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Public involvement during a pandemic: how we are supporting researchers

Public involvement during a pandemic: how we are supporting researchers

01 May 2020

Raksha Pandya-Wood (EM), Jo Lally (NE), Julie Hedayioglu (SE), Steven Blackburn (WM), Lucy Frith (NW), Catherine DeLacy (London) RDS Public Involvment Leads and Monica Jefford, Public Contributor (London)

As we have found in recent weeks, being socially isolated does not mean communities have to stop communicating. A UK-wide team of Research Design Service (RDS) experts and public contributors have put together the following advice to help you continue your public involvement and adapt to virtual or remote working during this time. 

“Membership of geographically dispersed groups means teleconferences are an accepted feature of my public involvement. However COVID-19 has put a different slant on their use.” 
Monica, RDS Public Involvement Community

Public involvement for your COVID-19 applications

We share the NIHR’s commitment to public involvement during COVID-19. Each RDS is prioritising support for COVID-19 researchers - particularly if you are responding to a rapid funding call. However, we are still providing ‘business as usual’ support to clients developing all other research applications.

How we can help
We have adapted many of our processes to support you with your COVID-19 research applications.
Each RDS will offer a slightly different service, but support is likely to include:

  • Rapid 4-5 day turnaround of feedback for COVID-19 research projects 
  • Extra fast-track review of plain English summaries
  • Fast-tracking for COVID-19 Public Involvement Fund with some regions offering online applications, phone calls and tailored supporting guidance.

You should contact your local RDS for more information and to let them know you are developing a COVID-19 proposal so that they can put the relevant resources in place for you.

What you need to do

  • Check your finance team is able to facilitate payment for public involvement. Some departments have limited staffing, which has led to payment (for example vouchers or cash) not being deemed ‘essential business’. Paying people retrospectively for contributions, when things are back to normal, is one option but not ideal. Whatever approach you adopt, ensure that it is agreed and communicated with public contributors, your finance team, and your local RDS.
  • Get in touch with your local RDS. Some RDS have been able to resolve this finance issue if departments are struggling. For example, RDS East Midlands has made an arrangement to relax the window for researchers to claim expenses. RDS North West has purchased highstreet/Amazon vouchers to send directly to researchers.

How to manage remote public involvement

Before you get started during this time of self-isolation and remote working, we recommend you ask yourself:

  1. What is the purpose of my public involvement?
  2. How can I adapt my public involvement during social distancing?
  3. What platforms are available to me?
  4. How can I make sure that my public involvement is appropriate and not burdensome on those I want to involve?
  5. What can I do if public involvement is not appropriate?
  6. How can the RDS support me?

Advice on virtual meetings will help: 

Simon Denegri’s blog provides a useful overview and discusses how research organisations are approaching remote engagement and involvement in the current crisis.

Don't forget about governance 
The UK standards for public involvement and our newly-developed RDS public involvement guide offer helpful ways to consider who to involve in your public involvement and how to find them. It’s always important to be clear and explicit about the purpose of your public involvement, timescales, and payments offered. 

We also need to be mindful of any stress our contributors may be under at this time, especially as we may be asking them to quickly review proposals. Keep in regular contact with your public contributors and maintain good records on availability, contact, and working preferences. See the Public involvement during COVID-19 statement and guidance from RDS South East.

There are other guidance and resources for public involvement for applicants to NIHR research (but these may or may not be relevant for remote involvement and social isolation).

Working together and communicating better
Engagement in a virtual environment is different from a face-to-face meeting. If a camera is on during a virtual meeting, people in the meeting are inadvertently looking into someone’s personal space. Researchers need to be mindful of people’s privacy. If either researchers or members of the public are especially concerned about privacy and security, there is software such as Signal and Telegram that provide more secure communication environments. Virtual engagement requires a lot more concentration than a physical meeting, therefore time spent on a virtual meeting is precious. 

What we have learned so far

  • Aim to have no more than eight people for research meetings
  • A good Chairperson is as necessary online as they are offline  
  • If meetings need to last for more an hour, build in appropriate comfort breaks
  • Let attendees know in advance which platform you’ve agreed on using 
  • Offer for one person to provide technical and practical support before the meeting starts
  • Distribute the agenda early and send instructions on how to join (at least one week before the meeting if possible)
  • Show where the mute button is so that people joining know how to use it. Background noise is distracting, and only when someone is talking should they have their sound on
  • Ask each person individually if they have anything to say so everyone gets a fair chance to contribute. Be mindful that some public contributors may be less confident speaking on a video conference - they may like to submit comments in advance or afterwards
  • Dedicate a time slot for public contributors to talk. This allows for other matters to be raised, to gather feedback about their meeting experience, and for any other comments
  • Use the planned agenda as a guide to mark out how much time should be spent on each item. Timekeeping is even more important when working together virtually.

“We use Zoom and have clear guidelines for both the researcher and the public contributors. We also agreed to start small and only invite two public members to our first online session to ensure we could cope with the technology and the difficulties of chairing an online panel.”
RDS Adviser 

Make it inclusive 
Online engagement may not always be inclusive. Some people may not have access to technology or feel comfortable with this way of working. It is important to continue to offer other ways of being involved - phone, email, or post. Find out what methods people prefer to use and test online platforms. If you are using an online collaboration tool, choose one which allows you to see people’s faces. A face to the name is better than just a name. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement has explored several platforms for online engagement.

Impact and evaluation
To understand the processes and activities that have taken place it is important to continue to evaluate public involvement. Evaluation should be dynamic and ongoing. The East of England impact toolkit by Elspeth Mathie has been adapted to evaluate the quality of public involvement through the use of the UK Standards. It is also useful for:

  • informing public contributors how their feedback was used
  • understanding how the research has changed as a result of the public involvement activities. 

Evaluate virtual working
It is also important to evaluate the virtual methods used to conduct your public involvement. If everyone has agreed to an online meeting, as well as checking in with people during the meeting, a brief questionnaire can be sent, or you can call participants for feedback on both the technology and how they are feeling. Gathering this information will help you improve remote involvement in the future.

Continue with your public involvement
While many things have changed as a result of COVID-19, research will continue as will public involvement. With careful, considerate planning and engagement, remote public involvement is achievable. The social contact of public involvement during this time will be welcomed by many. And always remember to use people's feedback to improve your public involvement delivery.

As with all public involvement, there is no one size fits all. We are all learning as we go. We encourage you to share your experiences with us  and each other using the NIHR INVOLVE shared resource.

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