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Publication - Minutes

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group: 20 November 2020

Published: 7 Dec 2020
Date of meeting: 20 Nov 2020

Workshop notes from COVID Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group meeting held on 20 November 2020.

7 Dec 2020
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Public Engagement Expert Advisory Group: 20 November 2020

Attendees and apologies

Members of the Expert Advisory Group:

  • John Beaton, Inclusion Scotland (apologies)
  • Simon Burall, Involve (apologies)
  • Oliver Escobar, What Works Scotland
  • Fiona Garven, Scottish Community Development Centre 
  • Angus Hardie, Scottish Community Alliance (apologies)
  • Diarmaid Lawlor, Scottish Futures Trust
  • Erica Reid, Independent expert
  • Talat Yaqoob, Independent expert
  • Anthony Zacharzewski, Democratic Society
  • Ruth Lightbody, Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Kelly McBride, Democratic Society
  • Nuala Gormley, SG, Public engagement and dialogue
  •  Kaela Scott, Involve (apologies)

Scottish Government policy leads:

  • Clare Hicks, Compliance
  • Ben Cavanagh, Covid Analysis Hub
  • Judith Ainsley, Covid Ready Society

Public Engagement Team:

  • Chris Connolly, Digital Communications    
  • Doreen Grove, Open Government
  • Madeleine Fleming, Open Government
  • Sophie Lock, Digital Engagement 
  • Eleftheria Maravlaki, Strategic Insights

Items and actions

Context setting

Doreen Grove welcomed the group and set the context for this meeting. She set out the purpose of the session as being to explore how Scottish Government could put in place a mechanism which worked as a really effective way of engaging with the public around the really complex area of compliance. The questions to be asked around such a group included what its purpose would be, how it would be made credible, and how to ensure it was a useful mechanism.

Professor Steve Reicher shared with the group his view that as we – hopefully – approach the “last stretch” of the pandemic, with a vaccine in sight, issues around trust and compliance become ever more important. He particularly stressed the existence of understandable concerns around the vaccine, worries about its roll out and safety, and underlined the importance of not dismissing these valid worries. Instead Government should engage in a dialogue with the public around them, and use this as opportunity to build trust. 

Claire Hicks, a member of the Compliance team at the Scottish Government, set out the challenges the compliance team are facing and how public engagement might help to tackle these. The team has benefited from the expertise in the compliance and assurance advisory group. Through that group SG has been able to set out Scotland’s approach to compliance,  which has sought to be clear about the messages on the measures being taken and the evidence on which they are based. Endeavouring to make compliance possible by understanding and removing barriers, building the sense of a “team approach” through marketing and communications, and listening to the people of Scotland.

Compliance levels in Scotland have been consistently high, and are holding steady. However, as we move into the levels approach, there has been an awareness that we’re changing what we’re asking people to comply with, so in effect have to restart ensuring that measures are clear.

There has recently been increased fatigue and weariness around compliance, which the team are aware of – being able to engage with the public would help to investigate why this exists. Additionally, the team would be able to work alongside people to identify ways to address this weariness, and ensure that people feel they can adhere to what they’re being asked to adhere to.

Breakout discussion 1 - framing

The Group were invited to think about the framing around any engagement with the public in relation to compliance, and offer their thoughts and suggestions in response to the following questions:

  • what are the biggest challenges?
  • what questions should we be asking the public? What can they help us think through and answer?

The group identified a number of challenges, summarised below:

  • developing a sense of ownership in the general community over advice or recommendations made by the group
  • avoiding setting a false premise for the group – setting realistic and honest parameters as to the group’s remit, influence and impact from its inception would be key
  • reaching those who are most affected by the pandemic and making it possible for those who are really suffering to take part – when these groups often do not have time or resources to participate in engagement exercises
  • timescales for this exercise will be very challenging, due to the fast-moving nature of the pandemic
  • the prevalence of mis- and disinformation could pose a challenge in relation to the perceived legitimacy of the evidence presented to any group
  • there is widespread fatigue and people’s energy levels to participate in activities beyond their daily routines is depleted at the moment
  • public need to be able to see and understand why this activity is worth investing their time and energy into – what difference will it make?
  • important to pinpoint what the public can offer to conversations – important not to substitute the public into conversations which should be between government and scientists – this process would add evidence not substitute for other evidence
  • confusion around tiers and fine-grain changes to the rules –participants would need strong evidence presented I a variety of ways 

Discussion focussed less on what question the public should be being asked, much of the discussion revolved around differentiating the questions to this group from existing focus groups and stakeholder listening work. Being clear that this was about the public being able to deliberate on some of the more difficult societal questions – not simply responding to ‘what you feel about it’ but being provided with evidence, good facilitation and being able to deliberate with each other about possible options. Some suggestions for the sorts of questions were given:

  • a range of vaccine questions – ensuring compliance whilst this is being rolled out, and managing expectations around the roll out
  • understanding people’s thoughts around planning, personal life, families, work, communities
  • how is Scottish Government messaging coming across, is it trusted and transparent?
  • what should we learn from our response for the longer term?
  • what parts of compliance are people really struggling with and what would make it easier to comply?

Social sttitudes around Covid

Ben Cavanagh of the Covid Analysis Hub in SG set out the regular survey work that is currently done to provide the evidence on compliance and trust. Additionally he outlined how they plan to increase the reach of this work to communities of interest to improve the understanding around social impact and inequalities.

Breakout discussion 2 – scope and resources

Hypothetical: The Scottish Government are thinking about convening a small public group for a period of time to help understand covid compliance and inform policy.

  • what is the purpose and role of the group? (what do we call it)
  • what is the size, composition and duration?
  • what must it not be or do
  • what resources are required to make it happen?

Two groups of the 3 breakout groups accepted the hypothetical of a small public group, and made the following recommendations:

  • clear remit to manage expectations – this cannot be a decision making body recommendations cannot and will not trump science
  • but it should be framed as an important voice providing clear evidence of the publics views alongside other forms of evidence
  • small enough group to be flexible and meet regularly, not too small to allow group think. One group recommended around 24-36 participants.
  • because of the unequal impact of the Pandemic selection of participants should be random selection but weighted to allow for an overrepresentation of those less likely to comply or most impacted by Covid and regulations might be helpful
  • participants should be compensated/paid for emotional labour and time. This needs to be inclusive, with a range of options - visa restrictions mean people can’t be paid, and payment can affect benefits entitlement. The format of the group should also be informed by childcare needs and technology inequalities.
  • expert facilitation – without expert facilitation the group would not work and will be difficult to engage if it’s too large a group (recommend 1 facilitator per 4 – 6 participants)
  • running period of 6 months – moving through various issues (Christmas, vaccine roll out, use of information and data) 
  • would need an oversight group, providing a supportive authorising environment, a policy or small secretariat team as well as an external advisory group - need to be clear about the roles for each of these and the links to the senior groups such as FMs, CMO’s advisory groups and SG policy teams where the outputs of the group will go
  • feedback loops need to demonstrate to the participants and the public what the impact of the group are
  • needs to be an effective comms plan in place to reach out to the wider public

An alternative structure also emerged, recommending a “mixed methods” approach utilising community researchers, who would together act as a deliberative “hub” to discuss and distil their findings. The group recommended that the commissioning of this group would tap into groups and networks who are already embedded within communities. This approach would empower participants as they received training and developed their skills as community researchers.  This approach would require additional onboarding support for the participants to be confident in operating as community researchers, but would bring an enhanced ability to reach communities of interest or place that would otherwise be difficult to hear from.

This would also make it possible for the group to seek evidence directly from groups adversely affected, from small businesses to refugee council to homeless and disability groups if they wish.

Breakout discussion 3 – perception and impact

Finally, the group were asked to reflect on the perception and impact of this panel/group:

  • how will this panel be viewed? In government? Externally?
  • how can it have an impact? Where does it land?
  • how can this do something new and different with credibility?
  • why should the First Minister listen to this?

The group identified the following priorities to establishing the group’s credibility and ensuring impact:

  • credibility as a group able to offer independent advice to Government, not simply legitimising the Government’s views
  • credibility will come from the evidence/expertise feeding into the group and the way that it’s run – if it is set up properly, and invested in, it will be respected and listened to 
  • the group must feed in at a senior level, and must receive feedback about how their recommendations have been taken into account in decisions made. There shouldn’t be too much of a lag between engagement and decision making
  • regular evaluation and rapid feedback from evaluation is helpful, as seen in the Citizens Assembly of Scotland
  • ministerial involvement at some meetings would increase credibility that ministers do want to hear from the group – and from the public, this would need to be balanced with clear processes for the group to hear the views of Ministers (or other politicians) but be able to deliberate without political presence 
  • those who feed into these processes, particularly if there is a community research element, must be able to see how their voice fed into the process and how they were taken into account.
  • creating this group as an ongoing process, with back-and-forth between Government and the group, would relieve some pressure around hearing negative feedback, giving the opportunity to delve into it, and create more trust on both sides.

Next steps and close

Doreen Grove thanked the participants, and set out the immediate tasks for government are to pull together the advice from this working group, to set out the options and resources necessary to deliver such a group. She finally asked for those who were interested in helping shape the next phase of the development to let her know.