“It was really crucial that the engagement team had the ability to create, shape and respond to online interactions without needing to be dependent on our IT department for support. I think the ease of use of EngagementHQ, [and ability to] get the project up and running really quickly, was a key factor in our decision to use this platform.”
Geoff Wilson, Director of Community Engagement and Health Board Support, Nova Scotia Health Authority.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) is unearthing vital community insights across the province through their dedicated online engagement space Engage4Health. In the year of its launch, the site drew over 9,000 contacts of informed and engaged participants, complementing offline engagement with around 1,000 people in 42 face to face meetings.
Sustaining a growing, province-wide conversation
When the Nova Scotia Health Authority asked the province how they would like to be consulted in 2015 and 2018, support for online engagement grew by nearly 30%. Internal buy-in tells a similar story.
“The more you use the online engagement platform, the more that it will be in demand because we can actually show people rather than tell them about it,” says Geoff Wilson, Director of Community Engagement and Health Board Support at the NSHA.
For an organization at the size and scope of the NSHA, having a flexible online engagement platform to have vital conversations with internal and external stakeholders remains an essential supplement to offline engagement. Online engagement continues to fill the gaps in bringing specific audiences and demographics into consultations. As Wilson continues, “I don’t think we as a public engagement team would ever say the online site replaces face to face engagement. But we’re coming to recognize for sure it only makes sense that for certain audiences in particular – certain demographics – the online thing as a consultation mechanism is an absolute essential.”
Nova Scotia Health Authority’s online engagement evolution
The NHSA began their community engagement journey as a recently formed organization in 2015 with a three-year, large-scale, province-wide public engagement initiative called Talk About Health. The objective was to build a conversation about achieving better health for the population. As pointed out by engagement communications, growing public expenditure on health care did not seem to translate into better health. The consultation asked the community to reflect on the meaning of health for individuals, communities, and the province as a whole. This conversation was to include issues such as mental health, life expectancy, heart disease, cancer, obesity, arthritis, and how issues may relate to social and economic factors. The initiative brought Nova Scotians into conversation with each other, community stakeholders and the health authority.
Beyond the first phase of Talk About Health, in response to a change in the health authorities’ organizational priorities, the NHSA engagement team shifted focus from the initial broad theme to a range of program-specific projects around local planning and supporting consultation for Community Health Boards.
As the NSHA’s engagement evolved, the platform needed to be able to capture insight across a large community of stakeholders for both province-wide engagement as well as shorter-term self-contained projects. EHQ catered to the needs of both province-wide engagement as well as self-contained projects.
In addition to the capabilities of the EHQ platform, the ease of use was an important factor in the NHSA’s decision to select the platform for their online initiatives, as the engagement team had to be able to manage online activities independently of the IT department. Comprehensive on-site training and round-the-clock support helped the NHSA engagement team find their way around the platform and tap into the potential of online engagement.
Enabling a community-wide reflection on organizational values
The Nova Scotia Health Authority’s first strategic plan, ‘Healthier Together’, was a three-year plan launched in 2016. Looking ahead, the Board of Directors and Executive felt the need to refresh and revisit some of its key elements, even as its core remained relevant. They wanted to activate a conversation on the organizational values selected in 2016 by taking these values out to the stakeholders and communities for review. In addition, one of the strategic directions in the 2016 plan related to population health status improvement needed a renewed focus. It was, therefore, going to be crucial to get input from a wide cross-section of stakeholders, staff, and community.
The NSHA’s online engagement spoke to the general public. But it responded to the needs of specific audiences and stakeholders where necessary, creating the closed spaces that could effectively support these conversations. It was apparent that their outreach strategy would have to provide different kinds of opportunities and methods to cater to how both wider community and specific audiences would need to have their say on various aspects of the strategic plan renewal.
Supporting different audiences and ‘open’ and ‘closed’ spaces
Distinguishing the needs of their target audiences and participants, the engagement team created both open and closed online engagement spaces. Open’ refers to the spaces and activities available to the general public where anyone could go to have their say, while ‘closed’ refers to those forums available only to specific types of participants or communities such as staff, practitioners and internal stakeholders. This was aligned with the different types of questions that were relevant to the public in contrast to what was relevant to the staff, physicians and internal stakeholders in the health authorities.
Open forums asked for a community-wide, broad review of the strategic directions and values that shape health services in the province. On the other hand, closed forums addressed each of the organizational values in addition to asking wider questions around how people related to the values.
The team wanted to provide staff and physicians with opportunities to share their experiences around the first strategic plan and provide input on where the organization could go from there. The use of the storytelling tool in the closed engagement space gave people a way to narrate their experiences of use, needs, expectations, and gaps in the first strategic plan.
Closed engagement spaces supported staff and the physician community to share input and discuss internal themes freely. These spaces supported a more intimate conversation where participants could also use a greater variety of tools and ways to interact. This way, participants could choose the depth and scope of their contribution to the conversation.
Despite having to get the online consultations going in a short window of time, the NSHA gathered high-quality information from a cross-section of internal participants. However, the engagement team suggested that more lead time and greater promotions could have addressed more barriers and widened internal participation.
The open engagement spaces with the public reflected the closed spaces in some ways, with surveys and brainstorming tools on offer to collect input on the strategic directions. However, these spaces also accounted for how the wider community may not have been as close to the details of the first strategic plan as internal stakeholders. This translated to a simpler engagement strategy which shaped the choice of the number and types of tools chosen put to use on the site.
This differentiated approach did eventually reveal points of convergence on ideas and feedback between these audiences. Various themes emerging through the intimate discussions of the closed engagement spaces were consistent with the views coming in from the general public. These additional contexts and dimensions to the data enabled greater clarity in the organization’s review of the values and what those values in action meant for internal and external communities.
Engagement in the health sector requires secure spaces for participants to share knowledge, experiences, and discuss issues which can be deeply personal and intimate. Emotional privacy is a crucial priority in creating the infrastructure for honest input and feedback around such sensitive themes. Health sector consultations have to provide opportunities for participants to tell their stories freely in a supportive and safe environment. The engagement environment plays a significant role in determining the quality of information and insight collected.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority’s closed engagement spaces resonated with the needs of patient family volunteers across the province. These stakeholders are a distributed community who would ordinarily have few opportunities beyond their immediate groups to interact with each and share knowledge. In addition to providing opportunities for input and feedback, the closed engagement spaces gave these participants a way to create a community of peer support and learning.
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