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Power and leadership

How is COVID-19 changing the relationship between communities and public services?

Ahead of our event exploring this question, Luca Tiratelli and Charlotte Morgan from New Local Government Network share their thoughts on how the COVID-19 crisis might reset the relationship between public services and communities.

No one currently working in British public policy has ever witnessed a more disruptive event than the current pandemic. The breadth and depth of the disruption it is causing is breath-taking – old certainties are dissolving, and the new is arriving at breakneck speed.

For the state, the immediate effect of the crisis has been for it to repower itself. It is once again discovering the extent of its capacity to intervene in society, something necessitated by the faltering response of the market economy. But it’s not just the state that’s changing. At the same time, we are seeing a flourishing of community and voluntary activity, as mutual aid groups spring up around the country, and 700,000 of us sign up to join the NHS’s volunteer scheme.

Both of these phenomena are, of course, direct responses to a very specific, exogenous shock. However, this does not mean that we should expect these things to evaporate as the crisis abates.

If people have got to know their neighbours through community initiatives during the crisis, they are not going to ‘un-know’ them just because the lockdown ends. Community bonds and infrastructure created today may change as the times do, but they will not disappear.

Similarly, much of what’s changing in public services is likely to endure. Some of the ways of working that were forced on services by social distancing may be found to have worked well, for example GPs moving to video appointments. Once taboos over certain types of practice, such as this, have been broken, it will be suddenly easy to change old habits.

If both public services and communities are to be transformed by this crisis then, it seems only logical to assume that the relationship between the two of them will also evolve.

But what will this look like?

Even before the crisis, NLGN and many others were calling for a reset in relations between public services and communities, particularly in the most deprived areas. It seemed that many of the pressing issues we were facing as a nation, from declining faith in democracy and public institutions, to the crisis of demand in our public services, could be traced back to this crucial democratic relationship.

As exemplified by NLGN’s “Community Paradigm”, a school of thought was emerging that public services needed to be more democratically accountable, and to work with people rather than ‘at’ them. If such a transformation could occur, it was argued, people would have more trust in the institutions that deliver services, and the services themselves would be freed up to work in a more person-centred, preventative fashion, rather than lurching from one crisis of acute need to another.

Many of the features of the crisis seem to point towards public service delivery being forced to adapt in this direction. The mutual aid groups that have sprung up around the country in response to the crisis are in large part a recognition of the specificity of vulnerable people’s needs. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all service, the idea of these groups it to help people with whatever they need, at a time and in a place that suits them.

They are, in this sense, the ultimate person-centred public service, and they have been absolutely critical in getting vulnerable people through this crisis. One only needs look at how closely councils are already involving these month-old groups in their COVID-19 responses to see how the crisis has laid bare the necessity of this type of approach.

The only real challenge for those of us who see this kind of shift as positive is that some key people working in public service delivery may see this all as a blip. Perhaps, in the here and now, they see the importance and need for a different relationship between state and community, but in the long term, they anticipate the end of the crisis allowing them to return to “business as usual”.

This needs to be challenged, not least by fellow local government workers who see the need for change. Whilst business as usual did not, of course, cause the global pandemic, it is responsible for putting us in a sub-optimal position to deal with it. Austerity, services running at full capacity, lack of engagement with communities – this was business as usual for public service in Britain, and evidence suggests that it put is in a worse position to address the pandemic than other similar nations.

COVID-19 is an appalling human tragedy. However, it provides the opportunity to reset the relationship between communities and public services. We must ensure that opportunity is taken.

Register to attend a panel discussion on this topic, hosted by Local Trust in partnership with NLGN.