Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, met (virtually) with over 100 researchers and policy officers to discuss the output of a six-month programme looking at some of the fundamental challenges to our society, economy and ways of living. Commissioned by the Government Office for Science, the Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme aims to help government with medium- and long-term challenges relating to the challenges of Covid-19, captured under nine themes including “vulnerable communities”, “supporting services”, and “local and national growth”.
The overall programme was led by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver, two experienced social scientists whose work focusses on the use of evidence. In their recent LSE article, they explain the background to the programme and how plans were upturned in March with the introduction of Lockdown in the UK.
I was particularly involved in the “supporting services” theme, convening the work around local government. It is an exciting initiative to be involved with, not just because of its scope and pace, but also because of the range of people engaged: researchers and academics, government policy and analysis officers, and funders. What I found particularly interesting was how different Government departments and different academic disciplines were often looking at very similar issues but framing them from distinct perspectives and using diverse language to describe them. This highlights the need to develop shared definitions of issues and ways to address these – considering “problem-based issues” in the round.
As well as summarising the existing research evidence around each of the identified themes, the work identified several “gaps” in the extant evidence base and opportunities for new research, policy/research dialogue, and knowledge exchange.
Within the Local Government theme, we recognised that LG’s role proved critical in the first stage of the pandemic, for example in supporting vulnerable and shielded people, enabling voluntary community groups, freeing up 30,000 hospital beds, housing over 5,000 homeless people, and sustaining essential services such as public health, waste collection, safeguarding and crematoria. This role is likely to increase in future stages of the pandemic, with more responsibility for local surveillance testing and tracing, implementing local lockdowns, economic development, contributing to a sustainable social care system, and supporting further community mutual aid.
There is already a good evidence base showing how local government is playing vital roles in responding to and recovering from the pandemic. We identified four main themes: empowering local communities, delivering and supporting services, devolution and localisation, and funding.
For each issue we considered the key policy and practice implications of existing evidence, the evidence gaps and the ways in which gaps might be filled.
Around empowering local communities, for example, evidence showed that LAs responded quickly to the pandemic, and well-functioning local systems emerged to tackle the immediate crises in many parts of the UK. Areas adopted a range of strategies in partnership with local communities. But informal community responses can lack coordination, resources, reach and accountability; and some groups face barriers to involvement. Further evidence is required on what works in strengthening community support networks, empowering different types of communities, and co-producing public services. Councils also need to understand better how staff, councillors and the institutions themselves can change to empower communities.
There has already been some important learning from this work, such as recognising the treasure trove of useful knowledge contained in existing evidence and expertise. We need to get much better at using evidence from, for example, the evaluation of past policy initiatives. The programme is helping to strengthen relationships across government, including some new and more diverse voices, and will be useful as government departments revisit their Areas of Research Interest post-Covid. The thematic reports are due to be published in coming weeks.
I will be exploring the findings for other areas of interest to Local Government in future articles.
[This article also appeared in the Local Area Research and Intelligence Association December newsletter]
Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.