Bolton: using Peer Navigators to make services more responsive and accessible

Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council has joined up with housing association Bolton At Home and other partners, to deliver a Peer Navigation scheme. Peer Navigators are paid employment posts that are recruited from within their local community, to support their local community. They act as a key point of contact between decision-makers and vulnerable residents. Residents can navigate services more easily, with Peer Navigators offering signposting and support. And, in turn, the council can ensure that its offer matches residents’ needs. This has created a powerful engagement channel between citizens and local government, and was particularly valuable in fighting the physical, social and economic consequences of COVID-19.

The challenge

Bolton has some of the most deprived council wards in the UK, covering a large, diverse, and geographically spread population. Communities are tight knit and council engagement often works best when it is face-to-face. Some residents have low levels of digital literacy, and struggle to access services. And there is an absence of skills among some communities. This educational deprivation can prove a challenge for work prospects.

The Bolton area was badly affected by COVID-19. The Delta variant, in late 2020, hit especially hard. This required a response from local decision-makers which reflected resident needs. And it had a knock-on for economic and public health outcomes, with high levels of isolation and rising poverty. Those who struggled most before, during and later in the pandemic were those who were least confident using services and who often had the least faith in decision-makers.

The solution

Bolton At Home, a housing association in the region, has operated a Peer Navigator programme since 2017. The scheme began with a handful of individuals and was, at first, primarily designed to support Bolton At Home residents. It was co-funded, in some instances, by health or voluntary partners.

Peer Navigators remain on the scheme for 18 months, and are paid to work 16 hours a week, on a flexible basis. They build networks in the community and engage with officers. They develop their skills and knowledge in the process, with the initiative acting as a stepping-stone to skilled employment.

Before COVID-19 hit, Bolton Council had a strong relationship with Bolton At Home. Once the pandemic started to impact the community they approached them, to ask about a partnership which broadened the Peer Navigator scheme out, to address the fallout from the crisis. The scheme was expanded, to reach residents across the borough – not just housing association tenants. There are now 12 Peer Navigators. They cover six catchments, with two per catchment.

The impact

Working with Peer Navigators helped the council with their immediate pandemic response. One initial job was to interact with test-and-trace, so that those who tested positive did not fall through the gaps. Peer Navigators reached out to over 600 people, who had tested positive but had had no telephone dialogue with test-and-trace. They offered advice on isolation and support for loss of income (socially distanced with required PPE, in line with government advice). They helped to top-up of electric meters and collect prescriptions. And they offered someone to speak to if the resident was worried or anxious.

As the crisis developed and the army was required to support the COVID-19 response in Bolton, Peer Navigators acted as a bridge to parts of the borough where residents might otherwise be anxious about a military presence. And they reached out to minority and faith communities, who had been hit particularly badly.

Other elements related to the subsequent economic and social fallout. For instance, Peer Navigators helped those who had lost their jobs to access food banks

The initiative was very much about creating a two-way engagement mechanism, enabling Bolton Council and its wider partners to respond to community needs. For instance, it allowed the authority and other agencies to chart levels of engagement with key messages relating to testing and vaccination. In close-knit neighbourhoods, where one bad experience with public services can damage trust across the community, the initiative has also helped the authority to explain the rationale behind decisions.

The scheme has continued since the height of the pandemic. All of those who go through it receive support with interview technique and CV writing to further their careers. Peer Navigators have also been signed up to the national Community Champions programme. Many have continued their Peer Navigation work in an informal capacity and have signed others up, meaning that the ultimate legacy of the scheme is an increase in civic engagement across the area.

Lessons learnt

The Peer Navigator programme was in place pre-COVID, and adapted during the pandemic to the significant challenges faced. The programme will continue offering successful applicants the opportunity to work within their communities, to instigate change and to ensure the community voice is central to any activity.

It can be difficult for local authorities to connect with residents, and for residents to engage with the services that are on offer. Peer Navigation offers a mechanism to build strong, continuous two-way engagement between the respective parties, strengthening local democracy and improving local services.