Written by Eva O’Brien, Senior Delivery Manager at FutureGov

COVID-19 has exposed deep social and economic inequalities within our society. Beyond its impact on our physical health, it is impacting people’s everyday lives as children are unable to attend school, parents and carers are unable to work and much of the population stays at home. Disproportionately impacting the vulnerable and marginalised, the pandemic is exacerbating challenges for residents already facing difficulty while also creating new challenges for people previously not considered ‘at risk’ but are now vulnerable.

Citizen and community needs are constantly changing. Alongside an urgent need to deliver immediate support, we need to design medium-term solutions for those directly and indirectly affected by the pandemic over the coming months.

This starts with better understanding who in our communities is and could be particularly affected and designing how the council can be responsive to newly surfaced needs, while also preventing residents from falling into long-term vulnerability.

Shifting from vulnerability to resident needs

Working in a blended team with a local authority partner and FutureGov staff, we drew on a robust understanding of resident needs and strengths-based approach to resident engagement. With a considered approach, we needed to widen our definition of vulnerability beyond the government’s SHIELD group in order to design services that meet the needs of all vulnerable residents.

Together we identified characteristics and situations that could lead people to become vulnerable as a result of the pandemic. However, it isn’t as clear-cut as saying everyone in these groups will be vulnerable.

It’s crucial to recognise that residents are being made contextually vulnerable by COVID-19. What we mean by contextually vulnerable is that there’s a large group of people facing external pressures and changes, often by social and economic factors like not being able to go to work. This includes people who have not required council support before. Some people’s needs will change, whilst others will not. New potentially vulnerable groups will also emerge as we move into the recovery.

By understanding who these residents are, what their new needs may be and where some of the greatest needs are likely to be, councils are better placed to be responsive to shifting needs and proactive in adjusting service delivery.

Understanding user needs diagram

Shielded people

Medical professionals in England have identified specific conditions that, based on what we know about the virus so far, place someone at greatest risk of severe illness from COVID-19. This also includes people who have self-referred and over 70+ and the clinically extremely vulnerable. This group of people is represented in the blue circle of 1.5 million people identified as the most vulnerable.

People in contact with wider services

As we mentioned, the impact of COVID-19 reaches beyond those with immediate health concerns. There are many people who require additional support from the council and who, as a result of their situation, are at risk of becoming more vulnerable or requiring an additional level of support during the crisis. This group of residents likely have an existing relationship with some part of the council. They may understand how the council works as a source of support and already have an existing pathway or point of contact and may already know how to navigate council services - but those services may have changed as a result of COVID-19. This can include young people at risk, those experiencing domestic violence, someone receiving mental health support and many others.

People who may require support

There is additionally, a third group of people who are or may be made vulnerable as a result of COVID-19. This group of people likely do not have an existing relationship with the council and are new to navigating council services. As a result, they may need more support with service navigation and understanding how the council can support them. These residents may be self-employed households, bereaved families, renters, parents affected by school closures and many others.

Considering needs now and in the future

Understanding resident needs is not something that can only be done once. This pandemic requires councils to constantly consider what residents need now and what they might need in the future. This is about more than providing excellent services in a time of crisis, but engaging with residents early to be as preventative as possible, catching people who could fall between the gaps.

Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen in the medium and long term, but we can start to anticipate how our communities will change and with it, the needs of our residents. Ensuring that services are best placed to anticipate and respond to these needs over coming weeks and months is critical to ensuring residents and communities are supported to thrive in this time of crisis and beyond.

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