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The immediate crisis is passing: we need to build back better from the ground up

As the first wave of the coronavirus recedes, the work of recovery is beginning. Recovery of jobs and industries put on hold, of some limited movement of people, of services that have been suspended, and a sliver of normal life.

As we have written previously, this ‘in-between’ stage offers a unique opportunity to think about what we reinstate, what new things we take forward with us, what needs to end, and what may need to change further to deal with longer term challenges. We have offered ideas and frameworks about how this opportunity can be understood and what this work of shaping a ‘new normal’ could look like in our specialist field: local public services and social change. And we know that many local leaders have got the bit between their teeth, reaching for more significant change from this crisis.

It’s a time of opportunity, but also of real constraints

It is right to acknowledge that we also face constraints and choices. For now, the resources of leaders, our workforce and our communities are depleted from months of crisis response, stress and grief. There are other currents that pull us back too: looming economic recession, new levels of savings to be made in the public sector, new waves of demand for services coming over the horizon, the distracting resumption of adversarial local politics, and a government that needs to restore credibility and pick up the Brexit reins once again. So there is an opportunity for change, but it is fragile, and it is also possible that we revert back to old ways of working.

We need to make deliberate choices now that channel the energy and possibility revealed by the Covid-19 response

This means that those of us who want to shape a new normal are going to have to find new energy, commitment and determination at a time when surviving, not thriving, may feel more realistic. We need to learn from the energy and values that have characterised so much of the response to the pandemic, and use it to inform what comes next. And we need to make deliberate choices now that reflect this learning, identifying and amplifying activities that demonstrate new ways of working and making choices today that are designed to move the needle for tomorrow. This is about setting a direction of travel and signalling intent in the face of uncertainty, rather than simply facilitating a return to how things were before.

And we need to think bigger than ever

We are also going to need to think bigger than we have thought before. This is a time when everything is changing — or at least when there is a greater openness to change. As the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted, we must ask ourselves fundamental questions about structural inequalities and the distribution of power. We need to question and reimagine the type of society we want to be part of going forward; the ways we understand our relationships and responsibilities to one another; how we respond to the existential threat of climate change. We need to shift to a long term perspective, exploring how people and planet can thrive together, the role of different sectors in tackling the challenges we face, and the corresponding re-shaping of political narratives, organisations and actions. This is big stuff, and one of the challenges we face now is that discussions about a ‘new normal’ are amorphous without a map or a compass to help show us the way.

The Collaborative Society Manifesto can offer a starting point to inform these choices

Back in January, Collaborate published the Collaborative Society Manifesto, the result of a year-long thought experiment in which we asked: what if we could change the lens through which we see our world — from individualism, competition, hierarchy and heroic leadership, to collaboration, mutuality, networks and system leadership? If this became the dominant way of working what difference would this make?

Since Covid-19 struck we have been thinking about how that Manifesto looks now, from this new and unexpected vantage point. And we make two observations. First, that so much which has emerged within the Covid-19 response has been in line with the ideas outlined in the manifesto. (Not all of it of course, which highlights the importance of learning and choices). And second, we are reminded that the many examples of different ways of thinking and working that we outlined as ‘green shoots’ in the Manifesto are already being nurtured in places across the country. We don’t need to reimagine everything afresh — we also have an opportunity to learn from and build on the fragile and emerging future that is already there, combining it with new insights and possibilities from the Covid-19 response.

Below is an overview of the framework for a Collaborative Society from the Manifesto, which we think offers a starting point that we could use when thinking about the directions we take now.

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