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Public Engagement

CPExplores: Should we be taking our engagement projects online?

The current situation has been raising lots of questions for all our public engagement work. In our latest blog series 'CPExplores', the Centre for Public Engagement will be setting out to explore the lay of the engagement land answer some of your most pressing engagement questions.

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In our first edition we're having a look at that question everyone has been asking: 'should we be taking our engagement projects online?'

 

When the social-distancing measures were first introduced, we all turned to the online world to provide us with the tools to overcome the distance barrier. Very quickly we've found ourselves transitioning into working from virtual offices, attending virtual meetings, running virtual classrooms, and even popping along to virtual pub-quizzes after the work day is done.

With everything else seemingly transitioning to an online space, you might be thinking that it makes sense to do the same with your existing engagement projects. But before you jump into a digital solution, we've put together a list of questions that you need to ask yourself to determine whether this is the right route for you.

1: Can this wait?

Right now there is a lot going on and priorities will have shifted for many people. These changes might mean that right now, people have bigger and more pressing things on their priority lists (yourselves included!) and so it’s not the appropriate time for an engagement project—and that’s okay.

In fact, it is far better to acknowledge that the time might not be right to engage and press pause than to undertake an ineffective engagement project that ultimately fails to meet anyone’s needs.

If you’re not sure as to whether it is the right time, we’d recommend reaching out to any groups you may have been working with or reaching out to people who belong to your target audiences to ask for their thoughts.

2: Will going online change your project?

To have gotten to the ‘ready to engage’ point, you will have spent some significant time designing and developing your project so that you've got a clearly defined purpose (why), a specific audience (who), and a methodology (how) prepared.

Going online will mean that you’ll have to adapt—or completely change—your ‘how’. Even though the online sphere is extremely versatile space, there are still limitations to what’s possible, who can access these spaces, and how to translate offline content into an online format that has the same impact and effect (more on these below).

So it’s worth considering what implications switching online would have for ‘who’ you’ll be able to engage with, and whether you’ll be able to achieve what you originally set out to do. If these two items look likely to be changed in response to going online: you are no longer doing the same engagement project that you started out with.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t potentially do this new online engagement project if you think it is valuable. But it does mean you need to start the engagement planning process from scratch: develop new aims, identify new specific audiences and develop your method further.

Equally you might think the changes to your ‘why’ and ‘who’ from going online no longer makes it a viable option. If this is the case, it is best to pause your engagement activities until it’s safe to do something face-to-face as originally planned.

3: Will your audiences be able to engage?

One of the most important things to note is: that despite our huge reliance the internet right now, not everyone has equal access to it. This access inequality will act as a barrier for some audiences leaving them unable to engage with your activities, which could have huge implications for your project. Because of how important this is, we’ll be dedicating an entire CPExplores edition to considering online access in the next few weeks.

In addition to considering internet access, you need to consider what technology your audiences will have access to. Some people will be limited to mobile devices. Others may only have one device which is split between multiple users in their household. Some may have the devices, but are unable to use their microphones or webcams. And even for those all kitted out, there will be huge differences in what software/apps people will have installed and are familiar with using.

Aside from practical barriers that might stop individuals engaging online, you also need to think of the systemic and attitudinal barriers that could prevent your audiences engaging in this online space—how are you going to ensure individuals will be able to contribute as fairly and effectively as they could face-to-face? How are you going to make sure individuals feel comfortable, safe, and supported?

It’s important to map out these scenarios and assess how likely they are in your context, and what impact they would have on the success of your engagement. If you’re not sure to what extent these barriers exist for your audiences—try and reach out to talk to those who might know (like community groups, those in your target audiences, others who’ve worked with the same audience). You can also come and speak to the Centre for Public Engagement about it.

4: How confident are you online?

Your own personal ability and confidence to engage online is as important to factor in to your thinking as the ability and confidence of your audience. After all, engagement is a two-way process, meaning that you will be actively participating as well.

For example: if your audience prefer to get involved with a Facebook activity and you’ve never been on Facebook before, you probably shouldn’t be rushing into doing an engagement activity on there! Instead you should spend some time familiarising yourself with the platform and working out whether it will have the functionalities you’ll need for your engagement (as not every online platform is able to do everything).

Spending a little time researching your online platforms and experimenting with what they can do will dramatically help build your confidence and competence, which will lead to a better engagement experience. At the same time, don’t feel like you have to be an absolute master of your chosen online tool to use it for engagement as, just like face-to-face engagement, this is a bit of a learning process. It’s fine to just be honest with people about ‘seeing how it goes’ and giving them the opportunity to reflect and feedback on the process to you so you can develop it further in future.

5: Do you have the right resource and support?

Contrary to popular belief: online engagement is not quicker, easier, or necessarily cheaper than face-to-face engagement. In fact, online engagement is likely to take the same level of resource as the face-to-face version of your project: so if you don’t have this capacity, you would be better to press pause for now.

You will probably find that where your resources are allocated will need to shift from where they were originally planned to go—so spend some time reviewing this. You may now find that instead of hiring a venue, you’re covering mobile phone data costs; you may find that instead of running one larger event, it would be better to run a couple of smaller breakout spaces which will need additional moderation support; or you may find that you’re going to have to spend more time building rapport with your audiences so you might need to do relationship building sessions before you even get to your engagement activity.

So altogether there’s a lot of things to think through before you head online— but you don’t have to do it all alone. The Centre for Public Engagement are here to help support you with this online transition! You can either book in to one of our Virtual Advice Surgeries or drop us an email and the team will be more than happy to help.

 

Got an engagement question that you want the Centre for Public Engagement to explore as part of this series? Drop us an email: publicengagement@qmul.ac.uk