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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Engagement in a time of social distancing

By Briony Fleming, on 25 March 2020

This blog was written by Helen Craig (Public Engagement Manager – SLMS) bringing together the thoughts and experiences of the whole engagement team.

What does engagement mean in a time of social distancing? That’s the question we’ve been asking this week, as our team, along with so many others around the world, have been seeking to support each other and maintain the advised social distancing.
Public and community engagement is all about reaching outside our immediate environment– it’s about people, trust, and relationship-building and so much of it relies on face-to-face contact. Many of the people we support are working with communities who are most at risk during this outbreak. They support those experiencing health-inequalities, recovering from trauma, living in poverty, who are disabled, older or have poor mental health, and much more. These communities and those who support them are pushed to their limits at times like these and we all want to continue to support these partners and their users. We’re personally aware of many projects where research and teaching engage with community partners are having to be dramatically re-thought due to the COVID-19 response.
But there is still real value in connecting. Public engagement does not need to be face-to-face – what it needs to be is open, honest, and responsive to your own and your partner’s needs. This will be an incredibly difficult time for many people, especially those in the Voluntary and Community, creative, freelance, and patient care sectors. So we’ve put together this list of advice and tips from our team to help you navigate your projects and be the support your partners need.

Open up

Reach out to your partners, and have an honest discussion about what they need – how can you work together in this new environment? What your partner community needs may have changed as a result of current activities. Asking those questions can help open up a useful dialogue.

We’ve found that a key part of engagement is finding a shared language – you and your partner might need to find a new way of communicating and that could be something outside your comfort zone. Whatever happens, be clear about what you and they are able to offer and what you can’t– and bear in mind that any support, however small, can make a difference in a trying time.

Be flexible

What you had planned to do, will most likely now change. You may have to work to a different time-line, different outputs and maybe even a different end goal, being flexible about this and the changes you need to make can help you navigate this difficult time.  If you see need in your public groups, can you reach out to your funders to see if there is a way you could repurpose your grant? Most grant-makers understand that projects develop and change as they progress. If you are able to justify why you want to spend your grant differently most will be open to this.

You can explore engagement methods which don’t require meeting in person, even if this means your project ends up looking very different from the way you envisaged it. Make sure you record and share your reflections about any changes you make – there will be many people in the same boat, and your experiences could help others in this unusual time.

Use your networks

Think about your own networks and how you could leverage them for support in engagement and in your work in general. Are there people you know using methods of engagement you could learn from, sharing resources you could pass on to your partners, or who are sharing their skills and expertise. Staying connected, responsive and complementary to other service provision out there will help maximise the usefulness of whatever it is you do.

Use social media

If you have an active social media presence, reach out to people who follow you if you think they can help. But bear in mind that different networks, and users, have different audiences. Where do your partners and publics get their information? Are there any channels or networks that you might be able to access who could help you engage? When you know what your partners need, you will be more able to chose the tools that work for them.

Be thoughtful in your tools

Thinking of moving your engagement online? Be thoughtful about the platforms and engagement methods your public groups use – many people primarily access the internet through their phone, for example, so websites that are not optimised for mobile use will be unhelpful for these demographics. Equally, think twice before suggesting expensive or exclusive software that people may not have access to. Skype, Zoom and many social media platforms offer cost-free methods of engaging, but they may involve downloading and installing new software. So ask people what works for them: we advise people doing public engagement to try to go to where your publics are, rather than asking them to come to you – and that applies online as well.

Get informed

Review your work, your public engagement plans, and any new timelines you need to be working towards. Keep updated on official guidance and support available in relation to COVID -19. Read the latest advice from UCL, and read UCL advice on remote working– your own institutions, funders and contacts will likely also have advice to be shared.

Plan for the long-term

Writing your own theory of change can help you see where to go next, as well as illuminating risks and challenges. One challenge we’re hearing a lot at the moment from the projects we support, is the struggle to spend their grant now that face-to-face events are unable to take place. It’s worth thinking creatively about how you can use your resources now – can you buy equipment, or pay for services in advance? Can you employ community partners now to do some thinking and exploratory work that will be used in the future? If you’re asking people to engage with you over the phone, can your department cover phone bills for both you and your partners? This will help keep partnerships alive, and provide financial support to groups who might otherwise struggle.

Theory of Change template (Word) / Theory of Change template (PDF)

Many thanks for reading. We’re aware that this information is very much drawn from our own personal experiences, and focused towards researchers in partnerships with community groups in specific ways. Please do leave any further advice in the comments, share with us on Twitter (@UCLEngage), and do reach out to us on publicengagement@ucl.ac.uk if there are any specific areas that you’d like advice on.

Further reading and advice:

NESTA have published a blog asking “How can we support the voluntary and community sector as they respond to COVID-19” – at the link here.

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement is pooling their advice around NCCPE –Meaningful Engagement – Online Events. They also have some already published guidance for engaging through social media at this link.

This link to a primer on holding online events and readings from Better Evaluation.

This piece on Community Based Learning in times of Social Distancing, Isolation and Quarantine from Portland State University

And finally, a briefing on ‘Equality Diversity and Inclusion in Extraordinary Times’ (PDF) from Kamna Patel, Vice Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Bartlett advises on considerations for EDI in these extraordinary times, especially for your work collegues.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has collated guidance and support for charities dealing with the impact of the Corona Virus as well as  keeping a rolling blog page of updates on support for charities. 

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