Do you still have to manage and/or run consultation and engagement programmes?
Is it important to still be hearing from people about your services?
Are you under pressure because Covid 19 means you and your teams are dealing with that?
Are you struggling to work out how to broaden online engagement with limited resource, budgets and time?
If your answer is yes to any of these, read on.
Have you considered building an online engagement network to do the bulk of the involvement work for?
If no, read on. If yes, but you did not reach a conclusion, read on. If yes, but you’re not sure how, read on.
Covid 19 has changed our working world. Maybe permanently. Meetings and face-to-face are gone for the moment. Both resources for engagement and the range of involvement options will seem limited.
You will be hearing advice to switch from gatherings of people to online methodologies. That is great in principle but this might present issues:
- Knowing what online facilities to use, particularly to replicate dialogue opportunity.
- Learning how to use them.
- Finding a range of facilities to suit different profiles of people and stakeholders.
- Buying a new online involvement platform at the moment is unrealistic if you need quick solutions now; the likes of Engagement HQ, Tractivity and others take time to buy, install and learn to use. Plus some of these are very expensive at a time when all available funds will be getting diverted to more immediate needs.
There are a lot of free and low-cost resources out there that you could use. We will come to how to use them and a network shortly but here’s a few suggestions for discussion and dialogue as opposed to questionnaires and surveys.
- You can invite larger numbers of interested parties to meet and discuss issues and solutions in Google Groups, Groupspaces, Groups.io, Flarum and many others. These facilities provide alternative ways of using them. They could replace workshops, discussion groups, sounding boards, etc.
- A large number of video conferencing software allow you to discuss, explore and debate with groups of people, numbering from a few to many. You can use these to replicate focus or discussion groups and even workshops. Microsoft Teams (if you have Office365), Skype for Business, Zoom, Cisco Webex, Google Duo are a few you can use. Tools like Zoom have breakout rooms that can be used as the different tables in a workshop.
- You can use low cost Webinar facilities like vMix to replace public meetings.
- There are other facilities that allow people to post messages, stories, run sounding boards, etc. My colleagues will be sharing many options with you or you can call tCI to learn more.
BUT…will you be allowed to use these resources?
What do you have clearance to use at the moment? If you need clearance for something new, can you get it? You may have internal expertise within your IT department to help set up new opportunities. But, is your IT department going to help? They may be presented with issues of their own during the Covid 19 crisis. Even if they do have available time, what is the chance they will help? Some IT departments are very helpful, some are not. Some are plain obstructive and will not allow use of free or new resources, even in these unusual times.
If you cannot get the internal help you need have you considered creating an online engagement network?
Who are your regular partners in engaging the public? What bodies, like Healthwatch, community and voluntary sector groups, might work with you to engage people online? They are unlikely to be restricted in using such facilities. There are some big benefits in developing an engagement network.
- They can supplement resources when many of you and your colleagues are having to provide support in other areas.
- They need activities to keep their people in a job during the crisis. You could be helping them keep people employed.
- It is a positive message in these times, that you are taking a collaborative (co-productive) approach with communities and partners in broadening public involvement.
Many community and voluntary sector organisations have expertise in using such mediums already. Where they haven’t, it doesn’t take long for one organisation to learn how to use one facility and become competent with it. If you have a network each becoming proficient in one or two methods, you quickly have a comprehensive engagement network that offers wider digital inclusivity. Even if you get permission to use these platforms, how long would it take you to replicate what a network might?
What are the risks?
- You need to retain control over what they do and how they do it. You need to agree a clear brief, rules and moderation requirements. Your accessibility to see what they are doing must be guaranteed.
- You need to know they have the capability and commitment to moderate discussions in forums and groups. Ensuring it is a ‘safe space’ for people to talk and debate is essential.
- Turning the discussion into useful outputs and feedback. Do they have the capability, or can they quickly develop the capability to turn the outputs into useful feedback?
- Will the partner remain neutral in debate? You need the confidence that they can be.
- Data Protection. Will the partner observe data protection requirements?
If these can be satisfied then you have the capability to build a genuinely collaborative, may be even co-productive, online engagement network to help you meet your objectives.
This is an introduction to the idea of using an online engagement network. We are happy to offer further advice and support if you wish to further consider or pursue this idea.