Publication - Minutes

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group: 2 October 2020

Published: 2 Nov 2020
Date of meeting: 2 Oct 2020

Workshop notes from Covid Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group meeting held on 2 October 2020.

2 Nov 2020
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group: 2 October 2020

Attendees and apologies


  • Reema Patel, Ada Lovelace Institute
  • Simon Burall, Involve
  • Kaela Scott, Involve
  • Fiona Garven, Scottish Community Development Centre
  • Angus Hardie, Scottish Community Alliance
  • Anthony Zacharzewski, Democratic Society
  • Kelly McBride, Democratic Society
  • Talat Yaqoob, Independent expert
  • Erica Reid, Independent expert
  • Diarmaid Lawlor, Scottish Futures Trust
  • John Beaton, Inclusion Scotland
  • Sally Witcher, Inclusion Scotland
  • Nuala Gormley, RSE
  • Oliver Escobar, Edinburgh University
  • Chris Connolly, Scottish Government
  • Sophie Lock, Scottish Government
  • Doreen Grove, Scottish Government
  • Liz Shevlin, Scottish Government
  • Laura Turney, Scottish Government
  • Zoe Ferguson, Scottish Government
  • Eleftheria Maravelaki, Scottish Government
  • Clare Moran, Scottish Government
  • Madeleine Fleming, Scottish Government

Items and actions

The purpose of this meeting was to: 

  • support the establishment of a high level strategy for engagement on Covid 19
  • help establish conditions for embedding participation and engagement as a routine component of public service delivery in Scotland

Hosted by Stephen Reicher Professor of Psychology, University of St Andrews University and a member of SPI-B, the Sage subcommittee and brings the same expertise to Scotland’s senior scientific advisory groups

1. Context Setting

Doreen Grove set out the context for this meeting has to recognise that as well as the many changes to our daily lives, the pandemic has altered how public services work and how policy making involving the public has also had to change. There have been some strong examples of communities coming together and “making stuff happen”, however Covid has also brought out inherent concerns around interactions between Government and society.  The exceptional impact of the pandemic has meant that governments have been faced with acting fast to manage the pandemic while taking decisions that have to balance the public benefit of protecting peoples’ health over personal and institutional liberties and freedoms.

The intention of this meeting is to look at how we can best support Government’s (SG and LA) to involve people effectively as we move through the governments Framework for managing the pandemic. This will be through thinking about how we can change what’s happening in the “how” of Government, bringing this back to practicalities, recognising that Covid 19 had also highlighted existing inequalities all of which leads this meeting to look at how our system can change.

Steve Reicher set out his role as an “active listener” at this meeting, stressing how important a role he views public engagement as playing in the pandemic, particularly as a generator of public trust in Government.

Renew Programme

Zoe Ferguson updated the group on the development of plans for engagement around the Renew programme since the previous meeting of this group, where the group had provided advice on this. Conversations with the Cabinet Secretary have highlighted a sense of sensitivity around ownership of different strands of Renew work, making it challenging for any area to take control as a locus for engagement activity across renew. Additionally, there is an awareness that at this in the pandemic stage we’re not in a space where it’s easy for people to lift their heads and think for the long term. Additionally, this group gave a helpful caution previously around avoiding duplication of effort around engagement exercises. The decision has therefore been made not to carry out any overarching engagement around Renew, but to draw together the outputs from engagement already happening across the different strands, and from external sources such as RSE. This will create a shared understanding, and ensure that sufficiently cross-cutting information is available to inform the budget and NPF thematic report. This will give a solid platform from which to provide advice on engagement in this area as we move into 2021.

Public Service Reform

Laura Turney described the work that her team have been carrying out within SG recently, reflecting on the Christie Principles of public service reform and what we have learned during the pandemic. In many areas, the pandemic has facilitated a step away from siloed working, with trusted relationship being formed at pace as decisions were made quickly and decisively under pressure. This collaborative form of working has been a great benefit, and something we should strive to preserve as we move forward. Achieving a shared focus on the national performance framework through the enactment of the Christie Principles continues to offer a promising route to achieve this.

Participation Framework

Kaela Scott introduced the Participation Framework, which has been developed as part of the Open Government Action Plan. This is not intended to tell people or teams what they should be doing or when, but should work as a tool to help them to think through how they could use participation within their work. Kaela walked the group through some of the tools which the Participation Framework offers, and concluded with the question of what needs to be embedded within Government to ensure that the ideas contained within this framework can be fully realised?

2. Breakout Discussion 1

Key questions for discussion:

  • what are the skills and resources (practical and institutional) that are needed within government to embed these approaches?
  • how can capacity be built and expanded?

NB. The working group was divided into smaller chat rooms, and encouraged to use the chat function to record notes. These notes, as well as those recorded as groups fed back in plenary, are presented below.

Key points from discussions:

  • expertise in running/commissioning participation and engagement exercise is something which is required for success across many civil services roles, but isn’t invested in currently. Enshrining this as a “core skill” across all roles, with greater training and development in this area, would result in higher quality engagement.
  • however, it is also important that civil servants recognise when not to do engagement – resulting in a smaller number of higher quality engagement exercises
  • greater diversity within Government is also required – often there is a fear of engaging with certain communities as officials don’t feel they understand them.
  • there is often a culture of fear within Government around the uncertainty of “what will happen if we engage”. A shift of culture needs to take place to accept that this uncertainty can be useful, and might even produce unforeseen value.
  • linked to this, a culture of “having to please the minister” can be a barrier, particularly where it’s perceived that short timescales are required to achieve this and so there’s “no time” for engagement. A fundamental reframing of the understanding of what Ministers are looking for and what will meet their needs is required. With civil servants having the understanding to set out for senior colleagues and Ministers the benefits of engaging with the public throughout the policy/delivery cycle

3. Breakout Discussion 2

Context setting

Fiona Garven set out some context, from a communities perspective, what is require to be able to engage effectively with Government. The policy lexicon towards communities has been favourable – since around 2011 there has been enabling legislation, and participation is embedded in law and national strategies. However, this has not been reflected in practice, where there has been an erosion of key skills and frontline community facing workers over the years, resulting in a gulf between national government policy and local government (and communities’) capacity to deliver. There has been a succession of initiatives which have had a “sticking plaster” effect over the years, often caused by funders stepping into the spaces they choose due to a lack of a wholesale shift in culture and systems which they can add value to.

New opportunities have been offered by Covid, but some new issues have also been raised, as there has been some retrenchment into centralised decision making and funding.

Fiona identified 4 key things communities need:

  1. neighbourhood work
  2. sustainable funding streams, with a culture of investments, not year on year grants
  3. receptive and enabling public sector support – better quality public engagement focussed on action
  4. reduced bureaucracy

These needs require SG to:

  1. develop a long-term vision for change and stick to it.
  2. invest in the skills necessary for delivery of the vision – in communities and in the PS workforce
  3. scale up mechanisms for community ‘investment’ as opposed to grants

Key questions for discussion:

  • what more needs to be put in place / supported outside government to establish an enabling culture for participation and engagement?

Key points from discussions:

  • scotland is rich in narrative around community engagement, but poor in structure. Third sector has lost a lot of capacity – we have strong narratives and agendas but require workers to deliver these on the ground.
  • there needs to be a conversation around the nature of power, and whether distributing it is a 0 sum game – if it is, there needs to be an honest conversation around whether there is a willingness to “give up” power from the centre. If it isn’t a 0 sum game, then community empowerment needs to be properly backed as a means to a more effective government
  • general consensus that Fiona’s points highlight the most important requirements for communities – stability is required in terms of funding and initiatives, and the erosion of community organisers/development workers needs to be reversed.
  • it’s vital that as well as offering the opportunity for engagement to the public and organisations, Government takes a capabilities approach. There has to be capacity building and skills building to ensure that offered opportunities can be made use of. Learning and training around facilitation techniques should also be supported outside of government.
  • competency – To do this well those within civil service, those developing policy, need to be well versed and trained in effective and accessible participation methods – that are tailored to communities. One size fits all for participation does not work and will lead to exclusion of those most often ignored.
  • embedding – there is a worry that this will be taken on within the Scottish Government portfolios where this is easiest or “most applicable” (e.g. equalities), there has to be an expectation created that this is as critical to economy and justice as it is to health etc. There is potential for there to be an expectation here linked to the Prog for Government- participatory work to inform it across portfolios. It is a set time, and lead time can be used to develop community engagement. PfG would make a good first “whole system” trial.
  • analysis – Whilst we focus on how we do this, it is important that we don’t  overlook what we get back from the participation and how it is analysed. Otherwise it is performative. We do not want participation that does not reach outcomes – resulting in the status the data is analysed matters to what happens as a consequence of the participation – and it needs to be delivered through an equalities and intersectional lens. If the outcome is the “same old” it creates apathy in the community and reduces trust. Those engaging need to see themselves in what is produced as a consequence of their engagement.
  • ongoing participation – too often participation is done as a one off – there needs to be ongoing engagement, to deliver trust and wider civic participation. And with this, there is increased awareness of policy making, political processes etc. This should also support capacity building within communities – as there needs to be a level playing field of knowledge (power).
  • full circle feedback – participation need to have co-production in analysis and we must go back to communities and say what impact their participation had, to keep them involved and show their value.
  • language – Policy making is unnecessarily jargon filled and academic – as such it means people do not engage – policy needs to be written (And participation with it) needs to be clear and written in a way that explains what impact it has on someone’s life.
  • on the ground organising/movement building – the idea proposed in this group on community organisers is excellent – but who these are matter – it can’t be middle class people (or students studying politics!). It has to be diverse, it has to be paid, they have to be supported – and they need to be within their communities, not parachuted in. Which means establishing a way of supporting training, standards setting and innovation.

4. Breakout Discussion 3

Context Setting

Sally Witcher gave an overview of how the Covid crisis has heightened awareness – and existence - of inequalities across our communities. Some barriers have been created by our response to the disease, as ways in which communities were involved in decision making have been put on hold during the response. There is often a chicken and egg issue with engaging with certain groups in society – it is these groups who know what barriers they face when trying to engage, therefore it can be challenging to remove these barriers prior to engaging with them. This is a key reason why it’s important for Government to become more diverse, to ensure that understanding of these lived experiences is embedded within institutions. Also important is ensuring that those who are being asked to engage understand what the impact of their engagement will really be – that the engagement is “designed to be transformative, not performative”. This collaborative way of working also has to continue right through the policy cycle – a fantastically designed policy can fall down if it’s poorly delivered.

Key questions for discussion:

  • where should the balance fall between targeted engagement and wider public engagement during the current crisis?
  • how do we ensure, in this context and ongoingly, that approaches to participation and engagement do not amplify inequalities?
  • what does government need to do to support and resource the particular communities to develop their own agenda and interact with government effectively?
  • how do we ensure equal (or proportional) access to influence?

Key points from discussions:

  • people will bring their whole lives to any engagement exercise – they won’t/can’t limit their responses to the single area you actively want to hear about. It’s important to listen to and understand this context in order to really understand what is being said.
  • listening to lived experience has to be structurally embedded within the system. If it’s an optional, “take it or leave it” exercise, people will leave it. Thinking about who needs to be engaged with to properly understand an issue or answer a question should be embedded from the beginning of any project.
  • the way this is embedded into the system also has to make best use of the participants’ time – perhaps through whole system citizens’ Jury or panel approaches, where we invest in people’s capacity and capability as we engage
  • views of marginal groups/those with certain protected characteristics have to be taken as part of a wider conversation – care must be taken not to view engagement with these groups as a separate thing.

5. Conclusions and Next Steps

Steve Reicher reflected back some of the key points he had heard from the group during this session, including a reinforcement to his belief that Government’s ability to listen to the public is a form of strength and crucial to good leadership. He welcomed the group’s assertion that engagement should only happen when prepared to listen and respond properly, even when that means engagement is less frequent – but higher quality. He summarised some of the points he’d heard around the support – “scaffolding” – that communities need from the Government in order to allow them to engage, and reasserted his view that it is crucial that Government trusts the public and recognises them as an asset, particularly during this crisis.

Doreen Grove thanked the group for their engagement in this session and the two previous meetings. The conversations from this meeting will play a key role in shaping the strategy currently being created for Public Engagement during and beyond Covid. She stated that it would be really helpful to have continuing input from the group as we move forward, so closed the meeting by asking that members let the team know if they are happy to continue to be involved beyond this point.

If you feel anything you said in this meeting was not properly represented or would like to see any amendments please get in touch with Doreen or Maddie