Inclusive engagement at a distance
The introduction of physical distancing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a shift away from face-to-face engagement, may remove barriers for some people while introducing new barriers for others.
People experiencing disadvantage in society face many barriers to participating in community engagement activities, and the ability to influence decisions that affect them.
It is crucial that people working in community engagement roles seek to understand how to prevent the under-representation of communities who are disproportionately affected by health and care services and/or have a poorer experience of these services. The experiences and knowledge of these people, and the organisations that support them, will help make sure improvements to services are fair for everyone in Scotland.
We have carried out an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) to help us understand and mitigate the impact of COVID-19. It helps us to identify the community engagement opportunities available to people who share protected characteristics, and those likely to face disadvantage. The EQIA is a 'live' document which will be updated if additional impacts are identified.
We must, however, be cautious to consider barriers to engagement based on a single factor or identity, such as age. A common assumption is that people belonging to a community are all alike, with similar needs and experiences. In reality people also belong to other communities based on their gender, their economic status, their ethnicity, and so on. Therefore, while we can identify impacts on communities we must be alert to how other factors play their part.
Older people tend to be well represented in traditional community engagement activities. However, physical distancing measures may negatively impact on their ability to participate if digital methods are the only options available.
A recent survey found that age has the biggest impact on whether or not people are online. Digital engagement decreases as age rises, with the over 70s particularly less likely to engage digitally (Lloyds Bank, May 2020). Older Asian people are significantly less likely to have used the internet than white people belonging to the same age groups (ONS 2019), suggesting that there may be particular digital barriers to the engagement of some older minority ethnic groups.
While younger people tend to be traditionally underrepresented in community engagement activities, creative digital methods of engagement may offer opportunities for increased participation. 100 percent of young people aged 16-24 use the internet (Scottish Government 2019).
However, we must also be alert to the experiences of young people facing disadvantage. Who Cares? Scotland has highlighted concerns that many of the care-experienced young people it supports lack the appropriate technology and/or access to home broadband to participate in online meetings.
Disabled people face many barriers to community engagement, usually due to financial issues, physical accessibility and a lack of understanding regarding the variety of issues that they face (Attree et al 2011).
For some disabled and/or older people, however, digital methods may provide opportunities to participate without the common barriers of having to travel far or sit/stand for long periods of time (Edwards 2001).
Physical distancing measures will have a significant effect on people with sensory impairments.
Deaf Scotland has raised concerns about how people who lip-read or use British Sign Language are being affected. RNIB Scotland has made moves immediately to replace regular face-to-face community groups with telephone groups.
People with learning disabilities will also be affected by changes to the support they require and the ways in which they may have their voices heard.
In response to the lockdown situation, the Scottish Commission for Learning Disabilities (SCLD) identified an opportunity to connect with their members on Facebook through forming a group. They realised that a large number of members were active on the social media platform. A variety of activities take place on the group page, including gathering people's experiences.
It's important to note that familiarity with online platforms is a key factor in choosing how to engage with disabled people. Unfamiliarity for certain groups may create stressful situations (Zolyomi et al 2019).
Minority ethnic people
Minority ethnic people are often underrepresented in engagement activities. Cultural and language differences are notable barriers to successful outreach (Liljas et al 2017).
Carrying out community engagement activities in familiar places is a successful strategy for engaging with minority ethnic groups. With limitations on the use of community spaces, trusted contacts will become even more important in bridging links with people who may be otherwise isolated.
Older Asian people are significantly less likely to have used the internet than white people belonging to the same age groups (ONS 2019), suggesting that there may be particular digital barriers to the engagement of some older minority ethnic groups.
Survey results published in 2018 also suggest that the UK Gypsy/Traveller communities are more likely to be digitally excluded.
Community engagement is generally skewed in favour of people with higher socio-economic status (Ryfe & Stalsburg 2012).
Evidence shows that people who are in low income households and/or have lower levels of education are consistently less likely to participate in activities addressing public concern (Marcinkiewicz et al 2016).
However, there is evidence that providing compensation and/or incentives for participation can support people on low income to get involved (Roberts and Escobar 2015). Financial support is important as many people may not be able to participate without childcare, transportation or wage replacement.
Some of these issues could be addressed by flexible digital methods of engagement, if people have access to broadband and a suitable device. However, there is a strong relationship between the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) and internet uptake in Scotland, with those on low income significantly less likely to have access to the internet.
To support engagement with people affected by poverty, the Poverty Alliance's Get Heard Scotland programme has produced a toolkit, which is likely to be refreshed to reflect the current situation.
Women are usually well-represented in community engagement activities. However, physical distancing and home-life situations may disproportionately impact on the ability of some women to participate in community engagement activities, and may also require staff to be alert to these issues.
Since the introduction of physical distancing measures a number of UK charities have reported a significant increase in the number of people contacting their services for help in relation to domestic violence.
Domestic abuse may place limitations on a person's ability to participate in community engagement activities. Women's Aid has been offering a number of discrete online services to people experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic and may be in a position to share the experiences of people who may otherwise be under-represented.
Shakti, an organisation for minority ethnic women experiencing abuse is currently supporting women, children and young people through telephone, WhatsApp and FaceTime.
Men tend to be underrepresented in community engagement activities. Barriers to engagement include fear of stigmatisation, with men being reluctant to share health issues in case they are perceived to be embarrassing or not "manly". Other reasons include men being less likely to take time off work for fear of losing their jobs (Johal et al 2012). However, digital methods may offer opportunities for men to share their experiences in spaces where they can feel safe and/or at flexible times that will not impact on their employment.
These are just a few factors to consider when planning for inclusive engagement while physical distancing measures are in place. Other factors worthy of consideration are the impact on engagement with people in remote, rural and island areas; LGBT people; faith communities and people experiencing homelessness.
What is crucial is that communities have a say in shaping engagement and how they wish to participate – whether that is online, over the phone, text messages, or in other ways we might not yet have considered.