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Shifting the Balance: Local adaptation, innovation and collaboration during the pandemic and beyond

January 27, 2021   By Simon Kaye and Charlotte Morgan
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Shaped by conversations with public and third sector leaders across England, Wales and Scotland, Shifting the Balance explores how councils and communities joined together to fight Covid-19. And it sets out recommendations for how to take forward the adaptation, innovation and collaboration that emerged during this time of crisis.

Executive Summary

2020 was a year with unprecedented challenges for so many, and it was also the year that proved community power is possible at scale. Public services and communities came together to help each other as never before. The community power movement that responded to the immediate crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic broke down institutional barriers, disrupted hierarchies and, most crucially, produced tangible results.

Shifting the Balance is an investigation into this new community-powered approach, where people across localities worked together to achieve shared objectives as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded. Based on a series of interviews, workshops, and in-depth case studies, it identifies and explores a host of new practices and partnerships that emerged in the first Covid-19 lockdown. It sets out a series of proposals for national governments; local public services; voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector organisations and communities to embed and build upon the new approach in future, beyond the immediate demands of the crisis.

Faced with the overwhelming challenge of the pandemic, our councils, civil society organisations, community groups and businesses adopted many new cooperative approaches at high speed. Though people who were already struggling socially and economically were disproportionately impacted by the crisis, in many places the new approach saw proactive efforts to reach communities and individuals with less voice and access to services.

As a result, huge numbers of people across the country mobilised to help those in need and felt closer to their neighbours, local community and local area. The viability and value of community power was tested in ways unimaginable before the pandemic hit. It is now important to understand what happened in order to retain what worked for greater resilience in the future.

“Covid has revealed so many people who want to have a local impact.”

In order to respond to the developing emergency, Kingston Council rapidly instigated some radical shifts in structure and culture. Nonhierarchical and dynamic new teams and working groups came together in an organic way to solve problems. New and junior staff and frontline professionals found new opportunities to pitch their ideas to senior leaders in the organisation. Galvanised by a sense of shared endeavour, a new mindset – where no practices are deemed acceptable only because they are longstanding – also emerged.

Partnerships across the borough have been enhanced by the experience of the pandemic. In the words of one interviewee in the council:

“In the past we’ve been unconsciously controlling of community groups. Unintentionally wording things in a way that preserves our power. It’s become important to question the tone that underpins these relationships. The desire to work collaboratively with partners and communities is huge now. We really didn’t know how to put that into action prior to Covid.”

In the summer of 2020, the council appointed a dedicated bid facilitator embedded within the local authority, whose role is to help community and voluntary groups navigate the application processes to access financial support.

The result is a new bridge between the institutions and groups in the locality, setting up entirely new partnerships.

Elements of the new community-powered approach

The new community-powered approach is driven by the adoption of ‘balance-shifting practices’ among local public services, VCSE bodies and communities. In this report, these practices are classified as adaptations, innovations and collaborations:

  • Adaptations of existing practices allowed organisations and
    community groups to be more speedy, flexible, and open.
  • Innovations saw localities take advantage of the moment
    of radical possibility created by the pandemic to experiment with
    wholly new ways of doing things.
  • Collaborations emerged in the context of a much more
    permissive culture within and between the communities,
    organisations, and institutions.

Importantly, there is plentiful evidence that this new approach worked. The informal, agile, and technologically enabled new relationships and practices ensured the safety of thousands of vulnerable people. Barriers were removed, and needs were identified and met at a pace many observe was unprecedented before the crisis.

Shifting the Balance illustrates how these changes operated through a series of seven place-based case studies from across Britain.

However, many of these crucial practices and relationships are now at risk of slipping away in the face of economic instability, the longer-term demands of the pandemic as early motivation ebbs, and the lure of a return to ‘business as usual’.

Neil Prior, Head of Transformation, Pembrokeshire County Council

Comparing the contexts: Wales, Scotland and England

To better understand how community power worked in different places, Shifting the Balance examines the different operational contexts of the nations of Great Britain.

In Scotland and Wales, more established systems and incentives for long-term thinking and community planning were an explicit factor in the way that localities responded to the crisis. This may yet allow for the new model to be more easily sustained.

England, with no comparable structures at the national level, was more dependent on the emergence of long term planning and community-led practices at the local scale.

“Something has changed this year. There’s been less bureaucracy. More risk taking, but not in a way that harmed anyone.”

Even before the introduction of the 2015 Community
Empowerment (Scotland) Act, North Ayrshire was working to establish a framework of community partners within localities alongside Third Sector Interfaces, to act as a conduit between institutions and the wider social sector.

This proved to be a crucial tool during the pandemic, creating an overview of capacity within the whole locality to allocate much-needed funds from many sources. Over the course of the pandemic, many new relationships emerged between parts of the
third sector, partly as a result of the coordinating role of the TSIs.

Six dedicated community hubs were established in public-facing facilities within each of the area’s six sub-localities, and these were enhanced by a number of wholly community-run centres. Within
these, a small dedicated staff coordinated the local response and connected local people with what they needed through a blend of council provision and effort from neighbourhood volunteers. In
each hub, the approach and available tools was slightly different according to the unique demands of each locality.

These hubs were established at speed. From the council’s perspective they have established high-quality partnerships which mean their relationships into the third sector are stronger now than they were before the pandemic. The benefits of this approach have also been felt by local businesses, who have
played a role in supporting and upskilling residents to engage digitally and in turn are now closer to the heart of the community.

The hubs have been so successful that they are set to outlive the pandemic, and will be placed at the heart of a more distributed, networked, and inclusive council strategy in future.

Embedding the new community-powered approach

There are a number of risks and challenges that will hold back the sustainability of the new approach if left unaddressed or unchanged. These include growing fatigue with managing a longterm crisis response and widening economic, social, racial, and digital inequalities. To overcome these challenges and embed the new approach for the longer term, Shifting the Balance identifies four core lessons for national governments, local authorities and VCSE organisations embedding the new practices post-Covid.

  1. Work locally and protect informality: Local institutions
    should identify ways in which they can remove or negotiate formal regulations and systems on behalf of community groups. In so doing, local institutions can help community groups to retain their informality, agility and versatility.
  1. Foster innovations and harness pre-existing resilience:
    Balancing the new with the old is key. The genuine innovations
    that emerged during the pandemic – brand new neighbourhood
    networks, entirely new funding schemes, wholly original
    partnerships – may require the most upkeep during recovery.
    Resilience also emerges from longer-term trends, the experience
    of crisis response, and meaningful civil society development.
  2. Embed long-term planning across localities: Short-termism
    is the enemy of community power. If this new approach
    is to be more than a flash-in-the-pan in many places, national
    and local governments will need to commit to long-term
    planning. By escaping from short-term funding deals and the
    incentives of the political cycle, localities will be better placed
    to engage in collaborative community planning and embed
    community-led practices that emerged quickly in a time of crisis.
  3. Make space for VCSE collaboration: The creation of peer
    networks would help to connect different kinds of community
    businesses, voluntary groups, and charities – both within and
    between places and between national, regional and local levels.
    These organisations can find common cause and should not
    always be competing with each other for resources or unaware
    of each other’s existence.

“We now have hundreds more eyes, ears, hands and feet in our communities.”

Asset-based principles and belief and trust in communities were the foundations of the council’s strategy to manage lockdown. Rather than redeploy officers into community roles, the council focused on creating a support structure for people in the community to take on those roles and on nurturing their relationships with both existing community groups and new mutual aid groups. The strength of those relationships meant the council was able to benefit from the support of communities in much more than shopping and collecting prescriptions.

This approach has inspired the creation of the county’s new Town Ambassador Programme. The Programme sees local volunteers meet people who feel uncertain about leaving their homes and walk with them around their town centre.

The volunteers are given training so that they can talk to their companions about local landmarks; show them the new Covid-19 measures in town centres and shops; chat about their general
wellbeing; and signpost them to local services.


With all of this in mind, the report concludes with nine recommendations for national governments, local authorities and other public service bodies, VCSE organisations and communities to sustain the new
community-powered approach.


  1. Proactively identify, map and embed new practices.
    Public services, community organisations and communities should
    work together to record and cultivate effective community-powered approaches across whole localities as we turn toward recovery.
  2. Build more meaningful connections with communities.
    Local public services should maintain the more proactive,
    inclusive and collaborative style of engagement that we
    witnessed during the first lockdown.
  3. Resource the community’s core assets.
    National governments should devolve funding locally to support
    community power and infrastructure, alongside national and
    local public services creating opportunities for communities to
    participate directly in decisions about resource allocation.


  1. Normalise digital inclusivity.
    Local public, education, business and VCSE partners should work
    together to assess and address digital skills and equipment
    needs in their place. National governments should commit
    funding to support place-based initiatives.
  2. Embed structural long-termism and community planning at the national level.
    The UK Government should table a Community Power Bill to strengthen community rights and participation in public services in England. The Cabinet Office should lead both the development of the Bill and the shift towards a more long-termist policymaking environment in Whitehall.
  3. Facilitate informal community-led approaches.
    Public services should support local community groups and frontline public servants to navigate formal bureaucratic processes and enable them to carry out their work with autonomy and agility.


  1. Build a unifying narrative and vision for the whole locality.
    Local public services, cross-sector organisations and communities should serve as equal partners and co-authors to a shared narrative capturing their place’s story of the Covid-19 crisis and ambitions for the future.
  2. Establish spaces and networks for communities and the third sector.
    Local public services should support rather than manage charity and community networks to encourage joined-up working across a place and data-sharing where appropriate.
  3. Incentivise cooperation, not competition.
    Local and national government should adopt community commissioning and social value procurement to galvanise meaningful partnerships and trusting, collaborative behaviours across localities.

The new community-powered approach that emerged in response to the pandemic was the product of localities finding the best possible ways to respond collectively to a crisis. It was self-evidently the most natural and effective model to adopt in the midst of a pandemic. This is telling.

This report shows that through adopting community-powered approaches, public services were able to empower frontline workers, set up community hubs to coordinate local responses, and rely on communities to help vulnerable people with much more than shopping and collecting prescriptions.

However, it is not yet clear whether this experience has been enough to decisively shift the balance toward more community power. By learning lessons from the extraordinary adaptations and achievements that took place during the pandemic, we may yet realise that an entirely different approach is possible – one that can continue to improve people’s lives in future.

January 27, 2021
Authored by

Simon Kaye and Charlotte Morgan
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