Who shapes what comes next? A pathway to reimagining power and equity in COVID-19 Britain

We are all coming to terms with the impact of COVID-19 on our prosperity and life chances. We are relearning how we live, how society functions, and what and who we value most. We are learning about how COVID has changed and impacted our communities and with that has come a realisation of injustices that exist in our country, including a spark which has lit and fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement.

What we’ve been learning about is power; how we view and share it, who gets heard, and who will shape what comes next.

In this article, I first look at how government uses its power to form an immediate response to an escalating crisis and then how that power could evolve to shape our recovery and inform how we rebuild the UK together. If we reimagine power and control at the right times to get the best outcomes, we believe that we can recover from this crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and unity, and start to address the deeper inequalities and prejudices in our systems. At the Centre for Public Impact, how we share power is a big focus of ours and we also think there is a lot that can be learned from all over the world about how to do this in the UK, even and especially with coronavirus.

Three observations about power and control today in the UK

We took all of our learning from our Finding Legitimacy and Shared Power Principle studies, as well as listening to local governments, charities and citizens throughout the pandemic, to identify three general themes about how power in the UK looked as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded:

1. Central government calls the shots in the height of a crisis

So far, the response has been mainly managed and communicated from the centre of government, a not too surprising feature of the UK’s centrally organised system. Policies and support packages have been announced at speed for local areas across the country to follow, which many people welcomed. Contact tracing, testing, the search for a vaccine, PPE provision, and lockdown strategies were all being decided and managed from the centre — even the NHS “volunteer army” was centrally managed. England’s local authorities have fewer devolved powers with regard to the easing of lockdown than is the case for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Localism and devolution are back on the table for discussion and civil servants are looking across the world at how more local approaches may be needed going forwards. Payment by results in the NHS has been temporarily suspended, as have of course the usual government inspections. Could this be the start of a power re-think or just a temporary measure?

2. But, the crisis has forced new ways of working at a local level that sit outside the usual rules and ways of operating

Through our discussions with local councils, charities, voluntary organisations and the public sector, we are hearing how power looks and feels on the frontline. Local services are still under immense strain, but throughout the crisis they have had to make some tough and quick decisions that might once have been seen as outside “normal” or “acceptable” operating rules. For example, staff have been empowered to make some decisions without multiple sign-offs, cutting unnecessary bureaucracy to give people what they need, when they need it.

Social workers have been given credit cards to get emergency provisions for in-need families. Doctors say online consultations, which they thought would take years to become the norm, are now standard practice.

It’s not easy, however, to capture where this is happening nationally and how it might change power dynamics. Local services have enough to worry about without being asked questions about how they are working, without certainty on how authorities will use that information. This all makes collective listening and learning difficult, and decisions about what happens next may be based on old or inaccurate information, assumptions and processes (CPI is examining how listening needs have changed).

3. Voices are fighting to be heard but it’s unclear where their power lies and how they can shape what happens next

In all this, hearing people’s voices and making sense of them for longer-term local and national decision-making feels difficult for civil servants, especially when listening to those who have felt disenfranchised and whose lives have been impacted very seriously. People dependent on effective government services need relationships, conversations and support rather than consultations or surveys.

Will their insights carry weight when it comes to shaping policy and services?

This is a particularly important question for people who have been disproportionately hit by the crisis as a result of social inequality — care workers, the unemployed, people with disabilities, and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. The danger is that the same people will continue to lose out, trust will diminish, frustration will build into resentment, unless they are directly and immediately involved in reimagining what comes next for their lives.

On the one hand power is concentrated at the centre of government, and on the other a pulling away from the centre is being felt. It’s hard for public servants across the country to know how long lasting the new ways of working will be, it is hard for central government to know what is really happening at the local level. Finally it is very hard for citizens to know if the changes they see now in their services and relationships with them (whether locally or from national government) are here to stay, and when they will get a say over shaping future outcomes. CPI and Changing Lives are carrying out a deep listening project to understand how connected people feel in this time, if and how they want to be listened to now. Early findings show that trust in local support and care givers is growing not diminishing at this time because of this freedom to have conversations that feel personal, not transactional.

So what do we do?

There are choices ahead about where power should sit, even in a centralised system of government. We need to make these decisions together, and the answers won’t be the same in every part of our country. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a Cabinet level minister, Michael Gove helpfully set out some of the ways to reform Whitehall in a recent speech. Many of the themes about the importance of data, diversity, moving civil servants outside of London and experimentation will require a new working together culture.

We used the Shared Power Principles and the factors that we believe are important in being able to create a shared power system — Subsidiarity, a focus on Relationships, Continuous Learning and Redefining Governance — to guide us on that pathway, through the three stages of crisis Fight, Recovery and Rebuild.

The ideas below are just ideas but can help you on your pathway to recovery and rebuild, wherever you work in the system.

There will be tensions, but we can learn from them

At each stage of this crisis, there will be options, choices and tensions between local and national, people and government. Therefore, we have included case studies to help inform you about how multiple tensions have been managed both nationally and internationally, and to provide links to further work around rapid feedback loops.

First let’s look at the principle of SUBSIDIARITY — where decision making is placed at its lowest level, by that we mean if we imagine a hierarchical top down system, decisions are taken by or closest to the person most impacted.

Now the Shared Power Principle of RELATIONSHIPS, below gives us an idea of how relationships can be valued and nurtured at each stage of the crisis.

The Principle of REDEFINED GOVERNANCE means not defaulting to a top down power dynamic with distributed and collaborative arrangements and could look like this through the three stages of a crisis.

And finally the important Principle of CONTINUOUS LEARNING — learning should be to improve not to judge or penalise one another.

It is inevitable that the ideas we outline for each stage will feel simplistic, when the reality is a lot more complex. In truth a combination of ideas that come from all places will matter now and will require us to think about who we are as a country, what values bind us, not just what we want to do. But we hope this a starting point to think about the role that we can play as individuals and organisations that support governments and their partners in laying stronger and more equitable foundations for Britain to move into recovery and a collective rebuild. This challenging, emotional, and terrible time has the potential to turn into a moment of awakening for us all. A new dawn.

References from Shared Power Principle tables:

  1. How the UK can respond to the COVID-19 crisis
  2. A Manifesto for Better Government
  3. Tackling Challenges Together
  4. Finding hope in crisis: Out of this horror, could Coronavirus offer a chance for governments and…
  5. Could a truth commission into our past help us understand how racism lives in our present?
  6. Why sharing power is critical to any Covid-19 recovery strategy
  7. Human Learning Systems Plymouth Alliance
  8. Human Learning Systems — Gateshead Council
  9. Finding a more Human Government
  10. Tackling challenges together
  11. Making Malaysia’s future
  12. Please stop capturing crisis lessons | Blog

With thanks to CPI alum Elena Bagnera for her valuable contribution to our thinking on shared power.