While the full impact of Covid-19 on communities may not be fully understood for months, or even, years to come, one thing is clear: there will be a seismic shift in the way local services are delivered to support recovery.
Communications will play a leading role in recovery as much will depend on the strength of the connection between public services and communities. That connection will need to be two-way to ensure that appropriate support is properly planned and delivered based on maximum insight about what is needed.
The community-response will be an integral part of long-term recovery, just as it played a critical role in the initial emergency phases. Put simply, councils will not have the resources to do everything that is needed on our own – nor should we.
The role of communications, as I see it, is to step up to the challenge by developing a far more sophisticated place-based approach to our work in 6 key areas:
(1) Research and insight
The first part of any strategy should be research and insight. We need to understand how key audiences such as individuals, families and businesses are feeling about the changes that have occurred, what their immediate concerns are, how they are accessing services, what support they need in the future as well as their ability and desire to help provide support in their local community.
This insight cannot be yielded from surveys alone and we need to dig deeper through a community engagement-led approach to research to reach different audiences. By doing so, this will allow for intelligent and targeted communications and decision-making.
The explosion we have seen in the use of digital meeting places makes this relatively easy. Community focus groups that used to take weeks to organise could be held in days with very little cost. By capitalising on the increase in virtual engagement and methodologies, this also allows for quick turnaround and rapid insights to continually feed in todefining and developing the recovery response – particularly when it comes to community-based support.
(2) Community development
Place-based integration of community services, which is the model used in many places, may sound like policy jargon. Put simply – how do we help the community to support itself and then combine delivery with our own services?
In many areas we have already seen an explosion of interest in volunteering even if that interest hasn’t always been taken up.
Traditional volunteering will always play a role and we need to help development gateways that match demand to areas that need it.
We also need to think broader by shining a much bigger light on community services, the type of support they offer and the type of help they need to grow. Community asset mapping will play a role in this by using a research-led approach to understand community capacity, uptake and skills. This will not always be immediately obvious and not always channelled through existing organised groups. This will help us determine where the strengths are as well as gaps.
Our job then is to move into a more community organising and facilitating type role. In addition to thinking about physical community hubs, we should also be thinking about what this looks like in a digital space, using a creative storytelling approach to connect people with services that are there to help them as well as helping people play a role in delivering them.
One idea would be to totally transform the democratic process around voluntary sector funding by allowing local people a far bigger say in what projects are delivered though things like a community match-funding scheme where people can either donate time or money. This will help shine the light on community support in a way that encourages people to get far more involved and to ensure community volunteering and support is sustained for years to come.
(3) Community engagement and involvement
According to all the evidence from national polling, Covid-19 is moving us from being largely apathetic society to being much more engaged and in tune with what is happening around us. There is a golden opportunity to build on this in the way we engage local democracy using digital channels. We have already seen some councils open up their council meetings to the public by inviting live Q&As through social media channels. This should soon become standard practice. But there is the opportunity to go much further through the establishment of digital neighbourhood forums which invite engagement and involvement on local issues whether that be locally-led solutions to problems like fly-tipping or organisation of litter picks. This also presents a fantastic opportunity to properly engage and involve the community on the development of local projects. Whether it is asking them to vote on which project should receive funding, or how neighbourhood ward money is allocated, through to inviting them to contribute with their own money or time. This also presents an opportunity to fundamentally strengthen the role of the ward councillor by moving them, with training and support, much more into the role of community leader and community lynchpin.
Through the approach to recovery we will be starting to build a rich picture of what services people need, what they are accessing and what they are prepared to support through our own time and money. This will enable us to target campaigns to connect support to different communities in different ways. The type of campaigns that will be needed will vary from place to place but we will almost certainly see a need for more data-driven campaigns to help encourage community-based response to problems such as reducing fly-tipping, reducing contamination in recycling as well as encouraging more foster carers. To do this we must become more sophisticated in the way that we develop campaigns, making use of local intelligence to understand the problem we are trying to solve and the audience we are trying to influence.
(5) Social media
Social media will continue to play a major role in connecting the community with each other. Local public services should be part of this conversation but we ned to think differently about how we deploy social media by adopting a place-based approach (focused on community) rather than a bureaucratic approach (focused on council). Our social media channels should adopt the mentality that when people are following us they are following the place where they live, not an institution. Dropping the word “Council” from our social media accounts will help, but it requires a much deeper mindset. We need to see our role as “Chief Cheerleader” for the place by banging the drum loudly for all the institutions, groups and people that make our towns, cities, counties and boroughs fantastic places to live while also developing more of a social-listening approach to the way that we gain intelligence about what people are saying, feeling and doing. And we need to loosen the tie why we do this through a highly creative community, personality-driven approach. Take a look at the social media feeds of Doncaster, Wigan and Nottingham City for examples.
(6) Think local, shop local, play local, help local
Our place-based approach is all about increasing local identity and making people feel part of a community where they belong. An essential part of this is encouraging people ‘think local, shop local, play local and help local’. In the longer-term, once social distancing measures are a distant memory, our town centres and district centres should be re-established as being at the heart of local communities they serve with a far greater focus on recreational spaces and a far greater focus on community events and activities.
Our ethos should all be able to encourage people to think local, buy local, play local, help local by supporting local traders and local groups. Councils can play a major community leadership role in helping facilitate this as well even potentially helping to establish local online marketplaces (local Ebays or Amazons) where the spend stays in local communities and will help create local jobs.