Community engagement during the pandemic

Brian Fulton, Head of Business Support

When the country plunged into lockdown, high on our agenda was how were we going to successfully continue our community outreach. It is imperative, before undertaking every project and upgrade, that we hear opinions from the key stakeholders who frequently use our lifeline services.

Moving to Microsoft Teams was the easiest and most effective solution for all involved. Councillors, senior management, transport partnerships, staff at CalMac and Northlink, and communities were once again contactable and able to share their views with us again. As a public authority, we are required to carry out impact assessments of our work. Whether the meetings are simply to inform, consult or actively engage, moving online allowed us to continue this essential engagement.

It’s been running well for the last 18 months, and we have managed to reach more people than ever before. There were nearly 100 people online for the new Islay vessel consultation webinar, and by removing the need to travel to a set location, we saw greater representation from the more remote communities than usual. Moving online has provided us with a much more inclusive way of gathering feedback. It has allowed us to try different online methods, either live or pre-recorded talks, emailing comments or questions and having a project page to post responses.

Of course, it also comes with its challenges. Apart from the potential technical issues (“you’re on mute!”), we have found that we miss the informal conversations; the coffee break chats that often have real, honest value within them. Some people can feel pressured during a Teams meeting and would rather approach us after to express their opinion.

With this in mind, we will be taking a hybrid approach where possible for future engagements. We intend to keep that level of accessibility, whilst still getting the opportunity to meet our communities face to face. The pandemic did really make the world feel smaller, but that allowed us to connect with more of the people that we needed to hear from. Their engagement has a direct impact on everything we do. Through both online and in-person, we can go that extra mile to ensure we reach as many people as possible.