Speed boats not steamships: What is the response to the pandemic telling us about community development and the state of local government

The second full week of lockdown has ended. Across the UK most people have complied with government directives to “stay at home” and instead of anger there has been an outpouring of local social action. If you are an isolated and vulnerable person there is a good chance the practical help you have received came from a community or a faith based group. Many of these have used new technology and the internet to organise, communicate and deliver their services.

If you are a local authority worker you may well now be home working, not yet quite sure of who is doing what and awaiting further instructions as the senior management team scramble to put in place a coordinated response. The ever changing dynamic nature of the virus, changes in government directives and a lack of cash has meant local authorities have been playing catch up and struggling just to get a plan in place.

Whilst these are exceptional circumstances the response and issues raised do seem to fit in with thinking developed by people like Hilary Cottam in her recent book “Radical Help” or Paul Mason’s “Clear Bright Future” and discussions in podcasts such as “Reasons to be cheerful” and “Exponential view”.

In brief there is a broad school of thought that our current welfare model was built for a very different time. Its top down nature assumes that things are basically okay and only on occasion do you need to intervene to fix problems. It is not set up to deal with constant fast paced change. It has not embraced the huge potential of the internet to connect and mobilise people for common good.

As Cottam states 21st Century welfare should “start where you are and instead of commanding change or trying to fix you it offers support to grow capability. It includes as many people as possible given that it is our relationships that help us find work, keep healthy and care for one another.”

People feel alienated from local decision making, do not trust politicians and do not want to get involved in party politics. In a recent interview Mason argued “Rather than there being nothing we can do about the situation we’re in, my book is a plea for people to act together and change things. We must project a coherent humanist vision of the future”

As I write, local voluntary WhatsApp and Facebook groups are springing up across our cities and towns. They are linking up with local businesses and community groups so they can provide food and essential items to those in need. Schools are sharing personal protection equipment with NHS front line staff. A wide range of people are offering free remote support and services to those in need. The lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet is making this happen. It is hard to imagine a town hall cross departmental working group being able to work like this. As Cottam argues “At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration feel simple and easy people want to join in.”

Within international development circles the Power Systems Approach (PSA) has been developed and debated by thinkers and practitioners such as Owen Barder and Ben Ramalingam for some years.

“A PSA encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse. It covers our ways of working—how we think and feel, as well as how we behave as activists.”

Duncan Green uses the metaphor of dance as the way to plan and deliver development. Skilled practitioners can “dance with complexity”. This dance requires you to be in tune with local events, to spot and respond to opportunities and to be able to nimbly adjust should the rhyme and rhythms of development change.

I would argue that what we are currently seeing across the UK in response to the pandemic is for the most part a spontaneous response of “local dancers” spotting and responding to opportunities. Many of those playing a leading role are unpaid volunteers or staff in small local organisations.

What we are also seeing is the inability of our local state, as currently constituted, to react in an agile and flexible way. It can and does do its best, but it has been set up to deliver set services often to prescribed top down targets. So many voluntary groups are just getting on with it albeit thankful for any financial support the local authority can give them. Likewise, some of the bigger voluntary umbrella bodies have also become bureaucratic, tied into delivery contracts and rigid ways of working. So once again smaller voluntary groups are largely getting on with it whilst these groups negotiate with local authorities about what a response might look like.

I want to stress that I am not being critical of individuals but of structures. The reality is events like the pandemic require agile organisations, that are like “speedboats” which can react and manoeuvre quickly. Local authorities and bigger voluntary groups are often like “steamships”. Once they are set on a course they cannot change quickly.
When we beat the pandemic, the learning arising from the thousands of initiatives, communities are now organising for themselves, needs to be captured and acted on. I suspect we will need to:

Change how we think about and deliver welfare. At its heart should be empowered communities and people owning and shaping the agenda.

Actively encourage risk taking and agility as we seek to encourage partnership and collaboration so people can reach their potential.

Embrace new technology and make it work for us and use its potential and ability to connect and mobilise people.

Seek to work with the private sector.

The events of last few weeks were “unthinkable until they happened. Yet, local people and small community groups have stepped up and responded in a way that local authorities and larger voluntary groups could not. These initiatives have connected and motivated people, delivered essential aid to the vulnerable and isolated and reminded us all that to be human is to belong.


Kieran Breen
Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire cares and lectures in youth work and global issues at De Montfort University. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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