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Engagement strategies in testing times

Now more than ever, bravery is key to moving life ahead in our towns and cities and our organisations. If we want to keep connected with life outside our homes and keep our stakeholders engaged, we ourselves have to engage. If we want to advance work and projects which have taken years of time, confidence building and huge financial investment, we have to engage. If we really value the lived experiences of the hardest to reach in our society and the solutions they bring to the table, we have to engage.

We have been seeing instances of planning work going ahead and community consultation being pushed to the side, to a later stage, to a stage where input may not be as meaningful anymore – and that is deeply worrying. We know that reaching out to physically bring our stakeholders together isn’t currently possible. We do however need to be innovative about how we engage rather than not doing it at all. Voices still need to be heard and a part of the planning process. While of course we need to be mindful of how individuals are all experiencing this crisis differently, and have ranging priorities right now, we think it is important to still provide the option for people to have a say and be part of the planning process.

At Connect the Dots we are currently re-learning the critical place of some core values listed below in our consultation work, as well as investigating how we can still maintain and reinforce them under the current restrictions we are experiencing. In a recent article, my Co-Founder mentioned the importance of trust in a society as a key influencing factor for how well that society functions. Trust remains an essential element to bring to the table, actual or virtual in any engagement process along with equity, collaboration, breaking down silos and diversity and inclusion.

1. Equity, Accessibility

Equity is the value that is the most at risk during this time. Extra consideration should go into inclusion opportunities for all possible stakeholders and voices, which requires a mix of virtual and physical engagement. Many people do not have internet connectivity or comfortability with online resources, and so are left out of online interactions. For those without access, it is crucial to plan for the use of physical methods of engagement. Also consider the various forms of access barriers including language, age, physical ability (sight, hearing, mobility, etc.) and more.

Remote strategies:

Online: Some online platforms can still be used with modifications for those who have internet access. Zoom allows for subtitles, interpreters can be used on conference calls.

Offline: Additional non-virtual ideas to help bridge the digital divide: It is critical that we still leverage a mix of engagement tools, especially via different media, in order to ensure that we reach vulnerable communities and those not connected in or comfortable virtually. Here is a snapshot of ideas that we’ve been gathering; we will be updating this over the coming weeks.

  • Community call-in radio show; radio ads for outreach
  • WhatsApp (including for group video chat via phone or just regular chat groups; zoom can also be a phone app)
  • Outreach and installations with QR codes at nodes of key concentration (ie grocery stores)
  • Traditional 1-1 phone calls or small group conversations via phone
  • Connection and collaboration with community ambassadors/representatives to reach more people; this could be done in conjunction with training to enable capacity building
  • Letters, surveys; potential for slot to put surveys in that follows health guidelines
  • Podcasts
  • Via community nodes such as teachers, youth workers, community groups, churches, etc.

2. Collaboration

Allowing for a mix of voices and perspectives remains vitally important to engagement work. We can continue to work together to communicate by moving meetings and workshops online, ensuring that we prioritize transparency around goals and solutions. Our core techniques have not changed, but we are now employing online resources to help us do this work.

Remote strategies:

Online: A mix of tech that brings people together visually, show faces, provide space to draw and create, give feedback, poll for collective knowledge (zoom has an easy feature), and report back

Offline: Creative consideration about how people are experiencing social interactions: phone calls, idea sharing, articles, the potential of public art pieces

3. Breaking Down Silos

Connecting people across networks means facilitating diverse groups, identifying common goals, and bringing people together in a comfortable, shared space.

Remote strategies:

Online: A mix of platforms including Zoom, CoUrbanize, Mural, and Miro. Conversation flows less fluidly in a chat room, it’s key to ensure to include facilitators, present a clear structure and opportunity to make participants comfortable.

Offline: We do our best to take careful notes on our phone meetings and ask the right questions to highlight common themes and opportunities for cross-pollination. Keeping up with news and keeping this goal top of mind will always yield results.

4. Diversity and Inclusion

Inclusive engagement has to be maintained online. Some of the tools listed in the Equity, Accessibility section are a good start. If you have the means to provide for physical interaction in a safe way, that can also be a great option for patient work. In order to continue to engage all relevant stakeholders, begin by mapping out groups, sourcing emails or phone numbers (complying with all data protection legislation), creating registration banks for communities (again with data protection obligations leading all activities) and advertise physically in communities/public places, newspapers, or online information sources. This goal is the toughest to achieve and will require some creative thinking.

Remote strategies:

Online: Zoom, Google Hangouts, or other online meeting platforms, drawing and worksheet tools like Mural, sketchboard, and Miro, and Survey tools like Engage (Connect the Dots proprietary platform), Mentimeter, Groundsource, CoUrbanize, and Facebook.

Offline: Creative consideration about how people are experiencing social interactions: phone calls, idea sharing, articles, potential for public art pieces, mailings, postings in public spaces, and radio ads.

For more on our experiences piloting the above tools, see Connect the Dots; Our Response to COVID-19 

Naomi Murphy is a Co-Director at ConnecttheDots.ie

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