29 Mar 2022

Research digest: 'Lessons in navigation’ 

Richard Harries, Associate Director, Institute for Community Studies, summarises the latest research on community power.  

Nearly a quarter of a century after Google introduced the world to the joys of online searching (and the dangers of the filter bubble), user experience is all – and as we add ever more material to the Institute for Community Studies’ repository of research reports, case studies and datasets, we want to make it as easy as possible to navigate. Especially as we now have more than 350 documents on the system. 

What among all that is new this month? Well, we’re just at the start of a long backfilling process, adding evaluation reports for key community programmes over the years, such as the £1.7 billion New Deal for Communities and the £2.9 billion National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. This is important work as the government girds it loins for a fresh round of regeneration under the guise of ‘levelling up’. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past it is essential that those working in the field of community development have at their hands the best evidence of what worked, what didn’t, and why. 

We’ve also added two new reports that explore the different ways the pandemic has affected the community business sector; one at the national level and the other in one of its most vibrant regions, Bristol. At the local level (always the best place to start), The Power of Community: Learning from Bristol's response to the Covid-19 pandemic by Tom Burnett and a team of seven co-authors, presents a surprisingly upbeat assessment. Working with academics and students from the University of Bristol, the team sought to understand how the local voluntary, community and social enterprise sector managed to adapt and help citizens face the challenges of the pandemic. The report states, ‘What they found was remarkable. Communities coming together to fulfil the needs of those suddenly cut off from ‘normal’ life; people donating what they didn’t need (or even what they did need) so that others could eat, learn and work; innovation that ensured people were able to use their skills and experience for the good of others; and a newfound desire to spend as much time as possible enjoying the benefits of our green and open spaces.’  

Drawing on the lessons learned, the authors make no fewer than 22 recommendations for life after Covid-19, covering everything from volunteering and homelessness to tackling digital exclusion and ending food inequality. Summing it all up in the report’s concluding chapter, Professor Martin Parker writes: ‘This sort of grassroots action teaches us an important lesson about hope, because it shows us that many small actions can add up. It shows us that sometimes, what bigger institutions need to do is not direct and instruct, but provide some resource and get out of the way, and help to enable voluntary organisations, community anchors, and single-minded citizens solve the problems that we face. Covid may have clarified inequalities, showing us the ugly skeleton of our society, but it has also shown us something about the power of ordinary people and small organisations when they commit to action.'

The second report, Nourishing Community Businesses: Beyond Market Development by Julian Dobson and Cathy Harris, paints a somewhat darker picture. The sequel to a 2019 report by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, it charts a national community business marketplace thrown into turmoil by Covid-19. It states the pandemic has ‘revealed both the potential and the limits of the community business model. It has raised significant questions about trading as a basis for meeting community needs, and about the role of place and locality in a digital age characterised by distributed and overlapping networks of connections. Covid-19 has also highlighted the strengths and vulnerabilities of a model of community business that relies heavily on volunteers [which] was seriously impacted by the pandemic in 2020.'

The authors document how the pandemic also led to a fundamental shift in the operating model of Power to Change – one of the sector’s main funders since 2015 – with the production of a radical new theory of change and a slimmed down, sharper set of objectives focused on active market interventions to promote a more diverse, equitable and inclusive sector that places community business at the heart of a fairer economy. Noting that a consequence of this new arrangement will mean less research funding, Dobson and Harris ask how the value of community businesses will be evidenced beyond the lifespan of Power to Change, and who will do this. In their words: ‘This gap may be filled by the Institute for Community Studies, whose activities include the curation of a repository of relevant research […] but to make the most of this resource, community businesses will need to know that it exists and how to access and navigate it in ways that are relevant to their needs.'

That is certainly a sentiment with which we can agree! And, with the aim of improving navigation, we’ve introduced a simple but powerful ‘advanced search’ function to our repository. Now, whether you are a policymaker, commissioner, community researcher or a frontline community practitioner, and whether you’re looking for case studies and research reports published since 2017 about community organisations in the south-west or hunting for everything Dr Rob Macmillan has ever written for Local Trust, it’s all here. 

If you have suggestions about how to make the repository more accessible, or a publication you would like to submit, email richard.harries@icstudies.org.uk.