A person on a mobile phone

How to involve users despite social distancing

By Liz Gadd 12 May 2020 5 minute read

The needs of people we support and the context in which all of us are living are changing by the day. As we reshape the way we work, involving users in what this change looks like is non-negotiable. Click To Tweet

In our State of the Sector research, launching next week, 91% of charities said user involvement was important for mission when prompted. Yet when unprompted, just 14 of the 300 we surveyed named their service users as their greatest strength in achieving their mission, and just 9 said that working closer with users would help the sector make a bigger impact on society.

It may be that charities only see user involvement as the moral thing to do, rather than the impactful approach. We disagree. From our work with charities, we believe involving people in decisions that affect them is not only ethically right, but also intrinsically beneficial for them and has practical benefits for charities and funders by improving reach, quality and impact. This has never been more important than now, as the needs of those we support and the context in which all of us are living are changing by the day. We must reaffirm our commitment to actively involving those we support in decision making as we respond to the pandemic and build our new normal.

But with social distancing mandatory for the foreseeable future, you’re probably wondering how on earth you can still involve users meaningfully in decision making, be it consultation, co-design or co-production. There are many challenges, but now is not the time to step back. As we reshape the way we work, involving users in what this change looks like is non-negotiable.

‘How?’ is the million-dollar question. Our five-step guide to implementing and evaluating co-design remains relevant; but here are three practical ways you can effectively implement meaningful user involvement during this immediate crisis and in planning your new normal.


1. Be pragmatic

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ as they say, and pragmatism is often where involvement gains are found. For example, Inspiring Impact made a pragmatic decision early on to collaborate with others in co-producing a variety of new or updated evaluation resources for charities, to avoid duplication and information overload. The team are developing resources informed by users’ enquiries, website stats and webinar discussions; drafting with different stakeholders via a google doc; and user testing resources via video focus groups.

But you don’t always have to start something new. Mental health charity Rethink and partners of the Somerset Recovery and Wellbeing Alliance are pushing forward with their pre-existing mental health transformation programme, and moving the involvement of their ‘experts by experience’ to digital engagement.

Whilst pragmatism and adaptation are key to success, it is as important to make sure you’re all on the same page; as Sam Holmes, Co-production Manager at Rethink says: ‘you have to be careful to retain fair process and manage expectations.’


2. Ask your target audience what next

Wherever you are in your involvement journey, you can find practical ways to engage your beneficiaries in exploring what their needs are during the crisis and how you might best respond, whether in the short or medium term.

Environmental charities ClientEarth and Possible recently consulted their mailing list members, via short surveys, on what they would like to see in these unprecedented times. Possible went on to run virtual focus groups on key topics, which shows how action like this can lead to further engagement. These are small, quick wins that don’t take a massive budget or excessive time, but that can sustain existing engagement or be the beginning of new ways of working.

Tara Flood, Strategic Co-Production Lead for Hammersmith and Fulham Council has been working to continue existing co-production activity whilst also building relationships with local Mutual Aid Groups. Her top tip for involvement during social distancing is to ‘build on existing relationships and reach out to new and unusual allies’.


3. Maximise digital opportunities

Notwithstanding the challenges of digital poverty, the covid-19 lockdown has broken down digital walls. Here at NPC, we have seen an exciting upswing in engagement and diversity of representation through multiple projects and events. For example, in our My Best Life project we have seen more geographical diversity and more returning participants in this co-production project. We’ve been maximising our use of digital through a series of co-production ‘design sprints’ where young people collaborate via video-conferencing and digital collaboration tools.

There have been barriers to overcome along the way to ensure meaningful engagement is still possible. For example, as some young people only have a mobile phone, rather than a laptop or tablet, it was not practical for those young people to use collaboration software such as Miro. The team therefore maximised involvement by adding pre-design-sprint focus groups and post-workshop user testing as an alternative.

However, as Hammersmith and Fulham’s co-production work has also found, we need to be conscious of the raft of possible barriers to engagement and communication needs of target groups. It may take some experimentation to find what works best. As the Strategic Co-production Lead Tara says, ‘even in a crisis, never lose sight of your commitment to inclusivity’.

Wherever you are on your involvement journey, maximise opportunities to listen and learn, and embrace an iterative and responsive learning style that supports your planning, evaluation and continuous improvement.


For more on the reasons for involving users and evaluating participation see NPC’s publication Make it count: Why impact matters in user involvement, and for more on planning your involvement see Implementing and evaluating co-design.


Related items