How local participation blossomed during Covid

August 16, 2021   By Donna Hall

During lockdown, there was a surprising increase in local participation – demonstrating the positive role of community power in emergencies.

This post is a pre-publication version of an article published in the book Democracy in a Pandemic, from University of Westminster Press.

Many democratic practices were made all but impossible by the pandemic. But nevertheless, a deeper kind of participation emerged in many places.

This reveals the role of community power in emergencies, the transformative impact of new digital approaches, the untapped potential of localism to enhance our democracies – and why trust between people and institutions is a non-negotiable requirement to address the challenges ahead.

Learning lessons from a crisis

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst and most prolonged emergency in recent UK history, has revealed a startling capacity for rapid adaptation on the part of many communities and local institutions. This experience holds significant implications for how public authorities need to change if they are to adopt more participatory and deliberative approaches in the long-term.

This essay is informed by our New Local reports Shifting the Balance and Communities vs. Coronavirus, which examined the roles of communities and local authorities during the crisis, as well as longstanding experience of the organisational changes needed to embed and enable more participation within a locality.

Civil liberties and formal democratic rights have undoubtedly been one of the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whole sectors have had to respond with little time to talk, few ways to convene in the public sphere, and little room for debate in such a life-or-death situation. At the same time, some kinds of participation have blossomed. The avenues for directly engaging with public authorities have become more limited, but digital approaches and new networks have seen some institutions become more open and inclusive than before.

‘Co-production’ between citizens and public services and direct individual involvement in the life of local communities have both, in many places, become more of the norm. Successfully partnering with communities that have been newly mobilised by the pandemic has required a culture-shift: a transformation within public authorities to embrace different ways of getting things done.

How local responses outperformed national ones

One finding is quite clear from the experience of the pandemic: where national-scale responses and centrally organised schemes frequently ran into difficulty, localities and local institutions often succeeded. Our country’s centralism – disregarding the capabilities of non-central institutions, designing policies that are not effectively adapted for implementation in different places – have held back its crisis response. Contact tracing – where the local expertise of public health experts in specific places was sidelined in favour of a cumbersome national system – is just one example.

The exigencies of the Covid-19 pandemic placed visible strain on our over-centralised systems of government and decision-making, with a combination of one-size-fits-all policymaking creating suboptimal results and administrative overload within Whitehall and Westminster slowing the pace. National policies were made at a gradual pace that arguably led to more loss of life as opportunities for early intervention were missed. International lessons on the infrastructure and capacities needed to contain the spread of the virus were also learned at a slow pace. Public health messaging – though effective – was often informed by an outdated understanding of the measures required, magnified unintended consequences, and positioned members of the public as powerless avoiders-of-risk rather than active participants in emergency response.

National efforts to foster voluntarism ignored the importance of local context

In contrast to the outpouring of productive voluntarism that played out in localities, great attempts by national government and institutions to organise ‘volunteer armies’ – such as via the NHS ‘GoodSAM’ app which was intended to dynamically match volunteers to requests for help – yielded minimal results. While this approach was obviously well-intentioned, its failure is not particularly surprising. Why should we expect successful organisation of neighbourhood-scale, hyper-local volunteering via a massive, central system?

As we discuss below, voluntary and mutual aid efforts have flourished at local scales, particularly where local authorities looked for ways to enable such work in contextually appropriate ways. Different approaches taken in the devolved nations may have played an important role here – normalising long-term thinking and community engagement, and incentivising healthier and longer-standing frameworks for such approaches to a far greater extent than in England.

Councils often found local ways to deliver effective public health messaging, opening productive new channels of communication between citizens and the local state. Barking and Dagenham Council deployed locally well-known figures in its communications, Newcastle City Council ventured onto TikTok to help reach younger residents, and Birmingham City Council created a dedicated campaign to help engage on the specific issues created by the pandemic among BAME, disabled, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Emergency response – and meaningful democratic participation – require local thinking

To some extent the centre’s failings have been the product of the same brute logistical problems that also deepen the challenges for programmes of more involved citizen participation at the national scale. This is a populous, diverse, and complex country: not an easy system to influence from the very centre, and not an easy system to adequately represent. Traditional representation seldom genuinely captures the views or understands the relevant experiences of all those who are said to be represented. More deliberative approaches may help at this whole-nation scale, but still depend upon one or another model of representation in order to function. Traditional vote-aggregation, meanwhile, massively oversimplifies questions of policy or politics, but can at least make it plausible for whole publics to express a (highly framed, highly domain-limited) view.  

An alternative solution to the ‘there are too many of us’ logistical problem for democracy is one that is startlingly underexplored in the UK. Localism and subsidiarity could allow for a more full-blooded, co-productive and participatory kind of citizenship to flourish. Yet the UK remains perhaps the most centralised country of its size and complexity in the world. This is an under-discussed aspect of our country’s democratic deficit. While some decisions and objectives should clearly be set at this larger scale – and entail a meaningful degree of democratic involvement from citizens at any scale – the prospects for inclusive and deep participation are magnified, and many decisions and could thus be better made, at a more local level.

The local democratic paradox: engagement flourished during lockdowns

Within circumstances that necessitated the suspension of elections and limited people’s right to gather for peaceful protest or demonstration, we have nevertheless seen the increase of some kinds of democratic engagement at the local scale. This is a local democratic paradox: more open and engaged public authorities amid historic limitations on everyone’s ability to be physically present.

The crisis catalysed the creation of new participatory networks and, broadly, a greater institutional willingness to reach out to and seek input from communities who are less often heard. In some places this has taken the form of experimentation with direct democracy or deliberative approaches. The London Borough of Newham’s decision to trial a standing citizen’s assembly from May 2021, for example, has been explicitly identified with the need to address inequalities highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Councils have also proven willing to experiment with direct democracy and found new routes to include all communities in important conversations. Manchester City Council created a dedicated telephone helpline to assist digital participation during the pandemic, while North Ayrshire supported local businesses to assist digital inclusivity.

Digital tools have become more important than ever

In many cases these new avenues of engagement were made possible by the rapid growth in use of remote and digital tools. Sheffield City Council set up online workshops with communities to involve them in local response planning. Such was their success that the council is continuing to hold the workshops to inform its new ‘dialogue-based approach’ to service design and delivery.

Several local deliberative forums adapted and continued through the pandemic by adopting digital practices. The Camden Health and Care assembly switched to digital for all but its first session in 2020, and Lancaster’s People’s Jury on climate change was taken wholly online, holding evidence sessions, hosting discussions, and publishing a detailed set of recommendations in November 2020 which have since been committed to by the council.

Clearly, the viability of these participatory approaches is contingent on local institutions’ adoption of digital and remote working practices. But it is perhaps unsurprising that these developments have coincided with a notable uptick in public satisfaction in and trust of local institutions. Such shifts are playing out in the context of declining faith in institutions, low turnout, and comparatively few formal avenues for participation – a low starting point from which to measure – but nevertheless indicative of a shift in the relationship between citizen and state.

Councils’ ability to adopt participatory innovations and digital practices during this time has been made possible due to the removal of some important institutional blockages at the national scale. The long-held and widespread ambition to allow remote attendance at council meetings was finally realised in 2020 by hasty legislation designed to keep local systems working. The success of this approach in some places – in achieving more transparent and inclusive practices overall – has led to calls to ensure that the change is made permanent. Ironically, any such change in England will need to be approved by the UK Government: further evidence of our overcentralised norms.

The culture of councils has been key to crisis response

Community participation has been an indispensable part of the pandemic response, and the diversity of functions assumed by established civil society organisations, voluntary groups, and self-organising mutual aid speaks to the broader re-imagining of citizens’ roles that emerged amid crisis.

The most important relationships for communities have been ‘vertical’, in the sense that councils often hold an effective ‘make-or-break’ role when it comes to the impact of participatory action in times of crisis.

The thousands of spontaneous, voluntary mutual aid groups that emerged during the earliest stages of the first national lockdown were powered by an enormous new ‘workforce’: people whose usual livelihoods had been rendered untenable by the necessity of economic paralysis. These highly informal groups were able to operate more nimbly and flexibly than existing public service structures. By identifying need in the community, organising grocery purchase and delivery, and ensuring that medication found its way to those who required it, the entire ‘shielding’ policy for the most vulnerable people was arguably delivered through the voluntary efforts of such mutual aid groups.

The risks of helping too little…or too much

In many places, however, these efforts were stymied by the stance of established institutions. The best results appear to have emerged where councils struck a moderate balance between the poles of laissez-faire disinterest and well-intentioned micro-management. Some groups, because of their informal and rapidly emergent nature, struggled with formal aspects of the work that they took on, such as guaranteeing the safety of volunteers or managing funds. In such cases, a degree of guidance and facilitation – and indeed direct resourcing – could constitute critically important interventions from the council. Councils that have helped community groups to thrive are those that have made space for them to develop organically, set up grant schemes to assist their activities, and supported them to resolve logistical and bureaucratic challenges.

In other cases, however, heavy-handed public authorities crushed the efforts of mutual aid groups during the pandemic. Threading this needle was not a matter of luck, but of experience: places and councils with a culture favourable to participation and community power found themselves in a stronger position. Often, the different approaches adopted by councils was predetermined by factors that predated the pandemic crisis. Previous experience of and investment in community development and existing strong ties with voluntary and civil society groups were both predictive of facilitative public institutions during the pandemic.

For many councils, the demands of the pandemic have proved to be the foundation of a more participative and open approach. Councils, civil society organisations and businesses were all required to adopt collaborative and innovative approaches at high speed. These collaborations gave rise to innovative practices and long-awaited shifts in the way institutions get things done, such as experiments in internal collaboration and institutional openness in Kingston upon Thames, and direct collaboration with voluntary and community groups to run hubs for neighbourhood service delivery in North Ayrshire.

Needed: a new relationship between citizen and state

This was not only about adopting the digital tools that allowed communities to self-organise and engage in new ways. For many councils, working so closely with the third sector and communities to respond to Covid-19 lockdowns has produced an epiphany of sorts. In a real life-or-death public health emergency, the traditional siloed, hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of working in the public sector fell apart. In its place emerged a more collaborative culture and a more agile model of service delivery, both of which have produced tangible successes and allowed councils to rediscover the value of listening to communities.

In some places these are lessons which had already been learned long before the start of the pandemic. Localities where councils and institutions had already invested time and effort into community development and engagement found themselves to be far more resilient when this latest crisis descended.

The experience of Wigan – and the ‘Wigan Deal’ model for revitalising the local relationship between citizen and state – is a well-researched and commonly-cited example of how listening to communities, embedding integrated, pan-public service, and place-based neighbourhood teams, and institutional culture-change over a sustained period can prepare a council and a community for crisis.

Revisiting the Wigan Deal

The Deal takes the form of an explicit social contract, describing a more active relationship between the Council and communities and extending to incorporate all local public services. Conscious movement of residents from the role of passive recipient to active citizen is at the heart of this approach: it is literally a ‘deal’ that both sides will step up in new and different ways to create a more balanced and participatory norm. The results speak for themselves. Healthy life expectancy increased by seven years within Wigan’s most deprived communities following the introduction of the Deal. Numbers of looked-after children fell by 10%. The same period saw an overall increase in institutional trust in the area, with public approval of the council rising even during a time of heavily constrained finances.

Several good practice lessons emerge from this example of a public authorities’ pivot toward more open and participatory working. Though often dismissed as a ‘soft’ variable within the context of public services, the council’s ability to unify behind a shared vision and communicate it in a clear and consistent way proved to be important: analysis from The King’s Fund suggests that “clarity and constancy of purpose” over many years were key to achieving many of the Wigan Deal’s benefits.

Wigan’s experience also shows how investment in community infrastructure can be crucially important for participatory working – and highly compatible with wider efficiency. The Council invested over £13 million in a Community Investment Fund to shore up the infrastructure at the foundation of local communities, as well as transferring assets such as swimming pools, community centres, and libraries to new more directly accountable models of community delivery in neighbourhoods.

Meaningful dialogue matters

The ongoing success of the Wigan Deal rests upon the creation of a meaningful dialogue between the council, local institutions of many kinds, and residents. These sometimes take the form of consultation processes, but these are more full-blooded than is usually the case when a local authority consults the public. In drawing up plans for the Borough through to 2030, the council engaged in a ‘Big Listening Project’ involving 6,000 people.

Changing the culture and expectations of institutions in Wigan, especially within the most resistant parts of partnerships, took time. A “BeWigan” place-based organisational development programme was created to drive different, more asset-based conversations with local people across public sector agencies, based on attitudes and behaviour rather than just technical ability. Hosted by frontline workers, it tapped into the values and mindset of the place and ultimately supported public servants to be more innovative in how they worked.

While many areas benefited from the emergence of spontaneous new mutual aid groups during the first national lockdown, places like Wigan saw existing community action groups repurpose at speed to deliver essentials for hundreds of shielding households. Such efforts were greeted by an already highly facilitative local state, rather than the scepticism or micro-management evident in other parts of the country. Rather than react to a crisis with an instinctive need to assume control and micromanage the response, places with this history and civic infrastructure saw councils step further back and make space for genuine community leadership.

Remove the barriers, and local participation flourishes

Perhaps the most striking effect of the pandemic for public authorities was its ability to remove the usual barriers that prevent more open and participatory relationships with the communities that they serve. If lack of time and opportunity were the greatest obstacle for citizens, the economic paralysis and furlough schemes brought on by lockdown changed the equation. If an overly bureaucratic, risk-averse, and insular culture was the primary barrier for councils and public services, then the urgency and scale of the crisis itself created all the incentives needed for new approaches to emerge.

These special conditions will fade as the pandemic passes and our economic and social recoveries become the main story. It is crucial that the innovations that they gave rise to do not fade with them. This is doubly true given the arguably greater challenges that await us in coming years. Economic and environmental resilience can both be strengthened by the kind of hyperlocal thinking that emerged at speed in response to the pandemic.

Two ingredients for a more participatory future: trust and localism

Two core themes emerge from the examples discussed in this essay which could be helpful for the cause of strengthened participatory and democratic culture as we emerge from the pandemic.

First, there is raw and, particularly in England, essentially untapped value in localism. A thicker kind of citizenship is possible at local scales. Part of our deeper crisis in public services and institutional legitimacy can be ascribed to our forgetting the local, and assuming that the kind of minimal, transactional, client-like relationships we have with the central state – at best supplemented by the occasional desultory consultation – are the only game in town. As this crisis has reminded us, there are many towns where a very different game is underway.

Second is the idea of trust. In our experience and research we have seldom come across examples where a leap of faith on the part of a public authority has been punished. More often than not, communities step up – and are equipped with much needed tacit, contextual expertise. Our institutions nevertheless tend to operate on the assumption that community leadership or coproduction are risk factors, rather than opportunities.

The experience of the pandemic could yet correct such assumptions, with the prize of a more collaborative and less infantilised citizenry than the one that first was told to enter lockdown in March 2020.

Read more in New Local reports Shifting the Balance and Communities vs. Coronavirus

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