Your Council has a role to play in building and deepening community at any time. Following a crisis or disaster such as the current pandemic this role is even more important. However, no two Councils are the same in how they view their responsibilities to their communities. There is a spectrum from those who view their role as quite limited only relating to physical infrastructure. This is the traditional “3 Rs” Council i.e. roads, rates and rubbish right through to the more progressive operating to a social agenda with community growth being central to their core business.
How each council views their role with community will impact on community recovery. The degree to which community grows and recovers will have an impact on other areas of operation such as economic development, tourism, the arts etc. Community is central to the success of all these other areas of the work of a Council.
Generally, there will be three responses to community building or community development following a crisis such as COVID-19. These are:
1/. Not our role
2/. Top Down
3/. Bottom Up
Let’s look at these in a little more detail
Not Our Role
Hopefully, there won’t be too many Councils, if any, in this category. The ideology behind this position is that the role of local government is to provide the limited core services of physical infrastructure and to maintain this infrastructure. Building community and deepening community is often viewed as either a health and wellbeing issues. In that case, it is the responsibility of the health departments of other levels of government or as welfare, which is the realm of state or federal governments. The irony of this position is that these Councils provide Library and Arts services.
Top Down Approach
This is often the approach used by government at all levels. It will often look like a group of”experts” meeting to solve a problem. It is a needs based approach. There is a problem or a need that needs addressing. Call together the government agencies and major services in the area for a solution. The result will always be more services.
The hallmark of this approach is the absence of community members and if they are present their input can easily be ignored. With this approach either plans are brought out and activated or a new plan is formatted and then rolled out for action. It is often “this is what we are going to do to or for you”. That isn’t to say it isn’t without the best of intentions and in many ways will appear to be a logical approach i.e. a problem exists therefore we need the professionals together to solve the problem.
With COVID-19 there is a great temptation to go down this path, especially when quick action is required. What is happening is that Disaster Management and Recovery Plans are being activated with some revision due to the nature of the pandemic. As we move into recovery this will begin to look more and more like a traditional recovery from disaster process and will again be led by professionals with little input from community members. Of course there is another way to activate these plans and ensure they are rolled out in partnership with community members or driven by community members. But that takes letting go of control and trusting community. It is leadership by stepping back
Bottom Up Approach
Rather than starting with a problem or a need this approach starts with a question. With COVID-19 responses there could be a number of questions: “How do we go about building on the kindness shown by neighbours during the COVID-19 pandemic?” “What type of community do we want to see grow out of the current situation?”
With this approach remember that whatever the direction of the question that is the direction we will move towards. If the focus is on building community that is what we will be working towards and not solving a problem. Using an Appreciative Inquiry approach Councils could be exploring resilience displayed during the crisis and how to build on that resilience or how to work alongside those community members and community groups who are supporting others in their neighbourhoods.
Working from this position would then lead to working with community members as well as professionals on developing an approach that builds on these questions. One of the interesting things about the COVID-19 pandemic is that we’ve seen random acts of kindness, people rediscovering their neighbours, people maintaining and growing contact with others and community solidarity in observing government instructions on flattening the curve. This has been a period of time where we have observed great strength in the community. Working with community members and basing a recovery on strengths is a powerful way forward.
This period of time is an opportunity for local government to step outside of its comfort zone and invite community in to being part of the recovery to build on the strengths we have observed during the crisis. By doing this we could create something wonderful. Something new and something powerful by activating the resources of the community.