Waltham Forest: COVID-19 research and engagement - Recovery Citizen’s Panel

Research and engagement is at the heart of our COVID-19 response and our Recovery Citizens Panel is one of the best examples of our approach. Representative of the diversity of our borough, it was formed to rapidly turn around insight to drive our strategic decision-making processes.

The Panel affords deep understanding of residents’ changing experience, attitudes and behaviours around the pandemic each time new issues arise, capturing opinion through short surveys, focus groups and interviews on matters such as testing and vaccination take up. Through this our Public Health, Communications and COVID-19 Delivery teams are better able to deliver targeted and impactful responses each time guidance and restrictions evolve.

The challenge

Several weeks into the pandemic it became clear that government guidelines and regulations would continue to evolve rapidly and with this the attitudes, experiences and needs of our diverse communities who depend on our services. The negative impact of the pandemic on our residents required a research and engagement approach that could respond to changing needs in real-time.

Alongside this, we knew from our resident surveys, focus groups, 1:1 interviews and national research that the resident experience around issues like self-isolation, vaccination, social compliance and testing were not uniform or constant and were not affecting our residents equally.

The challenge was therefore to adapt our research and engagement framework to enable us to more deeply understand the breadth and nuance of resident experience and therefore ensure that we deliver an effective public health and communications strategy that is tailored to residents’ current needs and views, and ultimately saves as many lives as possible.

The solution

Our solution was to set up a Citizens Panel that was representative of the diverse identities and experiences of our borough. It consisted of residents who would commit to engaging in regular research activities over a 12-month period.

We recruited 75 residents to the Panel who were representative of the borough’s population in terms of ethnicity, gender, age, disability and socio-economic status. In signing up, they agreed to participate in a range of qualitative and quantitative activities such as monthly surveys, focus groups, interviews, videos and panel-wide discussions.

In order to ensure residents of all backgrounds are able to participate, we offer quarterly incentives with additional incentive payments for ad hoc activities such as focus groups. This has resulted in consistent engagement throughout, meaning that our findings are always reliably representative.

Every research activity is designed, delivered, analysed and reported on within a ten-day cycle, which ensures that research responds quickly to current trends and produces findings that are relevant and useful. Findings are disseminated within three days of the activity, combining analysis, narrative and visual design that ensure key insights and recommendations clearly communicate the depth and breadth of resident experience and can be quickly understood by decision-makers.

The impact

The Citizens Panel has created an even stronger evidence base from which senior management can make their decisions, keeping key decision makers closely connected with the mood and behaviour of our residents.

For example, when we received intelligence from the Public Health team that transmission rates were high among the South Asian community, we quickly set up a focus group with our panel members who have South Asian heritage to understand the impact the pandemic was having on them. We explored their attitudes to social distancing, where they look to for information and their level of compliance with government guidelines. The findings from this heavily influenced our communications strategy and fed into our Public Health team’s approach. Transmission rates ultimately reduced in this community, which of course we cannot attribute to the research directly, but we hope had some part to play in this reduction.

As the panel is managed in-house, rather than as a commissioned piece, the costs of running the panel are low. The only direct expense is the incentives which will equate to around £5,000 for the year. Staff with expertise in research, data analysis and service design spend between them a total of four or five days per week on the project.

We have had a very encouraging response from participants about their participation in Panel activities. Members tell us they are very happy that the council is providing opportunities for them to be listened to as well as to offer their own lived experience expertise to help us tackle pressing issues.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Engagement is sustained through regular incentive payments to participants as well as monthly newsletters to keep everyone up to date. At any engagement events, we emphasise how critical their input has been in shaping our public health approach, giving them concrete examples of how different pieces of research have had a positive outcome. This keeps participants connected to the purpose of the project, creates a sense of democratic ownership and ensures they understand the difference they are making in the collective pandemic effort.

Lessons learned

  • Quick turnaround and rapid dissemination of reports is crucial for the insights to remain timely and relevant. An internal, multidisciplinary project team ensures this is effective and that learning is maintained in the organization.
  • A multi-pronged research approach which incorporates both qualitative and quantitative methods allows measurement of mood and attitude shift throughout the pandemic, as well as providing in-depth detail about target groups.
  • Once we established and sustained a high level of engagement with members, we were able to use this pool of engaged residents to contribute to other projects which were not foreseen at the outset of the project. For example we offered paid opportunities for BAME members to be involved in a borough-wide video campaign that will be developed in February.


Carla Johnson, Research and Consultation Manager