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The third sector as key workers and strategic collaborators

As Scotland emerges from its latest round of COVID-19 restrictions, attention is on looking forward, and planning routes to recovery. In order to plan well, it’s important to look back, too.  

There’s much to learn from how the Coronavirus pandemic actually unfolded and how local services responded. This can help us better prepare for future emergencies, minimising impact on vulnerable children, young people and families.

In a new Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland research paper, we highlight the importance of understanding the role of the third sector in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.

Here, we share our findings and recommendations on how the third sector could be engaged in future emergency response and resilience planning as key workers and strategic collaborators.

COVID-19: An ‘iterative crisis’

Our researchers argue that the role of Scotland’s third sector during the pandemic should be understood within the context of the type of crisis presented by COVID-19.

The pandemic has been an ‘iterative crisis’. What we mean by this is that the pandemic had a clear beginning, but it lacks a definite ‘end’. The virus itself has been iterative in its development, producing new strains and adapting to survive.

It has been a pandemic unique in its scale, duration and in the government measures to limit virus spread and mitigate the impacts.

As we’ve seen though a succession of lockdowns, complex regional tier systems, and changing restrictions and protocols, this crisis demands a continual process of adaptation amid ongoing uncertainty.

Owing to the ‘stop-start’ nature of local service provision, additional strain has been felt by service providers and their recipients alike. Groups and individuals who were already disadvantaged have been disproportionately affected. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be highly unequal in its social and spatial impacts.

people on a video call
Third sector staff worked hard to maintain contact and support through regular phone calls and online activities.

Emergency response

In the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland, there has been a heavy reliance on third sector organisations to address food shortages. This provision was driven by the efforts of charities and community groups – particularly in the early stages of the pandemic.

In the two Scottish local authorities we examined, the first lockdown resulted in a remarkable mobilisation of the third sector. Families and children in poverty lost access to many key public services such as child protection and school meals. As statutory services either suspended or reduced most of their provision, third sector organisations took the lead in organising to meet these needs. Their initiative and agility was surprising to the public sector workers we interviewed, and was impressive in its scale and speed.

I think the response of the community groups in the third sector was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was absolutely phenomenal.

Health Improvement Officer

The third sector as ‘key workers’

With the loss of face-to-face contact from statutory key workers – such as teachers, social workers, and doctors – third sector workers had a key role in building and maintaining trusting relationships with vulnerable families. They extended their reach, building new relationships with other family members and worked in new communities to address gaps in provision.

The relationships between third sector workers and members of the public were critical in highlighting issues such as declining mental health and risks of domestic or child abuse. People were feeling isolated and trapped. They were fearful of authority, including health services, and were less likely to access these services. Third sector staff worked hard to maintain contact, delivering both practical support in organising food deliveries – as well as offering emotional support through regular phone calls and online activities.

While not officially recognised, these staff in effect became ‘key workers’. They maintauined vital links between families and public services, often providing the only source of social contact and support outside of the immediate family.

Resilience planning with Scotland’s third sector

Given its significant involvement in the Coronavirus emergency response, then, what role has Scotland’s third sector played in longer-term resilience planning at a local level?

Our evidence suggests that there has been variance across different authorities.

In one authority, all formal meetings with the third sector were temporarily suspended when lockdown was announced. The leaders of public services held strategic meetings on emergency response planning without representation from the wider third sector. At the neighbourhood level, pre-existing networks of local organisations pulled together and self-organised to meet local needs.

In another authority, the third sector interface was involved, from the outset, in strategic ‘resilience planning’ with the leaders of public services. This engagement coincided with the rapid development of new local coordination networks facilitated by local officials and third sector intermediary organisations.

Initially, only the larger voluntary sector organisations were invited to attend the networks, but local officials and voluntary sector intermediaries soon recognised the need for a more inclusive approach. They expanded their membership to include smaller, locally-embedded organisations and community groups.

Through these coordination networks community groups and organisations shared learning, built trust, and pooled resources to meet local needs.

This enabled a targeted, place-based service response, adapted to the specific needs of different communities. In neighbourhoods where there was social stigma attached to using food banks, public officials and voluntary organisations designed new approaches to food provision such as pop-up larders, food pantries and community hubs.

These innovations relied on the social capital and relational skills of local voluntary sector organisations and demonstrate the essential role of the third sector and the importance of joint planning for crisis response and future resilience.

crop businessman giving contract to woman to sign
There is potential for joint planning between local state and the local third sector.

Key workers and strategic collaborators

The COVID19 pandemic has had a profound impact on wellbeing.  Unlocking has created a constant state of flux and instability – switching from isolation to reconnection and back again. New research shows that people with long-term conditions are more anxious about unlocking. The easing of lockdown seems to have helped young people’s mental health but loneliness and anxiety remain extremely common.  

Worsening population mental health follows years of austerity, welfare reform, and pressure on public services. With the anxiety and mental health effects of the climate crisis receiving more attention in the wake of COP26, there is now growing recognition of the importance of social wellbeing.

Social wellbeing is strengthened by social ties and emotional resilience.   Our CNS research findings show that third sector organisations specialise in building and sustaining social ties and trust, especially with those most at risk of exclusion. Local third sector organisations, build relationships through their presence in communities over time. 

They provide practical and emotional support and a route for re-engagement with education, health and other services. These social relationships and ties are the foundations of community resilience in a crisis and the building blocks for social recovery.

The findings from our research show that there is a need for a far greater recognition of the role of the third sector in providing the ‘civic muscle’ to mobilise and sustain community action. 

In preparation for the challenges that lie ahead, local authorities and the third sector require a new strategic relationship – one that fully recognises the value and agency of local third sector groups and organisations, draws on their pandemic experience and engages them as key workers and strategic collaborators in planning for the future.

Download the full report ‘COVID-19 pandemic: The essential role of the voluntary sector in emergency response and resilience planning’ here.

For more information, contact Dr Claire Bynner.

Author: Claire Bynner

Acknowledgements: The author is grateful to Jane Cullingworth for review and editing.

How to cite this blog article: Bynner, C., (2021) The third sector as key workers and strategic collaborators. Glasgow: Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland.

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