Community engagement has always required a range of approaches to involve different audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic forces us to think even more creatively.
The world has gone through a massive upheaval in 2020. Most countries have been under some sort of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are severe restrictions on face-to-face meetings, and physical distancing is likely to be around for some time to come. At the same time, people and communities are finding their voices and speaking out against social injustice, environmental change and inequality.
Increased engagement by individuals and communities in the topics that matter to them is a good thing. It is clear, however, that traditional methods of engagement – especially bringing people together in a room – will need adjustment.
Build on what you have
Changed circumstances and the "new normal" do not mean that the old ways of reaching out to people are obsolete. Well-used engagement methods such as surveys, telephone interviews and written information are as useful as ever.
The private and third sectors have for years used online discussion forums and social media to engage with their communities. Video and telephone conferencing technology has been around for a long time – although both the range of platforms available and individuals' skills and experience of using them – has developed rapidly in the last few months.
Health and social care services will already have tried-and-tested ways to engage with people, but we can learn much from other sectors.
Differing impacts and needs
Knowing your audience and their needs and preferences is key to successful engagement. Different communities will have very different needs, and even within a community there will be wide variation.
The current requirements to maintain physical distance have a wide range of impacts on inclusive engagement.
Digital is not the (only) answer
When planning how to engage differently, it is important to resist the temptation to focus solely on digital and online technology.
The third Citizens' Panel survey on the topic of digital health and care, published in January 2018, found that the vast majority of people had access to a desktop computer or laptop (85%) or a mobile or smart phone (91%). However, 27% of respondents stated they never use social media and 41% never use web-based communications such as Skype. Whilst these figures have undoubtedly reduced somewhat – especially during the COVID-19 lockdown – some 16% of panel respondents stated they were not confident in using digital communication technology.
Whilst 85% of the panel members believed there were benefits to using digital communications technology, 74% also said there were disadvantages. These included lack of access, lack of capability of using IT, data protection issues and internet connectivity (particularly in rural areas).
A UK-wide survey by Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Access (May 2020) found similar levels of capabilty using digital communications:
- 16% of the UK population cannot do basic digital activities such as turning on a device, connecting to wifi or opening an app by themselves.
- People with an impairment are 25% less likely to have the skills to access devices and get online by themselves.
- 40% of benefit claimants have very low digital engagement.
So digital engagement, whilst part of the solution, is not the whole answer to engaging at a distance for many people.
It's time to engage differently.