Place-based & systemic change community of practice

At our last community meeting, we discussed how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting place-based systems change, and how to maintain a long-term systemic view during an ongoing crisis.

Place-based systems change requires a focus on the long-term, it also requires listening and adaptation as the system you are working in changes. 

At the March 2023 Community of Practice meeting, we invited attendees to raise the issues that have been on their mind and then we facilitated conversations about balancing crisis response with long-term change, and how we might need to adapt our approach to place-based systemic change.

The experience of being in a ‘permacrisis’

The incredible rise in community action, collaborative working and social spending that responded to  Covid-19 was motivated by the urgency of a one-off temporary crisis, or so called ‘unprecedented times’. As the pandemic lengthened, we saw more and more burn out across the sector – showing that crisis response cannot be maintained in the long-term.

But the  combination of pandemic after-affects, a decade or more of austerity and the cost-of-living crisis is leading to a what some are calling a ‘permacrisis’. The Community of Practice reflected that funders, local authorities and the community sector are all feeling continually overstretched.

Many statutory and voluntary organisations are having to rethink their resourcing – following increased funding during Covid-19 – it feels like demand is still rising.

“They [funders] changed their way of working for a bit, they didn’t rewire the system.”

Community member.

While Covid-19 brought out a focus on the importance of community and mutual aid that sowed the seeds for longer term change, by contrast the cost-of-living crisis has encouraged a competitiveness and protectiveness of assets as we buckle down for a ‘permacrisis’.

What does this mean for our approach to place-based systemic change?

In this context, it is increasingly challenging to think beyond delivery and immediate crisis response; to focus on how to build towards long-term shifts that will support systemic change. At times it does not even feel appropriate to be speaking in the long-term.

“It feels insensitive to speak to communities about what we will do in 5 years.”

Community member.

Many Community of Practice members felt that if they do not respond now when people are feeling the impact of crisis, the relationships needed to drive long-term social change may not survive. The group suggested that rather than seeing a focus on immediate crisis response as a barrier to systemic change, we need to focus on how collaborative crisis responses can build towards long-term change.

Crisis response does not need to be transactional or output focused. It can build the relationships and infrastructure to sustain a different way of working. Collaborations that emerged in the pandemic did not often stick – but we can learn from that. This time, we can be more intentional  and embed collaboration to support long-term change.

“Our duty right now is to help people feel seen and respected – we can’t do more than that. We should not underestimate the potential long-term impacts of sitting alongside each other right now.”

Community member.

The cost-of-living crisis reflects long-term, deep-rooted issues in our society, which have been experienced by people who are most marginalised for a long time. Now the experiences of exclusion, injustice and deprivation are reaching an ever-larger group – but they have always been there.

As more and more stories and mounting evidence emerges that systems are broken, the Community of Practice felt we must collectively push for systemic change.

Our takeaways

The collective brain of the Community of Practice left us with four main takeaways from the session. We hope these ideas will help others navigate the tensions between long-term systemic change and a crisis response:

  1. Using a root cause lens to interrogate how the effects of a crisis are rooted in systemic issues can enable you to design responses that target long-term change.
  2. If looking beyond immediate response feels impossible now, prioritise building relationships of trust. Then when the time is right, you’ll be able to have conversations about the long-term with the right people in the room because you listened to them when they needed immediate support.
  3. Funders and others who are in a more secure positions should recognise that crisis can suffocate innovation and risk taking for those in less privileged positions. Supporting organisations to continue to experiment and learn will help practitioners to go beyond immediate delivery.
  4. The cost of a failing system is becoming ever clearer. By highlighting the increasingly shared experience of poverty, and the impact of chronic underfunding of social sector services, together we may influence policy changes needed to create long-term change.

Far from being irrelevant, now is the time to advocate for systemic change practice and funding so we do not remain in a cycle of ‘permacrises’.

If you’re interested in working with us on understanding and moving towards systemic change for your issue, organisation, or partnership, take a look at our tool for systems change and find out how you can get involved in our enquiry.

Kezia Jackson-Harman