Long before the COVID-19 pandemic we were increasingly working with clients to help them navigate common issues in taking engagement online. With COVID-19 preventing us meeting research and engagement participants face-to-face – now and probably for some time to come – the need to move engagement work online increased rapidly and suddenly. Whilst online engagement is not new, it has always been an add-on to more traditional engagement approaches. For instance, by setting up an online platform that sits alongside the main, face-to-face engagement strands. Using online methods as the main channel of contact within an engagement programme is new for most of us.
Our work for Northern Powergrid is a case in point. Traverse is working with the company, which is responsible for powering peoples’ lives across the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, as a strategic partner across several strands of its RIIO ED-2 customer engagement work. This includes delivering specific research and engagement activities and supporting the network operator to develop its practice and the capability of its people. Our work, which is ongoing, comprises a consumer panel in two locations as well as a series of stakeholder roundtables.
The key to the success of the programme to date has been our adaptability to circumstances by moving engagement from face-to-face setting to an online environment at very short notice to minimise any delays.
The panels were originally conceived with a hybrid, alternating in-person / online structure whereby we would hold alternating face-to-face and online sessions in each location. After face-to-face meetings with the panels in Leeds and Newcastle back in February, however, all subsequent rounds of engagement have been moved online, using a combination of the online platform Recollective for online activities and Zoom sessions with the full panel (using plenary and break out rooms) to recreate some of the lost face-to-face contact. The platform has a range of features enabling polling, chat forums, video and photo sharing, storytelling etc. The engagement features the same components and topics as face-to-face meetings would have done – a combination of information sharing and explanation, the ability to chat to Northern Powergrid people and ask questions, and the opportunity to deliberate and discuss views with other participants.
The Consumer Panel consists of two groups of around 70 customers across the Leeds and Newcastle areas. In addition to the main panels we have also recruited 40 of Northern Powergrid’s rural customers who will be interviewed over the phone but, recognising the opportunities under the current circumstances, they can also be brought into the main panels for as long as those are carried out online or by video conferencing. Throughout moving our panels online, participants have continued to stay engaged. By including both an online platform and online meetings, participants can communicate and discuss topics in different formats: while some appreciate the online platform, which allows time to think and reflect on your own, others very much enjoy the online meetings on Zoom. The Zoom sessions were encouraged by participants themselves, who were familiar with the application and felt it would be valuable to see and deliberate with fellow participants virtually.
The same adaptation has been applied to the Stakeholder Engagement work, originally conceived as face-to-face roundtable meetings, these have now also been transferred to online discussions using video conferencing to present information to stakeholders, along with simple tools such as Slido to build interaction, and then using online break-out rooms to enable stakeholders to share their views, ask questions, and discuss Northern Powergrid’s plans.