People social distancing and wearing masks

Maximising user involvement opportunities and social distancing

By Rose Anderson 21 January 2021 5 minute read

Before Christmas, NPC hosted a Leading Impact seminar on how charities can maximise user involvement opportunities at a time of lockdown and social distancing. Chaired by Rosie McLeod, Associate Director for Data and Learning at NPC, our speakers included Anna Thomson, Co-Production Officer at the British Red Cross; Avril McIntyre, Community Leader and Leader of the Barking and Dagenham Collective; Neal Lawson, Executive Director at Compass; and Elizabeth Parker, Principal for Evaluation and Learning at NPC.

Co-design happens when a charity and its stakeholders (usually its service users) work together to design or rethink a service. But how can we encourage user participation at a time of lockdowns and social distancing? Charities need to review and adjust their services more than ever, and we’ve seen many organisations making valiant efforts to maximise the connection between them and their service users, in order to shape their decisions.

Digital exclusion is a real issue for some though, and challenges remain around how to convene people online. Listening to the case studies from our recent Leading Impact seminar affords us some useful insights into how to involve users in service design or improvement during a pandemic, whether that’s through co-design within charities, collectives or utilising more flexible co-design practices across the sector.

Co-design within charities

Anna Thomson has a background in delivering community engagement projects for local authorities, and she has drawn on that background to help the British Red Cross. She has been working on the Lived Experience Advisory Group (LEAG), which provides a mechanism for teams across the organisation to hear from the groups most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Members of the LEAG draw on their own personal experiences to help the British Red Cross shape its coronavirus response. It is hoped that this will help it to broaden the focus of its projects, in order to have a wider impact.

Anna’s experience points to some helpful tips about improving co-design within a charity. To make the most of the energy around the LEAG, including the buy-in from staff and the enthusiasm of would-be members, the British Red Cross had to work quickly, before it had fully polished its model.

On the positive side, knowing that you do not have all the answers straightaway can help the organisation to be more open and responsive to feedback. Service users have more space to shape the group when the model hasn’t been finalised yet. For example, early on the British Red Cross improved the clarity and accessibility of the LEAG’s recruitment materials thanks to the group’s input.

However, on the negative side, launching a lived experience group without refining the model first runs the risk of putting too much responsibility on members to tell you what they need, which might put them off joining. The people involved in co-design may also have already had to share their experience multiple times, sometimes for the same charity—which is emotionally draining. Once you’ve listened to their insights, it’s good to keep a record of them, so that future project teams can look back at what has already been gathered.

Anna wondered if, by having a separate group within the organisation dedicated to lived experience, charities might be reinforcing a binary division between charity staff with technical expertise and ‘ordinary people’ with lived experience. In reality, people often fall into more than one category—for example, someone who works for a charity because they have first hand knowledge of the problem the charity is trying to solve.

Co-design through the collective

The aim of the Barking and Dagenham Collective (BD Collective), as explained by Avril McIntyre, is to enable charity leaders to share their power and influence, becoming ‘door-openers rather than gatekeepers,’ and through this, enabling the social sector to grow. Since its foundation, the BD Collective has been developing relationships with the council and starting new conversations about co-design in the community.

Not all collectives are as well-connected, but in times of ever-changing circumstances and urgent need, it is important to work quickly and build on the trust and relationships that already exist. When the first lockdown announcement was made, the BD Collective quickly set up a cross-sectional ‘reimagining’ group and started co-designing early help for families and an adult social care package.

When numerous organisations and stakeholders are gathered together, power dynamics will rear their head, and care must be taken to minimise their influence. The BD Collective wants to see the social sector grow, but not through a single organisation or a centralised body; this principle carries over into its practice. In the first lockdown, in the space of four days, the BD Collective established nine ‘Locality Leads’ (individuals who work closely with the council to provide support for vulnerable residents) across different wards in the borough, each chosen for their capacity to mobilise volunteers. These ‘Locality Leads’ were given significant freedom, through a £5,000 grant to spend as they saw fit (as long as it was part of the pandemic response) and a phone number to ring if they needed help.

‘Locality Leads’ were very much part of shaping the BD Collective’s coronavirus response and they were free to give their opinions on new ideas and suggest different ways of doing things. A WhatsApp group enabled them to talk to each other and work things out together, which points to the role of technology in co-design during a pandemic. It is crucial to foster a sense of collective action, of being ‘in this together’ despite being physically separated. This helps to build people up and motivates them to secure change.

As Avril explained, we all have our own power, but not everyone gets the chance to use it. Some people are concerned not with what has to be done, but with whose role it is to do it—favouring attribution over contribution. Sometimes, organisations that would usually talk to local authorities have to step out of the room, so that groups of local people can come in and develop the solutions they know they need.

The BD Collective is supported by Neal Lawson and by Compass, an organisation that champions collaboration and systemic change. The experiences of the BD Collective demonstrate that no one person has the solution to all a community’s problems. That’s why co-design is so important: working together allows organisations and local authorities to hear many perspectives and thus find the best way to do what they need to do. To borrow Neal’s slogan, ‘No egos, no logos, no siloes.’

These moments of community co-design are powerful, but collectives are now asking how they can accelerate and scale up the way they work. Funding is needed to make these collaborative, co-operative practices and networks sustainable. Unless that happens, these participatory movements are like fireworks—they light up the sky, as a beautiful example of what co-design could be, but then the sky fades back into darkness because they can’t keep going.

Co-design across the sector

Some of the trends seen within and between organisations can also be observed across the charity sector as a whole. Elizabeth Parker of NPC has found that, since March 2020, co-design has shifted away from the old linear processes and structured designs. These were preferred in the pre-covid days because the plans were clearer and people’s responsibilities were more defined. But now they have had to be scrapped as the national situation becomes less and less predictable.

From March to May, many charities felt a tension between wanting to quickly change to meet emerging, acute need, and wanting to engage in co-design (even though charities knew this would take time). Consequently, we saw a hybrid approach.

From May onwards, charities piloted new approaches for delivery, and then had discussions about what worked, what didn’t work and how to adapt. Co-design across the sector has become more creative, and feedback has been shared in a more casual way. This flexibility is a positive.

Some service users have been in a better position to engage with co-design recently because they have the devices, the internet connection and the digital skills to connect remotely. Other groups are, however, limited in this area, such as older people. Charities need to keep in mind this digital exclusion, as the insights they receive from their co-design processes may be biased towards certain perspectives as a result. To check that services are still meeting people’s needs, and to ensure everyone’s views are heard, charities may have to vary their methods. For example, an online focus group might have to be supplemented with telephone interviews.

It takes time for working together to make a difference. That is only to be expected. The issues resulting from or exacerbated by the pandemic are so complex that they need to be addressed through an equally complex system of collaboration and participation. However, there is a real risk of the sector reverting to ‘business as usual’. As we continue to trial and refine our co-design, we need to keep track of the results. Demonstrating that user participation is efficient and effective will be crucial in convincing other stakeholders to embrace the change. Dedication and perseverance have never been more important.

In times like these, how can we encourage co-design whilst avoiding digital exclusion? This blog shares useful insights on how to involve users in service design during the pandemic: Click To Tweet