Community engagement: Virtual by default

Tanya Spence, People in the Lead Manager at LEAP, describes the learning curve her team went through as they made digital the central pillar of their community engagement work.

Tanya Spence

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic none of Lambeth Early Action Partnership’s (LEAP) Community Engagement team could ever have imagined the enormity of change and the challenges that would come with running a system of engagement which would, by default, be virtual in nature.

One of the biggest challenges has been the extent to which families, in the communities that LEAP serve, are digitally included.

Operating across four distinct Lambeth wards including Stockwell, Tulse Hill, Coldharbour and Vassall, LEAP is serving some of the most deprived communities. Child poverty stands at 43% of the population and unemployment rates rank higher than the UK average (Trust for London, 2020).

Working with poorer communities is an important marker for any digital engagement activity when we consider that affordability and access are key factors often cited and used to explain the broader picture of digital exclusion (ONS, 2019).

Stats aside, hearing first-hand about the extent of digital exclusion on our families during the Covid climate has been difficult. We have seen whole families sharing a single device for education, social, and job-related activities. And instances where parents have been socially isolated yet unable to engage as they’re without a device, and where parents keen to join virtual sessions but reluctant to do so as downloading apps would compromise their data allowance.

Very early on, the Community Engagement team had to accept that whatever achievements we had in reaching families digitally, we still wouldn’t be able to reach everyone.

This is perhaps where the LEAP model of collaborative partnership working has been vital to engagement. Working closely with Voluntary and Community Sector organisations within wards, who have been able to provide other types of provision, including a lunch service for children, have provided additional means by which to communicate, engage and support families who would otherwise be hard to reach.

In addition to connectivity and access challenges, engagement work has also been further compromised by the necessary support and skills needed to navigate the online environment. This has been true for both the families we aim to reach and our workforce alike.

Since late March, the Community Engagement team have worked hard to build a virtual engagement offer which recognises the need for capacity building.

Embracing our co-production values, the team and wider workforce (including volunteers) have repeatedly trialled and tested the make-up and running of virtual sessions delivered to families, taking time to address challenges and ensure the sharing of learning.

Fast forward to late June and the Community Engagement team is now confidently running a weekly series of virtual sessions across all our wards. Sessions have evolved from initial crisis-led ‘coffee mornings’ to more parent-child focused spaces, which are jointly and strategically facilitated in partnership with other LEAP services and organisations across Lambeth.

Three months on since lockdown started, the Community Engagement team has also identified good practice and etiquette in relation to the safeguarding required for virtual sessions. This has been important as families will often attend sessions with their children in tow and are reluctant for their face or home environment to be seen by others. The team has learned a lot and careful consideration is given to everything, including the use of camera, hosting requirements, and pre-registration, as well as the session length and activities. It’s fair to say that engaging families via digital requires a significant amount of administration.

When the team initially trialled a virtual delivery offer, it was disheartening to see the low attendance rates. However, it feels good to now be reporting an attendance rise of 147% in the last three weeks.

As the lockdown eases and attention is now focused on ‘bubbles’ and the early exploration of outdoor space, the Community Engagement team remains committed to ensuring a sustained virtual offer, one which we hope will gradually become balanced with other community engagement initiatives that are face-to-face.

The journey for the team has been far from easy but importantly reinforces that digital engagement is not linear, nor is it simply about digital inclusion. It is a bigger piece of transformation work which includes the likes of capacity building, partnership working and action-learning.

Tanya Spence is People in the Lead Manager at LEAP in Lambeth

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

Sign-up to join our mailing list.