Policy initiatives seek to improve or change something for social, environmental or political reasons. A new policy will cause change and disturbance to the sectors and areas it affects, and provoke a range of reactions, even with extensive consultation with stakeholders and careful planning. The key word here is change – new policy will alter the status quo and create disruption – much in the same way that other events (both natural and man-made) change communities and the people who live in them.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines resilience as:
“the capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity, and structure, while also maintaining the the capacity for adaptation, learning, and transformation” 1Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for policymakers, Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.
In this way a policy change could also be considered a ‘hazardous event’, and the sector to which it applies must therefore demonstrate resilience. That is not to say that policy change is necessarily bad, but rather that we can treat policy rollout as equivalent to a community experiencing a natural hazard emergency, such as a flood, and learn lessons from community resilience research. Research and frameworks from this field provide a useful way to consider the policy’s potential impacts and whether these impacts need to be mitigated. Thinking about policy in this way switches the emphasis from a policy’s ability to achieve specific objectives and towards the affected areas’/sectors’ capacity to learn, adapt and transform for the desired outcomes to be delivered.
Policymakers therefore face similar challenges to emergency responders and resilience practitioners responding in an emergency. For instance, once the initial implementation of a policy (or the emergency response) has ended, the affected sector must readjust or the community must recover, both needing to find a ‘new normal’.
In a recent research project,2 funded by the National Centre of Resilience (NCR), I explored some of the impacts that emergency responders and resilience practitioners can have on communities during the response to, and recovery from, a natural hazard emergency. In particular I looked at their influence upon social capital – a fundamental part of a community’s resilience3, and something which policymakers also impact in the form of levels of goodwill towards a specific policy.
A simplified illustration of how social capital contributes to community resilience is illustrated in Figure 1, a process that policymakers could potentially utilise. I developed this process after undertaking a series of workshops with resilience practitioners and emergency responders from across Scotland – a process which they observed in communities during and in the immediate aftermath of an emergency event and wanted to systematically capture for future work.
The first stage, social capital, is illustrated in an emergency response by the increased willingness of people to help one another within their community and address a need immediately. Often these actions were collective and reciprocal; exemplified by the spontaneous development of local WhatsApp groups offering to help one another and Facebook groups with neighbours offering services to one another.
Being able to act and see an immediate difference empowered individuals and communities (stage two). The positive results of this action led people to being open and receptive to the possibilities that they could make other positive changes within their communities (stage three).
Realising that they could make a difference often resulted in a shift in mental outlook (stage four) which produced a newfound enthusiasm (stage five) for community members working on projects that improved community resilience (in this case for natural hazard events). For example, local campaign groups then working to lobby for better flood defences and form local resilience groups.
The challenge is how to sustain this enthusiasm and develop it into continued engagement with government authorities, to transform this action into tangible outcomes which support community resilience.
Policymakers, like emergency responders and resilience practitioners, take actions and make decisions which have an impact. In my research I identified reactions, using an influence mapping technique, experienced during a Natural Hazard Emergency (NHE), which can affect/influence levels of social capital and that are critical to a community’s recovery process and future resilience.
I assessed which mechanisms drive these reactions, identifying those that responders and practitioners affect when they respond to an NHE (the network of connections are shown in Figure 2). The mechanisms identified, which can be seen in figure 2, are: efficacy, engagement, improvement, competency, altruism, action, observation, knowledge, information, understanding, experience, empowerment. All of which can influence one another in a complex network of interrelationships. The most influential mechanisms during a natural hazard emergency are the efficacy of the response, competency of those involved, and observation of what happens. The most important mechanisms for the creation of social capital are, altruism, understanding, experience, and empowerment.
Assessing the resilience of a sector or area to a proposed policy initiative by considering mechanisms that influence social capital would enable policymakers to predict, or at least understand, the types of responses that a policy might produce. This in turn would enable policymakers to incorporate strategies into the policy development process, putting steps in place to support and mitigate against an area/sector’s ability to cope, to transform and to thrive.
Thus resilience and the practices of emergency responders and response practitioners offer a useful framework for policy development and implementation. Resilience is often cited as being a desired characteristic and something that should be strived for – does the policy system really understand what resilience means within their own sphere and how to develop policies based on how they might impact upon social capital? It is important to remember that resilience is a process, not an end point and similarly to when an NHE hits, following the implementation of new policies, there will be a response but there will need to be time allowed for recovery and adaptation too.
In the current situation of COVID-19 all the same mechanisms are at work, and policymakers could use this approach to reflect upon how people react to official actions and decisions and what else may be influencing these reactions. Through thinking about the mechanisms that drive people’s, external experience, internal reactions, and capacity to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials and those involved in the response to this crisis may be able to better be able to alleviate some of the negative reactions that can undermine the necessary collective effort required to control the spread of COVID-19.
A key component of this collective effort is understanding how people’s internal reactions and external experiences influence their capacity to cope and being aware that there are multiple interrelated mechanisms which drive these processes. Increased levels of social capital increases the capacity to cope and can be utilised to encourage involvement in policy development, so that individuals and communities are more willing to engage with policymakers to improve responses to both policy changes and other events that impact communities.
Get the full When Does Response End and Recovery Begin? Project Report on the National Centre for Resilience website.
- IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) (2014) ‘Summary for policymakers’ in Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: Global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1–32. ed. by V.R. Barros, C.B. Field, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, et al. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
- Baxter, H. (2020) When Does Response and Recovery Begin? Exploring Preparation and Planning To Support Resilient Recovery. Report National Centre of Resilience.
- Cui, P. and Li, D. (2020) ‘A SNA-based methodology for measuring the community resilience from the perspective of social capitals: Take Nanjing, China as an example‘, Sustainable Cities and Society, 53, pp. 101880 (£ or institutional subscription)
To cite this article: Baxter, H. Resilience in the face of policy change: lessons from community resilience, Policy Scotland, 9 June 2020, https://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk/resilience-in-the-face-of-policy-change:-lessons-from-community-resilience