From crisis to community empowerment

Communities need progress towards their wellbeing to be treasured, and therefore measured.

Lauren Pennycook

Carnegie UK Trust

‘Build back better’ has become the rallying cry of the post-COVID-19 recovery. From the United Kingdom to the United States, the phrase has become a short-hand for our collective aspiration for a more equal, fair, and sustainable society. But have campaigners, in fact, consulted with citizens and communities about their needs pre-, present day, and post-pandemic, beyond this soundbite? Is the new ‘deal’, the new relationship, the new investment proposed informed by what our communities truly need?

Over the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Carnegie UK Trust held over 80 conversations with people from 16 communities across the UK, focussing on how organisations and communities were adapting to meet the changing needs of the people around them, and the evolving relationships between the public sector, the voluntary community and social enterprise sector, and communities.

And what the Trust found was remarkable similarities in the support required by communities across the UK during the crisis – with food; decreasing household income; mental health; and digital access. And there was remarkable consistency about which groups were at the forefront of the support provided – communities themselves, being flexible in the range of support they offered their neighbours and fellow citizens, and working in partnership with the local authority to provide more effective support than either could offer alone.

So what does this tell us about the future of our places across the UK? Well, while formal, in-person consultations – in community halls; through leaflet drops; and at citizen stalls – have not taken place over the last nine months, there is now no doubt about what places need from their policymakers, their practitioners, and their people; the manner in which they need it; and what assets they have in their local areas. Communities need policymakers to place their wellbeing at the centre of services, across sector and silo; they need to be supported to support each other, with skilled staff and sources of funding; and they need public services to be flexible and kind from here onwards, not just the here and now of the pandemic. Communities need progress towards their wellbeing to be treasured, and therefore measured.

The crisis has shown that people’s needs are holistic – food, fuel, friendship – and so how we assess if communities are thriving – or merely surviving – should be measured beyond narrow boundaries. As a legacy of the importance of greenspace during the pandemic, the quality of our local environment should be measured, alongside the number of local business, which were so active, so quick to innovate, so kind beyond any obligation they had to the consumer. The local mortality rate, so devastating in some communities, should be measured alongside mental health, so challenged after months of social distancing. From Manchester to Merthyr Tydfil, these parts of our lives – culture, community cohesion, health, housing – should be measured in a single, comprehensive, consistent way across the UK.

And they should be measured at a level that communities connect with. While local authority level data is interesting, local community level data can inform and inspire. Data about our towns, if robust, reliable, and at the right level, can tell us which groups in our community need our help. Used to inform policymaking, it can help to break down silos, deliver convenient and co-ordinated public services, and prevent problems before they start. As part of building back better, we must build our data sets on what communities told us is important to their wellbeing, and how they need public services to provide for them.

This understanding can inform policymakers of challenges but also opportunities – of where communities can be given permission to take control; where people can be supported to participate more fully; and how siloes can be sewn together so that they can start to take a long-term, preventative approach. It can be both a means and an end – to individual agency and community control over decisions that affect our lives.

And so as one participant told us: ‘Don’t let up. Keep trying to capture that experience in any fora you can, as it is easy to miss the opportunity to capture and reflect’. For organisations like the Carnegie UK Trust who have the luxury of listening at a time of such anxiety and pressure, relaying what citizens have told us should just be the beginning. Citizens’ stories should be used to inform mind-sets – of the importance of data – and skill sets – collecting and analysing the data needed to work to outcomes, in partnership, and to prevent problems, post-pandemic. Their experiences should be used to build back better with renewed vigour, legitimacy and inspiration. Their needs should be used to build thriving places.