When we went into COVID-19 lockdown back in late March, our world at The Social Deck changed for more than the obvious reasons.
Team members had not long returned from facilitating a national youth forum and we had a heavy schedule of face-to-face engagement coming up.
But lock down separated us; not only those in our small Noosa office–which we were well prepared for–but it separated us from the way we knew how to engage, the way we thought we had the most impact.
In the previous year (2019 Impact report) we had engaged, mostly face-to-face, with more than 2,800 people in 74 locations when we held 80 workshops and 84 targeted discussions.
By April 2020, it was difficult to see how we could have this impact again.
One thing we knew was that people still needed to have their voices heard through this time. In fact, it was perhaps even more important.
Depending on how long COVID restrictions would last, we worried one fallout would be a gap or weakening of the expectations for ensuring the community have their say in the things that affect them.
So we moved quickly, along with many agencies like us, to bridge that gap and show that engagement could still be done, remotely.
By mid-April we had adapted one of our major projects–engaging with people in bushfire affected areas–to the online environment. This engagement was with people and communities who had been hit twice by severe devastation within just a few months. It couldn't be delayed.
We adapted our plans for community visits into a mix of video chats, interviews and online questionnaires. Pretty basic, but effective.
While we missed the human connection in these communities, we were able to get the insights and information needed to help government improve its communication to these communities, at a time when communication and being informed was everything.
By June, we went bigger. And that wasn’t just to a bigger TV! We began two national consultations in addition to running a number of community-based collaborative projects.
From our office in Noosa, Queensland we set up and integrated webinar capability, video workshopping (using a range of accessible platforms), added and trained the team to use more online engagement tools (such as Mentimeter and Mural, along with others) and set up the appropriate sound, lighting and, as much as possible, secure internet.
We tried new methods to run collaborative and co-design workshops for small and large projects. This included everything from stakeholder mapping with clients, to community based behaviour change programs to large consultation events.
Maintaining our impact
From July to September we have run two national consultations, concurrently and all remotely, engaging with people with disability and their families and carers–of all types, experiences, ages, and in all locations across Australia.
Ensuring accessibility has always been central to all our engagements, and nothing would change online. We investigated, tested and learned from others about how to best integrate accessibility and make the experience engaging online for everyone.
In this adapted online engagement environment, we feel we can do more, reach more people, and continue to have an impact.
We travel less, have more time with our family, and are having a much lower carbon footprint.
While some of us are longing for the face-to-face connection again (and the days where less could go wrong in a single event!), we’re proud to keep leading an approach where people from across the country can get involved in shaping the change that affects them.
Our top tips for engaging online:
- Choose the best platform for the activity and your client – Zoom is not the only option. We have used five different online and video platforms to run consultations in the past 6 months. Each time we adapted to the platform that suits our clients (taking into consideration their access and security needs). It's important to investigate different options to ensure the platform has all the things required to make it a great and accessible event for the participants.
- Prepare well – do plenty of run throughs of your agenda to make sure you have allowed enough time for all the transitions in an online environment. Preparing your participants with materials and instructions before the events is also critical.
- Test, and test again – as you use new platforms or technologies, make sure you test them. Assuming they will be the right tool can cause delays in the event if others can’t access them or make them work.
- Keep groups smaller when you want real and in-depth insights – in an online environment people need time to think and reflect. Some can find it even harder to speak up when engaging online. If you’re running a focus group or discussion where you want lots of insights about experiences, keep your group to under 10 and allow enough time to have a full discussion.
- Integrate other platforms – integrating digital tools that people can use on their own devices while taking part in an online consultation or webinar is a good way to keep people engaged and to let them have their individual input.
- Open it up – use the opportunity to reach more people. There are many reduced barriers for people attending events online as opposed to face-to-face events, town hall meetings etc. Use this opportunity to open up the engagement to as many people as possible.
- Don’t forget the phone – with all the focus on the new technologies and platforms, we sometimes forget the basics that can help us in a remote engagement process. Sometimes an interview via phone will make people who are less used to using video more comfortable, and it can be easier for people in rural and remote areas. It’s also important to have as a back-up to communicate ‘behind the scenes’ with your speakers and participants.
Whether you’re a government department, not-for-profit or local organisation, if you need help engaging people in your project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org