boat. Finding balance, getting rid of the lurching from side to side, brought efficiency and speed. When I think of the good we’ve seen in the social sector this year that is what comes to mind: finding power through combining talents.
To achieve an effective response to the pandemic the public sector and the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has pulled together. The initial reaction to the emergency was rapid and local.
Near the start of the pandemic, the Carnegie UK Trust team decided to contact people we had worked with before to find out more about the global emergency and this local response. Over six months, from April, we spoke to people in the voluntary sector and local authorities across the UK about the challenges they faced, the reactions of their organisations and the communities around them, and prospects for the future. We have summarised what we heard from these conversations in the report published today, COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response. We have drawn out some of the learning that we think will be useful in planning for the medium-term recovery.
People talked about the initial scramble to contact individuals on the government’s shielding list, to set up food distribution points, and move local authority staff from their day jobs to helplines and food hubs. People in communities reached out to neighbours and friends; local volunteer groups called people they knew and adapted to meet their needs; and the statutory sector combined with the voluntary sector to set up new services.
Partnership working ‘really took off’, as people came together to tackle a shared crisis. And what we often heard was that the growing COVID-19 partnerships were defined by the ‘equalness’, between organisations.
Some areas had a history of partnership working between the voluntary and public sectors, and often this was fertile ground for developing initiatives like community hubs. Hubs combined a range of actors, such as community development, libraries, active school, health and social care staff and volunteers. They and other initiatives were described as ‘true partnership’ because people were working together regardless of their profession, their seniority, their organisation. The nature of the risk was such that large organisations changed how they worked, becoming more fluid and paying less attention to hierarchical norms and sectoral targets.
One person we talked to in May said:
‘It’s community development on steroids: the partnership working, communities empowered, the generosity, the kindness.’
Our conversations gave people a little time to reflect on what these changes meant for the longer term. There was a strong feeling that if as a society we want to tackle the wicked issues such as poverty and climate change, organisations need to maintain this style of partnership working. That means changing from the too common situation were partnerships are simply funders and the statutory sector handing over to the VCSE and asking them to deliver outcomes. It means seeing people as more than service users and finding the space and time to connect with communities and individuals as a whole. There are some positive stories of that happening, for example where community liaison posts are being created to increase the links, create the bumping points, between large organisations and communities. But over the period of our conversations, people were increasingly concerned about relationships going back to how they were before, despite good intentions. Interviewees in August and September saw a return of targets, red tape and staff in large organisations thinking about their direct accountabilities and performance management.
The clear benefits of genuine partnership working, and the desire of most people in the public and VCSE sectors to make a difference, mean we should do all we can to turn those good intentions into action. Over six years, the Trust has been advocating for an Enabling State where the public sector and communities work collectively, drawing on each other’s strengths. Now is the time to put this into action. After the pandemic the needs of communities are going to increase and the social sector will fall short if it lurches from one demand or strategy to another, rather than working together to maximise our strengths.