Equitable engagement – beyond COVID-19

As an engagement professional, my work and life are looking very similar these days.

Battling the horrible internet of very rural Ireland to connect with my cocooned in-laws. Facilitating a 23-member Task Force on Zoom to build consensus on a report. Learning how to involve family – from my 95-year old grandparents to 6-year old niece – in a multilingual virtual birthday party. Chairing non-profit board meetings with members juggling tough COVID conversations, introversion, and cramped family spaces.

I know I’m not alone – and this speaks to a concern we keep hearing as engagement professionals in this unusual time: How can we make online engagement inclusive and accessible?

At Argyle, we specialize at this intersection of online, accessible and inclusive engagement and communication – giving all types of communities a voice in policies and projects that affect them. In our work, we’ve been unlearning old ways and understanding what this looks like across ages, rural and urban regions, disabilities, and languages.

We recently shared some of our learnings with the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) special COVID-19 presentation on equity and inclusion. Here’s a brief summary:

  • Use research, not assumptions: It’s important to identify and understand your targeted communities and their barriers, needs and limitations. Use community research (demographic, communications channels analysis) to ground your engagement and promotions strategy in facts.
  • Invest in tackling barriers: Dedicate the time and money needed to reach, inform and engage in a way that is tailored to your groups’ needs and barriers. Ideas range from translation, parallel paper surveys, buddy support to inform participants or gather their input, 1:1 technical support, to phone interviews, Wi-Fi hotspots, and more.
  • Choose your online platform based on community needs: Pair your research findings with these guiding questions to select a suitable, accessible survey or meeting platform: How do you want participants to engage: dialogue, presentation or survey? What kind of public input do you need? What are the barriers faced by those you want to engage? We offer platform and workaround ideas for people with limited digital literacy or access here.
  • Test your process and platform to make the experience user-friendly: When engaging online, there is no greeter to help you. Make the process as easy as possible: how will people access the platform, get informed and provide their input? Remove barriers that may be frustrating or intimidating. This includes how you’ve worded your communication and questions. We suggest designing for and testing your plans with a representative group of users.
  • Communicate as a human, with meaning: Give your busy and overloaded participants a good reason to give you their time. Be clear about why you’re engaging, why their input is important and how it will influence the outcome. Make the virtual meeting agenda available beforehand.
  • Use our translation triple crown to build understanding: To equip participants to have their say, use what we at Argyle call the translation triple crown: translate technical content into regular-people speak; translate this into elementary school words; translate this into as many languages as needed. Also, consider translating content into visuals.
  • Track and adjust participation data: Decide what representation looks like so you can gather demographic input in your online survey or meeting. This allows you to monitor participation, identify whom you’re not hearing from and why, and pivot your outreach strategy.
  • Design and facilitate your meetings with more space: Moving from in-person to online can hinder our ability to meet with communities on their terms, show humility, earn trust – crucial elements for engaging with hard-to-reach communities. Design and facilitate your meeting agenda so you don’t rush through relationship-building and nuanced discussion. Give choices – take a break when needed, use video if desired. Consider that silence is okay: it can be cultural; it can mean people are thinking; it can also mean a dog or kid ran into the room.
  • Provide options for input: Contributing verbally in front of others can already be intimidating for many. People in some communities may not want to be put on the spot. For virtual meetings, use tools like chat functions, polling, an accompanying online survey, collaborative document and/or template to gather participant on their terms and time.

All this takes intention, planning, flexibility, and commitment. In our previous post about our team’s lessons learned from moving engagement online, our points about being people-centered and compassionate couldn’t be emphasized strongly enough.

The challenges aren’t new. Public engagement is easier for those who have more time, money, mobility, ability, and literacy. It’s often the hard-to-reach groups who bear the most disproportionate impacts of policy and project decisions that are being made without them.

That’s why inclusive, equitable public engagement is more important than ever. Let’s carry these lessons beyond COVID-19. The results will be better policies, projects and decisions – rooted in the needs of the people who need them most.

Interested in learning more?

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