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Digital techniques in lockdown

Zoom- The Commodores

Anyone of a certain age must have at least thought about both this version and Fat Larry’s, as they join a call. Not sure how many of you will have gone so far to look into the lyrics of these seminal works? Well, Lionel sings: ‘I’m searching for that silver lining’ and Larry: ‘Oh zoom, you chased the day away’…. I think both are prescient!

Lockdown means face to face meetings, a mainstay for public engagement, need to be managed differently. TCI moved its communications with its Associates to Zoom meetings, and we began to think collectively about the best online platforms for public engagement and deliberation to recommend to clients. However, it soon became apparent that it’s not and never has been about the technology.

Thinking specifically about deliberative process, it’s entirely possible even desirable to use digital techniques for deliberation. The key challenge is breaking the process up into manageable chunks which fit together in a coherent process over time. This requires the same level of careful planning; creative design to ensure information is accessible and engaging, and a keen eye to ensuring evidence is balanced as any public engagement process. It further needs to be supported by simple rules of operation within tools such as video conferencing and online forums (such as everyone except the chair/leader on mute by default, agreed signals for those who would like to speak etc).

There are lots of digital platforms which can provide a great experience through forums and chat groups, as well as online video conferencing. We wrote about it on our wiki.

One advantage of the lockdown is that people may already be experienced with using some of these platforms for different reasons i.e for keeping in touch with friends and family.

However, there are downsides to the use of digital platforms and Associates’ experience suggests the biggest constraint is rules and regulations from statutory organisations’ IT departments, some of which are legitimate, for example some clients report concerns about data security. Platforms such as Zoom are aware of the concerns and are already tightening up to comply with rising expectations of data security.

Any deliberative process will need to be designed to include those who cannot access digital engagement tools and we recognise online engagement cannot capture everyone’s views…but neither can face to face, post or telephone and as long as we try to engage excluded people in other ways (as far as allowed under the restrictions) and are mindful of the unavoidable exclusions, then we are doing our jobs!

Our take home message is that digital engagement is all about good design practice. The technology should follow the technique – ie the planning should include deciding which tactic and tool will best facilitate the required engagement.

Oh and by the way let’s not assume everyone will now have more time to devote to online engagement, many people are actually pretty busy just getting by, so again its worth thinking about your audience (through careful stakeholder analysis) and as always you should still consider the need to incentivise involvement.


Thanks to Rachel Lopata and Sue Cavill for their contribution to this piece.

About the Author

Andy is an experienced NHS Manager, formerly an Assistant Director of Public Health and Head of Patient and Public Engagement in the North West of England.

Read more about Andy

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