The third in our series of COVID-19 events focussed on what the pandemic has meant for delivering services, and the implications for how we deliver services in the future. Jess Blair reports back.
Last Thursday saw the third session in WCVA’s ‘Preparing for Different Futures’ event series, which aims to facilitate a conversation with the voluntary sector about the issues it’s facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. Previously the series has hosted events on the financial impact of the COVID crisis, and the implications for volunteering (See below for the write up of these events).
This session focussed on the effects of the pandemic on delivering services and was chaired by Helen White, Chief Executive of Taff Housing and a WCVA Trustee.
Over 80 participants took part in the call. While people taking part worked in everything from health to housing, the challenges and opportunities facing the participants were broadly consistent; a reduction in face to face services, the subsequent rise of digital services and the need for collaboration to enable services to be delivered.
From face to face to digital
The event highlighted case studies from organisations who traditionally deliver services face to face and explored how this had changed. For many participants this was a positive development.
One contributor said ‘Before lockdown I was running monthly support groups in a range of locations. Since lockdown I’ve run one virtual meeting every week so in some ways people attending are getting more support’.
Organisations such as Scouts Cymru, BEAT and the Stroke Association also raised the benefits of moving services online. Scouts Cymru said they ‘have moved to delivering our usual weekly sessions for our Young People via various platforms’, with the Stroke Association highlighting that individuals they thought wouldn’t want to engage online have enjoyed it and they’ve been able to move beyond geographical boundaries.
Public servants have also seen a change in the way they work. One Voice Wales, who represent town and community councils in Wales, highlighted that prior to the pandemic town and community councils were restricted from working remotely. This has changed on a temporary basis and they plan to lobby for this to be extended.
Engaging the digitally excluded
The shift to digital working has not been as positive for many across Wales. A lack of technology and training and support hold many back from being able to access services digitally. There are also organisations who are unable to deliver their services online.
Many of the participants in the event were concerned about those that are digitally excluded. One said ‘It is very difficult for people who don’t have internet or understand technology.’
Many are using newsletters to supplement their regular services with one participant saying, ‘At Kidney Wales we have collaborated with two other kidney charities, and the Renal Clinical Network to produce a hard copy newsletter for 1200 dialysis patients across Wales. We haven’t ever done this before COVID.’
There were also calls for better technology provision, with one participant reporting ‘A few of our grassroots community groups have had success with funding for digitally excluded children, so that is good. However, there is still a lack of clarity about access to the digital equipment from schools. We haven’t heard one of our community members say their children have successfully received any laptops from their schools.‘
Making digital work for the future
With organisations grappling to respond to the coronavirus crisis, many of the moves to digital service delivery took place outside of the normal ways that change might happen in organisations traditionally.
Moving forward, participants raised the need to bring service users along, with one stating ‘Because of the nature of the crisis and the need to do something we’ve not engaged our services users on this and have just done it. We don’t want to use COVID as the excuse to implement service change without engaging. How do we bring people along to these changes?’
In the long term one contributor argued that ‘Any good digital transformation is a person first approach…[the challenge is] how do we connect up the digital and face to face’ arguing that digital should be there to facilitate and signpost face to face support.
Collaboration in delivering services
Another of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been the shift to new ways of collaboration.
Some credited this with a relaxation in information sharing protocols, while others are developing positive partnerships out of the circumstances caused by the crisis. An example of the latter is one participant who said, ‘We are working in partnership with other third sector orgs who aren’t receiving as many referrals as normal, whilst we are receiving many more. This has really helped with staff not having to work really long hours.‘
As a result of this more effective collaboration, participants said they were hopeful that this would endure after the crisis, with some saying that their voluntary organisation felt like ‘a true partner with statutory services.’
Yet, given this increased collaboration others raised the question of how Welsh Government will consider the role of voluntary organisations in the future. A participant highlighted this, saying; ‘From a fundraising view what hasn’t worked so well is the diversion of funding away from health charities to the NHS. What are the implications of this? Welsh Government need to have a real think about what their relationship is with the third sector’.
Looking to the future it’s clear that at present very few parts of service delivery remain untouched and unchanged by the crisis. While many are finding positive stories out of this and want to carry on with some element of digital service delivery even after the pandemic is over, there remain significant questions about how organisation get back into communities to deliver services, not least in an age where PPE and social distancing will be a requirement for some time to come.
More from Jess Blair on the events in our Preparing for Different Futures series