Radical transformation’s biggest gift

By Heather Jameson | 01 April 2020

It’s easy to see the downside of the coronavirus crisis – illness, death, economic downturn, social isolation – and the world will bear the scars of its impact for years to come.

But there are positives, and local government is at the heart of the good news during these difficult times.

The rapid rise of a volunteer healthcare army, the radical transformation of public services and the growth of a huge swathe of community groups, from street level upwards, has been a massive cultural shift across the UK over a matter of days.

When the Government launched a call for 250,000 volunteers through the GoodSam App, the target was reached within 24 hours. That initial target was then upped to 750,000 – and that too has now been met and surpassed.

At a local level, the response has also been extraordinary. From Facebook pages to WhatsApp groups, streets and neighbourhoods have come out to support each other and the country in an ‘infrastructure of good neighbours’.

And local government coronavirus hubs have seen councils galvanise their workforce, community groups and volunteers to protect the most vulnerable, procuring and delivering food parcels and prescriptions and calling isolated individuals for regular ‘chats’.

Donna Hall, chair of Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, tells The MJ: ‘It is the single biggest trigger for radical transformation that I have ever seen.’ Community empowerment is an agenda Ms Hall has championed throughout her career – previously during her time as chief executive of Wigan MBC and now as chair of the NLGN think-tank.

‘We were making changes in local government, and now we are suddenly delivering. We are facing social conditions that we have never had before, building social systems.’

She admits that public services can be ‘a bit process-obsessed’. While there is a need to maintain an element of safeguarding and security, this is a unique situation which has allowed some of the systems to be relaxed.

Distrust has also taken a back seat. While the public sector has had to be more trusting of those coming forward to volunteer, the public has also set aside its usual mistrust of local government to deal with the current crisis.

Surrey CC’s executive director of transformation, Michael Coughlin, agrees there has been a switch in the exchange of trust while he adds: ‘The acceptance of the level of risk has exponentially increased.’ He admits, however, that this will be dialled back somewhat when the crisis is over.

Furthermore, the resistance to change that imbues individuals and organisations has also been paused as people recognise that dealing with the problem at hand is more crucial than protecting the status quo.

Health and local government are coming closer together – after years of resistance – to keep people out of hospital and shift patients on as they recover.

As Donna Hall says: ‘Fear can bring about massive change, partly because the biggest enemy of change is self-preservation and fear and there is now a bigger fear.’

The current crisis could leave a lasting legacy of a new relationship between the citizen and the state, as well as the way public services operate.

Michael Coughlin is also a trustee of community empowerment network, Participatory City. He describes what is happening now as a ‘genuine paradigm shift’, adding: ‘I think it will be a catalyst for the sort of work that we have been doing.’

He states: ‘My personal view is that it will leave a lasting mark, irrespective of anything we [in local government] do. The deep effect this has on people psychologically; it will leave its mark.

‘There are things we can do to harness the good things.’

There will be, he suggests, some things that stick, some things that go back to normal, and some things that local government can aim to hang on to.

It will also shift the community empowerment agenda from efficiency – creating communities that do things for themselves rather than relying on the state – to an agenda of resilience.

‘It’s less about efficiency,’ Mr Coughlin says. ‘It’s about how you create resilience for the sort of communities you want and need.’

For the authorities that have been ahead of the curve on community empowerment and participation, the community infrastructure was already in place but for the rest, the imperative created by the coronavirus crisis has driven the agenda into hyperdrive.

As we shift back to what will become ‘the new normal’, a new sense of community and volunteering may be the positive part of the lasting legacy.

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