Non-contact engagement and avoiding the risk of challenge.

Definition:  New Normal:  something which was previously uncommon has become commonplace.

Borrowing a feature, much loved by fans, of the Channel 4 show ‘The Last Leg’ “… is it normal…to assume that we no longer need face-to-face public engagement?”. That is, no more public meetings; no more standing in shopping centres talking about service changes; no more drop-ins in at community centres…

With the removal of many traditional ‘contact’ ways of involving partners, services users, the public and other stakeholders from the pre-COVID-19 world, colleagues are thinking through undertaking engagement that respects physical (social) distancing rules. Increasingly this has seen a move to online approaches to engagement, an area we have been previously adapting at a cautious speed and which has now accelerated dramatically. Not least because we see from the daily briefings from Government that nothing is changing soon and the need to change services and undertake capital work, if anything, has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We know this because we’ve been asked to various public sector partners with some of these challenges. This includes the careful communication of messaging around topics which are related to the current COVID-19 situation, and those which are not – all have significant importance to the organisation and its audiences, and all now require additional considerations.

We have all probably seen an increase in the use of online videoconferencing from Skype for Business/Teams to Zoom, Google Hangouts, House Party and WhatsApp during lockdown, in both our professional and personal lives. Zoom alone was downloaded 2.13 million times on the 23rd of March the day of the UK’s lockdown up from 56,000 two months earlier. This switch to a digital-led approach in our personal and professional worlds brings significant challenge to engagement and involvement. This switch doesn’t exclude other no-contact methods such as postal surveys and telephone interviews, however, it does require skills not always readily available or are heavily engaged in the more pressing matters of COVID-19.

A question for the future is:

“…are these behaviours now embedded or are they just an adjustment to extraordinary times, and what does this mean for those charged with engaging with the public to encourage their involvement in public service transformation?”

While we believe that much of the current ‘new’ is likely to become standard, there are statutory requirements to ensure all the right people are involved in the discussions that require more thought if we continue to operate in a digitally led engagement environment. The cases where emergency changes without consultation have been made to respond to the current crisis have been enacted in extremis and we expect to be scrutinised later to ensure the public have a chance to understand these. However, setting this aside for a moment, there is a potential risk of legal challenge, based on existing precedent, if we just say we were unable to:

  1. Identify those most affected by the potential changes; and/or
  2. Contact and interact with them to enable them to participate in the process.

Put simply we don’t think physical distancing is any excuse to not engage and we believe the courts will agree. So, what can be done?

We’ve been looking at one of the major transformation drivers in public service at the moment, the NHS Health Infrastructure Plan (HIP), set to deliver a long-term, rolling five-year programme of investment in health infrastructure. This will include capital to build new hospitals, modernise primary care estate, invest in new diagnostics and technology, and help eradicate critical safety issues in the NHS estate. There are 20 Phase 2 HIP schemes in the planning, mostly at the early stages and therefore at a critical point for public engagement and considering the implications for this and other public service and capital transformation projects. On the face of it, consultation is pretty straightforward, ‘we need to ask people what they think about x’, but it’s actually a complex area of interrelated guidance, public and case law. The Health and Social Care Act 2006 (2012) places the duty upon Commissioners to undertake any such consultations but the HIP programme puts Trusts in the driving seat.

As a result of recent developments and our experience so far, here’s a few of our top tips to meet public engagement requirements during lockdown, and for the ‘new normal’:

  • Undertaking a comprehensive stakeholder mapping exercise is crucial to ensure your digital approach reaches those most impacted by the changes…and developing a mitigating strategy to reach the digitally excluded.
  • Having a clear and simple description of the issues and proposals in formats appropriate for those who want the summary to those who want all the technical detail.
  • Ensuring a rigorous risk assessment to ensure all statutory requirements are met.
  • Ensuring there is a clear governance structure in place in a clear and transparent way to ensure confidence in the digital led engagement.
  • Ensuring the role of commissioners and providers is clear and their responsibilities are fully understood.
  • Choosing the right platform for you – there are lots of full-service online platforms that will do it all, likewise if you don’t have the resources, there are free/low cost alternatives needing only the investment of time. Check your needs, budgets, and availability of time in making these decisions.


  • A digital-led engagement programme requires the skills and experience of online practitioners who are able to develop relevant and attractive propositions and call to action that will cut through the clutter in an increasingly cluttered online environment. In other words, why get involved instead of taking the latest TikTok challenge? This could be in-house or from existing agencies or freelancers.

If you have any questions at all, we’re always happy to talk

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