Engaging our way into a different future

15 May 2020

Engaging our way into a different future

As organisations begin to think creatively about the world beyond the crisis, let’s not leave citizens on the outside looking in.

In recent weeks we’ve been working with our clients to make decisions about engagement projects that were either underway or in the pipeline when the lock-down started. In some cases we’ve had to hit the pause button, in others we’re taking that work online, finding new and interesting ways to bring people together virtually. The pauses are sometimes due to methodological concerns that we can’t achieve what we originally set out to without face to face events. Sometimes the pause reflects changes in priorities for commissioning teams and organisations – CCGs and councils, for instance, have a lot going on right now, with staff time and public messaging focused on Covid-19. And sometimes, the pause reflects a need to reassess – does the research question still hold when the world around us is looking so different, or do we need to wait for the dust to settle before deciding what question most needs answering?

There are several cases in which projects conceived prior to March 2020 have, therefore, been overtaken by events. But existing engagement work aside, organisations also need to be asking how engagement can help them answer new questions raised specifically by the pandemic, or which are being thrown into sharper relief because of its ramifications. We can’t just stop talking to people until ‘all this is over’ – as that could end up being quite a long time. And if we’re not careful, there’s a risk that engagement, participation and citizen voice get put on the ‘nice to have’ shelf when in fact they should be seen as essential tools for helping us make the decisions that will very soon need making – particularly where those decisions, resulting from the crisis, are significant ones for people and places.

Engaging people on change has not, understandably, been a big priority over this first phase of the crisis. For many of the organisations we work with – local authorities, health services and charities, for instance – decisions have needed to be made rapidly, and have focused on getting citizens, service users and staff what they need to keep safe and well. But as organisations start to transition from the initial crisis management period and into a second phase where things are more stable, it’s crucial they don’t miss opportunities to bring people into conversations about the future. And whether we’re thinking about short, medium or long term futures, engagement done well can generate hugely valuable insights about what to do and how. Engagement in what obviously depends on the organisation or team and what they’re tasked with doing, but we can imagine how this might mean engagement in different types of questions at different points in time:

SHORT TERM

At the moment, most of what’s permitted or not permitted under the terms of the lockdown is being determined by the UK or devolved governments. There may be variation in interpretation, and from the start we’ve seen different approaches to enforcement, but basically it’s been about command and control from the centre. As the lockdown begins to unwind, more decisions will need to be made about local specifics. For instance, do we close certain roads to traffic to encourage walking and cycling and to enable social distancing – or simply to make it nicer – for people out and about in built-up areas? Do we allow indoor markets, pubs and restaurants to temporarily move into outdoor public spaces to enable them to trade more safely? And do we schedule different types of activities (or user groups) in our parks and public spaces at different times? Exploring what people think about such ideas before enacting them will be crucial in making change legitimate – especially where there are competing interests – and in order to understand how people are likely to react. Social distancing makes face to face engagement near impossible for the foreseeable future, but online tools make it relatively easy to put these sorts of questions in front of large numbers of people at speed. Already, we know our friends Commonplace are using the heatmap function of their online platform to help councils get feedback from residents about these topics, and as my colleague Fanny wrote recently, there are a number of platforms able to support effective online engagement.

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MEDIUM TERM

Beyond the ‘how do we unwind’ questions will come questions about priorities and resources over the medium term of the next year or so. Most public bodies, charities and companies have some sort of vision or mission which it is focused on delivering, yet the impacts of Covid-19 – not least the economic ones – will be so seismic and wide-ranging that many will need revisiting. Even where the overall vision of mission remains the same, the actions needed to achieve it will likely need to change in some way. Whether at the local, regional or national level, there will be huge competition for limited resources, with pre-existing priorities joined by new ones and the income being relied on to deliver them all probably much reduced. The public needs to be involved in this process of assessing what’s most important and what role different organisations should play in providing support and direction. Local charities will be struggling to survive, but so will local high streets – how should our public bodies decide what to support and invest in? What should the criteria be? There will be pressure to get the economy back on its feet but also to protect the environment – so what do we do when those two aims clash? Again, we will need to involve the public – locally, regionally and nationally – in shaping the response.

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LONG TERM

And then there are those really big ideas about system-wide change that have the power to shape what our country and our communities look like for a generation – ideas perhaps as monumental as those implemented in post-war Britain. Ideas around housing and homelessness, health inequalities and universal basic income, climate change and the environment. These were already making headlines before all this started, but our experience of the pandemic may bring some or all of them into sharper focus, with the appetite for – or simply the necessity of – radical change now more apparent. These can’t be decided behind closed doors, but need to be deliberated on by people from all walks of life. Presented with evidence and experts to quiz, what do citizens think about these issues and the tensions and trade-offs they present? Is there support for big policy and social change, and if so, is it more than skin-deep? What does our experience of Covid-19 mean for our sense of place, of what we value as communities and as a nation, and for way we envisage our collective futures?

So from the immediate to the long term, there will be plenty of decisions that need making and big opportunities to involve people in taking them. Technology, though not perfect, makes that easier than ever – so there’s no excuse for waiting until physical events become possible again. In the rush to get society moving, let’s not miss the chance to find out what sort of future people out there are up for, and to really involve them in building it.

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