Mutual aid, councils and finding compatibility

By Luca Tiratelli | 14 July 2020

Precious little ‘good news’ has come out of COVID-19 pandemic.

But if there has been one heartening story to come out of the crisis, then it has been in the community response to it. Across the country, thousands of Mutual Aid groups have emerged, taking on vital work and supporting the most vulnerable people in their communities through this unprecedented disaster.

Recently, I wrote about the extraordinary ability that local government has to ‘make-or-break’ community initiatives. Our Mutual Aid report – out today – cements these assumptions and offers recommendations for how councils can emerge on the side of ‘making’ rather than ‘breaking’ these initiatives as we emerge into an uncertain post-COVID future.

Throughout our research for this project, we kept hearing about stories of how the success of projects hinged on whether there was someone in a council willing to go above and beyond to make things happen.

One reading of this would be that it is heartening to see how much of a difference individual council members and officers can make. However, it is also the case that these kinds of stories demonstrate that at present, systems in many councils are not set up to allow community projects to thrive as a default. Success often relies on someone stepping up and working around systems, rather than on the routine operation of systems themselves.

So what might better systems look like? In our conversations with groups from around the country, we found that different organisations had radically different experiences in their interactions with local government, which, once again, had a major impact on how impactful these groups could be.

From this diverse range of experiences, we have been able to extract some lessons for local government, which taken together, represent an indication of what a council that is genuinely facilitative of community power might look like.

  • Don’t micromanage: One thing that really stymied the potential of Mutual Aid groups in some areas was attempts by local councils to micromanage their activities. Groups tended to form spontaneously and often with only very loose structures, so attempts to direct them too heavy handily often end up confusing people, dulling their enthusiasm, and ultimately, putting them off participating. Perhaps understandably, groups which formed on a basis of mutualism and equality, were incredibly resistant to being managed in a top down way.
  • But don’t ignore: At the same time, however, we also found that in areas where councils responded to groups with simple indifference, groups also struggled. Operating with, at the very least, the tacit approval of local government made groups’ lives significantly easier, particularly when it came to forging partnerships and relationships with other key local actors in the voluntary or private sector. Councils’ names still carry significant weight in this regard, and this can prove a useful card for groups to play.
  • Think about groups’ strengths and weaknesses: Councils who came up with the best strategies for helping Mutual Aid groups thrive thought deeply about these groups strengths and weaknesses. What Mutual Aid groups are good at is being responsive, agile and flexible – getting to people in need rapidly and then providing them with individually tailored responses. They also have granular knowledge of their communities. Successful approaches to working with these groups sought to ‘get out of the way’ of groups in this regard. However, in order to allow groups to do what they do best, it is also necessary to support them with the things they are less good at. Mutual Aid groups are not always good at administration, at setting up policies, and navigating bureaucracy. By assisting them with these tasks, councils can really unleash these groups positive potential.

Mutual Aid is an inspiring case study of what community power has to offer, and groups were absolutely foundational to this country’s response to the pandemic. Consequently, particularly as we grapple with the prospect of a second wave of infections, it is of great importance that councils think about best practice for engaging with them, and with other forms of community projects.

But neither councils nor volunteer groups do their best work when acting alone.

Our report recommends that councils play a facilitative role in Mutual Aid – acting as a supportive platform, and providing the expertise, infrastructure and resources for these groups to flourish.

For this, adequate funding is essential. There is an urgent need for Central Government to adequately reimburse councils for COVID-related costs. On top of these, we recommend a dedicated Community Financial Package for local government to support these groups, and to train their own staff in working alongside their communities.

If we can learn the lessons of the Mutual Aid movement, and implement new policies which allow for the flourishing of community activism going forward, we truly can ‘build back better’. For those interested in making this happen, and in unleashing community power more generally, we hope this report will be of use.

Luca Tiratelli is policy researcher at NLGN

Community groups attitude key to success

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