In 2019, Arts Council England (ACE) was engaging with its stakeholders – in the cultural sector and the public more widely – to shape a new 10-year strategy for 2020-2030. ACE developed a case for change, a set of investment principles, and a vision to frame its new strategy along with seven initial outcomes. These were tested out in an initial consultation with the cultural sector. In March of 2019, Traverse was commissioned to take these discussions out into the wider public through a range of engagement activities, both face-to-face and online, to explore draft elements of the new strategy. This case study describes the online element of this work and its impact.
Traverse ran five full-day deliberative workshops with 129 members of the public (aged over 18 years old) in Exeter, London (Newham), Shrewsbury, Southend-on-Sea, and Middlesbrough. Following deliberative workshops, some of these participants also took part in an online forum, and in short telephone interviews.
Participants from the five locations were invited to sign up to the online forum, which was built using Incling - a digital research platform specialising in building online communities.
The online forum was open to participants for two weeks. It allowed us to share our draft findings with participants and check that they felt these were an accurate reflection of the workshops. Questions for participants were posted one-by-one over the course of the two-week period immediately following the conclusion of the events. Whenever a new question was posted, participants were notified via email and were able to log in and provide their answer, to ‘like’ other participants’ posts, and to take part in discussions with the moderator and other online forum members.
In total, five rounds of key findings were posted on the online forum for participants to review and reflect on.
Some findings were posed as discussion questions (open questions) with accompanying text, images or infographics. Where these findings leant themselves to being presented visually, they were.. Participants were encouraged to discuss with each other, comment and like each other’s posts. Questions included:
- Do you understand what these findings mean?
- Does this make sense?
- Is the language used to describe these findings appropriate to what you discussed?
- Would these findings make sense to other people?
- Do these findings reflect what you discussed in the workshop?
Other findings were posed as polls (closed questions), for example:
- After the workshop, are you more inclined to increase the culture and creativity in your life?
- Yes, definitely
- Yes, probably
- Probably not
Participation in the online forum was voluntary and whilst participants had received incentive payments to attend the workshop events, there was no incentivisation to take part in the online forum.
Presenting headline findings online to participants who had attended the workshops strengthened the final report. It gave participants chance to review the key points emerging after our first initial analysis, to tell us if they felt our analysis was a fair reflection of their face-to-face discussions, and thus to validate our work. If an important detail or perspective had been missed, they were able to make that point online and their peers to comment as to whether or not they agreed.
There is always a risk in engagement work that participants’ voices are filtered through the lenses brought by facilitators and analysts; or that participants are not able to ‘own’ their contribution because they are part of a process that is designed and shaped by someone else. Use of an online forum can help to address this, strengthening the voice of participants as partners in the process – not just recipients of it – and enabling further layers of deliberation to take place as they reflect on their earlier conversations and those of their peers.
The online forum also invites participants who have become interested in a topic to develop their interest. Within the ACE project, a wide range of our participants – some of whom had given little thought to these questions before – were willing to spend time engaging in the online forum without incentivisation. The online element of the work thus helped to maintain and augment the role that citizens could play in the work.
We have similarly used online engagement to support face-to-face activities in other projects, including:
- our customer panel project with Northern Powergrid, where participants are able to review findings and answer additional questions online, and;
- Brent Climate Assembly, where residents of the Borough were able to review the outputs from the Assembly meetings themselves and provide comments for the Assembly to review.
The above image is an example of key headline findings presented to participants on the online forum.
The outputs from the ACE public engagement informed a further round of consultation with cultural and creative stakeholders in summer 2019. The strategy was published late in 2019, alongside the first of a series of delivery plans.