Crisis or not, the evidence shows that community power works

February 16, 2021  

The pandemic has shown the powerful ways communities, civil society and the public sector can come together in response to local challenges. But this kind of cooperative local problem solving – what we call community power – has much deeper roots. Before the launch of our new Evidence Base, we explore what we can learn about what community power is – and how we can harness it to build back better.

Communities have responded to the disruption and hardship of the pandemic with speed, creativity and ingenuity. On streets and in neighbourhoods up and down the country people have reached out to support one another.  

Practical tasks like shopping and collecting medication were organised and coordinated by rapidly formed mutual aid groups. These groups also worked with foodbanks and came up with practical ideas to tackle growing loneliness in lockdown.

Dealing with the impact of Covid-19 became an urgent, shared priority. This helped form new partnerships and strengthen existing collaborations. Our recent report Shifting the Balance, found evidence of this, like councils offering training to new community groups and collaborations based around community hubs.  

This kind of cooperative local problem solving may have accelerated over the last year, but its roots are much deeper. Away from the noise of Westminster politics, people in communities and public services across the country have been finding new ways to work together to address local challenges. 

People form networks of support around shared experiences, like becoming a parent or living with an illness. Voluntary and community organisations help people lead change in their neighbourhoods.

Councils too, have been collaborating with communities and trying out participatory and deliberative ways to involve more people in decision-making.

These networks, collaborations and practices have been important during lockdown. Our research on mutual aid found that the councils that were used to working with communities were better able to support the new community groups that started during the pandemic.

What is community power?

What do the above examples have in common? They are guided by the principle that communities have the knowledge, skills and assets to know themselves how best to respond to challenges and to thrive.

We call this community power. And the pandemic response is just the latest piece of evidence that it works.

We are soon publishing on our next report, Community Power: The Evidence, which is all about:

  • what community power looks like in practice 
  • what impact community power is having 
  • and what we need to do to unlock community power’s full potential

Here are the three mains ways we have found more power and resources being transferred to communities: 

  • Community decision-making: involving citizens more meaningfully in local decision-making. This can be through deliberative and participatory approaches.  
    Example of this in practice: Camden’s recent citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis is a good example of this in action.   
  • Collaboration with communities: public services shifting from hierarchical and siloed ways of working to more collaborative approaches. This is all about deeply involving communities as equal partners with essential insights. 
    Example of this in practice: Councils are adopting Local Area Coordination, an asset-based approach which looks at how friends, family and wider community networks can help support a person to achieve their goals.  
  • Building community capacity and assets: equipping communities with the resources and skills they need to mobilise and genuinely participate in local action.  

    Example of this in practice: The Local Conversations programme run by the People’s Health Trust, which supports communities to lead action on health and wellbeing. 

Building back better 

With the vaccine rollout speeding up, we’re starting to look to the future and think about how we can rebuild. Community power should be at the heart of this. 

Not only because we want to build on the amazing work of community groups and new collaborations formed during the pandemic. But because the evidence is clear – community power works.  

This evidence base is made up of practices, approaches and initiatives which each respond to their own local context. But taken together, they make a wider case for change. They show a clear picture of the value of collaboration and empowerment. And the potential to build thriving communities supported by prevention-focused public services. 

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