21 June 2021
Mike Bell is Patient and Public Involvement Facilitator at ARC West. Here he reflects on enabling public involvement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I facilitated the last face-to-face public involvement meeting before the first lockdown on 16 March 2020. It was a Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG) meeting. We already knew coronavirus was with us (even if the government hadn’t quite come to terms with it). We’d seen what was happening in Italy and I’d called everyone that morning to make sure they were all happy to attend. It felt daring, if a little scary and just a bit unsettling. I couldn’t have predicted then that 15 months later, that face-to-face meeting would still be the last one I attended.
So, what have I been up to since then? Of course, health research didn’t stop for COVID-19. Researchers still wanted to talk to people about their research and now we had a whole new disease to study that nobody knew much about.
I just checked my diary and I had my first online meeting with colleagues using the Bluejeans platform (who remembers that?) a week later and my first Zoom meeting a few days after that. My first public involvement meeting wasn’t until 20 April and it was another YPAG. It proved to be a steep learning curve. Finding myself online, talking to a young boy alone in his bedroom made me realise we needed some new protocols for online meetings. This included leaving people in waiting rooms until we’d been joined by at least one other adult and not allowing under 16s to join a meeting without a parent or responsible adult present. Online became the new normal and Zoom rapidly became the preferred platform – at least with public contributors.
While I still prefer a face-to-face meeting, it can’t be denied that having online meetings has brought some benefits. Dragging people into central Bristol and making them sit in formal seminar rooms has become a thing of the past and I’ve forgotten that sinking feeling when you’ve finally found an agreed time and date for everyone to meet only to find there isn’t a suitable room available or the caterers are busy that day (do caterers still even exist?).
While we may have lost a few people who don’t have access to the technology required for online meetings or just don’t like talking on screen, we’ve gained a wider group of people who either don’t live within reach of our offices or have jobs that prevent them travelling in and out of Bristol for a one hour meeting. I recently had a public contributor calling in from the Highlands of Scotland to join a meeting alongside someone in Ipswich, a place I usually refer to as the far-east.
Evening meetings have become a “thing” this year which means we get access to more people of working age. And no longer do they mean me and a couple of researchers hanging around the office until 7pm for a meeting that may or may not finish at 8pm, following which you have to tidy up the room and wash up any crockery before schlepping home by 10pm.
There are downsides to online meetings of course. They aren’t as sociable as face-to-face meetings. We’ve lost those informal chats with people who arrive early or hang around after a meeting where you can learn so much. Nor do I see friendships forming in Zoom meetings in the same way they might while discussing things in a shared physical space over lunch. I know from my YPAG group members that while they prefer not having to travel to meetings, they miss the chat, the learning opportunities and certainly the pizza.
Create to collaborate (C2C) was another project that fell a little foul of COVID. It was originally planned as a chance for public contributors and academics to meet in a creative session in the morning before doing the real business after lunch. The theory was that it would build better working relationships by removing any innate “power dynamics”. I couldn’t see how we could ever do this online. However, I take my hat off to the team who developed a shorter online session which, despite having no pottery or food, managed to create an atmosphere that was fun, supportive and allowed people to feel free to share their opinions without any fear of criticism.
So, where to from here? As a public involvement facilitator, my main skill is making people feel welcome and comfortable. I also like to feed people. I firmly believe you get more from a discussion which takes place while huddled around a table with a cuppa and a sticky bun than you will ever get in an online “break-out” room. Sadly, I do think we will retain online meetings or move to the dreaded (by me at least) “blended” meetings for a while yet. In my heart though, I look forward to when face-to-face meetings become the new new normal.