Public services: Lessons from coronavirus

For our latest covid-19 guidance for charities, please visit our coronavirus pages on NCVO Knowhow.

The coronavirus crisis has had a huge impact on all types of public services, but many charities and voluntary organisations have been particularly affected. The range and scale of the challenges has been unprecedented. Organisations delivering public services have had to close or suspend activities. Some have radically changed their delivery, and others still are trying to meet fluctuating and urgent demand. Yet we have also seen organisations overcoming many of these challenges to continue to meet individuals’ and communities needs under significant pressures.

House of Lords select committee inquiry

Recognising the enormous impact of the crisis, the House of Lords select committee on public services has opened a new inquiry. The inquiry will explore what the covid-19 experience can tell us about the future role, priorities and shape of public services. The inquiry states:

The months and years ahead – with demand for services likely to rise in the context of a significantly diminished economy – will present new challenges and difficult choices for services. The coronavirus outbreak requires a fundamental rethink of how public services respond to the needs of the communities that they serve.

The request for evidence is made up of 21 questions, broadly falling within four categories.

  • Integration of services
  • Inequalities in access and outcome
  • Relationships between local and national services
  • The role of civil society (including charities, voluntary and community groups)

Many of us share the committee’s view that a fundamental rethink of public services is required to overcome the challenges of this pandemic, and to build better and more effective services for the future. We are compiling evidence for a submission to this inquiry. We are also collaborating with a number of organisations to gather evidence to support the case for how we can best adapt, create and sustain public services in the future.

What needs to change

Public services do not always meet the needs of those they are designed to serve. Nor do they always operate in efficient or effective ways. There are inexcusable inequalities – between different geographical areas, communities and individuals – in the types of public services that are available and accessible. Some of these inequalities have unfortunately been caused or made worse by the design and the delivery of those services which are intended to support us. Many of these inequalities existed long before this crisis, and we know there are compelling examples and data out there which can be used to examine and start to redress them.

Many organisations have told us of their difficulties in receiving clear and direct communications from funders and commissioning authorities. We know there are individuals, communities and organisations who have been overlooked in the development of central government guidance.

The massive drop in funding and other income streams across the sector has already led to challenges and changes, not just in organisations’ capacity to deliver public services, but also their ability to continue to operate in their current forms. Access to public services remains a key challenge, and many charities and voluntary organisations have been working with individuals and communities, either to gain access to existing services or provide alternative forms of support directly.

For public services to be effective in the ‘new normal’, they must be designed, funded and targeted appropriately. People who use services must be placed at the heart of this process, with coproduction and person-centred care at the core.

Charities and voluntary organisations have always been crucial partners in developing and delivering public services. We can draw on what we learned about what works well and what needs to change, to build better and more equitable public service in the future.

We want to hear from you

Do contact me if you would like to feed into the evidence we are collating, or complete our online form to tell us more about your experiences of commissioning and contracting during this crisis.

We want to thank the many organisations who have been in contact so far, and we will use these stories, evidence and experiences to inform our submission to the inquiry and our wider work. We are keen to hear your thoughts, reflections and ideas for solutions and improvements as this crisis progresses.


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Catherine Goodall Catherine Goodall is a senior policy officer at NCVO, working primarily on public services policy. She has a background in research and practice, working with local authorities and universities to drive service improvement and facilitating participatory action research.

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