How Do We Solve The Coronavirus Volunteer Problem?

Paul Lenz
Paul Lenz
Mar 5 · 5 min read

Given the current rate of increase in coronavirus cases in the UK there is a significant chance (by no means a certainty, for sure) that we will find ourselves in the scenario where tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in this country have to self-isolate. Others may well decide that the risk of visiting places where there is a chance of social contact is too high to take, and will therefore find their ability to provide for food and other provisions materially curtailed.

For the sub-set of these people who are vulnerable, this presents a potentially significant risk to both to their physical health and their overall sense of wellbeing. Many will have social networks — friends, family, neighbours — upon whom they can call for assistance. Many, sadly, will not.

This presents us with the following problem statement. In the event of the coronavirus becoming an epidemic within the UK, how do we mobilise a force of trusted volunteers to carry out thousands of shopping trips or other support activities for those in need, many of whom are complete strangers to them?

EDIT — this problem statement should be expanded more to be more obviously beyond just shopping

What follows is a possible solution. It is not the only solution (it is a solution, doubtless there will be far better ones). The intent of the post is to stimulate a debate around this issue and, perhaps, catalyse some action.

First, let’s lay out some of the key obstacles that any solution needs to overcome:

  • The cohort of vulnerable people is likely, through age, poverty, or other factors, to have a much lower level of familiarity with, and access to, digital technologies than the UK population average.
  • The vulnerability of this cohort means that there needs to be a high degree of confidence that volunteers do not abuse their position of trust to take advantage of the very people they are tasked to help.
  • For any solution to achieve success at scale, there needs to be widespread awareness of it.
  • Any solution needs to have the capacity to scale across the whole country.
  • The target audience needs to have confidence in the people offering the support service to them.
  • There needs to be sufficient capacity to rapidly scale in order for the solution to succeed.

Here are some facts that might inform a possible solution:

  • Local councillors in the UK are trusted individuals, with readily available contact information.
  • Each of them will have networks of trusted contacts within each ward that number in the tens or hundreds.
  • Councillors can draw upon the resources of local government to both scale and assure confidence in the solution.
  • A single solution can have professionally devised systems and protocols in place to minimise both infection and the chance of abuse.

What might the solution look like?

  • A single website that lists all of the local councillors in the UK, and their contact details (these data are trivially easy to source). EDIT — I have a source potentially up for solving the data problem.
  • Councillors sign up to the programme through clicking on a profile link and a subsequent email verification. Edit — it could be simply that there is no need for councillors to sign up, the site simply is a means for volunteers to express their desire to help to their local representatives — the site is simply a tool to send volunteer information to their local coucillors.
  • Volunteers can search, using their location, to see if their councillor(s) have engaged with the programme. Edit — may well not be necessary.
  • Councillors arrange with their local council a single, official phone number for those needing assistance. A door-drop to every household in the ward using official stationery would provide details of the scheme. Edit — it could be that instead of/in addition to this concept councillors signpost volunteers to opportunities to help with pre-existing organisations in their local area.
  • Councillors both onboard online volunteers, and reach out to their trusted networks to build a volunteer team for their ward.
  • Councillors personally oversee the operation of their teams and act as an escalation/resolution point in the event of any issues.

Questions/Challenges

Why not simply let councils work out their own systems, piecemeal, and implement them?

  • Councillors themselves are the key. They have the networks and the trust. Council employees lack the intimate knowledge of the wards that elected representatives have.
  • A single site is easy for large-volume membership organisations to direct potential volunteers to (RSPB, National Trust, Neighbourhood Watch, etcetera).
  • A single site allows for easy media promotion rather than e.g. “Look on your local council website”.
  • The design and usability of a professionally designed single site can be materially better than a myriad of local council sites constrained by existing resources and frameworks.

How might the shopping actually work?

  • The person needing support could phone up and say what they need. A volunteer purchases it, goes to the home, pushes the receipt through the door, is passed back cash or a cheque, and leaves the shopping outside. It is not a perfect solution in terms of avoiding possible infection, but it is materially better than one that requires personal contact. Edit — there has been some discussion about how the supermarket chains will help resolve the shopping problem (update, this seems overstated). This is but one of the areas in which people are likely to need support. Also, it seems likely that people how have limited digital access are going to need support simply placing orders with such a system — even if it is phone-based.

Why would councillors engage with such a system?

  • Primarily, a sense of civic responsibility. Local councillors, in the main, are not in it for the money, the fame, or the glamour. They serve because they care.

Who should build such a site, and engage with the local councillors?

  • Ideally, Gov.uk. In the absence of an agile response from government (and this is something upon which work needs to start now for the networks to be in place should they be needed), then a trusted civil society organisation with a track-record of building robust, effective, digital solutions at scale.

As I say, the intent of this post is to start a discussion. What I have described is by no means likely to be the best possible solution. I do, however, believe that local councillors are likely to be critical in marshalling volunteer efforts in their wards. All comments and suggestions (and offers of help) are greatly appreciated.

A bit about me, for context. I am Paul Lenz. I currently work as a Trust Executive at https://indigotrust.org.uk and prior to that spent the best part of seven years working for https://www.mysociety.org, so have some (non-technical) experience of developing digital civic engagement solutions that operate at scale. In my spare time, I have run http://www.whoshouldyouvotefor.com with a friend since 2005. In the 2019 UK General Election, the site had more than 1.1 million unique users.

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