Evaluation of the impact of Essex Community Action Site upon Attitudes, Behaviour and public health Systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. Essex
Evaluation completed in June 2022
What does the research mean for Local Authorities?
A social media community page was set up in Essex to enable statutory partners to respond to the wants and needs of the community during the pandemic. The project was a rapid response by Essex County Council shortly after the first lockdown in March 2020 and adopted a digital community development approach to cultivate physical Community action out of digital interaction.
The findings demonstrate that a Local authority managed, community led, social media intervention can be a powerful means of engaging with the public during a pandemic. It can be a viable alternative to a traditional model of communication where the public is conceived as an audience rather than a community and it can act as an adjunct or amplifier rather than as a complete replacement for other approaches. Central to this approach is a genuine collaboration between the local authority, content producers, expert community builders, and grassroots social media influencers rooted in the local community. It requires strong and risk tolerant support from the Local Authority and leadership that understands the two cultures involved in the partnership. The structure of the group, and roles of social media influencers will likely change significantly over time, and planning needs to be flexible to account for this. Although the intervention developed quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the model has potential to address a wider range of issues.
What does the evaluation research mean for the Public?
During a pandemic, the public needs access to information and support in order to understand complex government guidance. It is important that the information and support is trustworthy and timely and a large proportion (89%) of the members who responded to our survey agreed they were confident in the information provided by ECAS site, and a majority felt they co-owned the site in partnership with the council and health authorities.
The role of local social media influences was important because they were able to produce high-quality content that will used local references and humour to make it relevant and engaging. It was recognised that not all members of the public use social media, so it is best seen alongside other approaches, rather than replacing them.
How are the public involved in the evaluation
A Lay Advisory Panel of 5 members was put in place to support the development and implementation of this evaluation. This panel are all members of the social media group either as administrators or as members. The panel met regularly to discuss issues such as research design, ethics of data collection and user interaction with the group. They also contributed to data collection tool design and recruitment strategies and have provided feedback on emerging findings and a knowledge mobilisation plan that will inform wider dissemination.
Lay summary of research
What is this evaluation about?
Essex County Council set up Facebook page and group at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic. It is called “Essex Coronavirus Action Support” (ECAS). The aim of this evaluation is to find out whether a Facebook page and group was successful in giving residents of Essex the information and support they needed during the Covid-19 pandemic. We will also find out what it was about the Facebook site that made it successful.
What do we already know?
Social media platforms like Facebook are increasingly being used by health organisations and local councils as a way to help improve people’s health. They are often used as a way to share information about health issues and can be a way of reaching a lot of people. The Covid-19 pandemic was a time when people needed a lot of new information very quickly.
What don’t we know?
We do not know whether sharing information about Covid-19 on Facebook is a better way of increasing people’s knowledge than other ways of sharing information that Councils might use, such as leaflets and posters. We also do not know whether Facebook pages and groups are a good way to provide support to people and to encourage people to support each other offline such as through volunteering. Lastly, we do not know the best way for a Council to set up and run a Facebook page and how to get the community involved in this.
Why is an evaluation necessary?
Our evaluation will help us to know whether Facebook pages and groups are a useful way for local councils to provide information and support about health issues for their communities. It will help councils to know the best way to set up social media sites. It will also tell them what they need to think about when they run social media sites.
How will it be carried out?
We will carry out a survey of two groups of people. One group will be people who use the ECAS site. The other group will be people who use Facebook but haven’t used the ECAS site. We will conduct a ‘social network analysis’ which will help us understand how people shared information. We will also look at the posts made during particular times of the pandemic to find out how people used the site and how they reacted to information. Finally, we will interview council staff and the Facebook Group administrators.
What will we do with the results?
The findings will describe and explain how successful the project has been. It will explain whether social media sites such as Facebook are an effective way for councils to inform and support their residents about health issues such as Covid 19. It will also describe what Council need to do to make projects such as these successful. The results will be shared with Essex Council and with the users of the Facebook Group. They will also be circulated in academic papers and briefing papers for the public health sector.
Essex County Council and ECAS members – Kirsty O’Callaghan, Neave Beard, Charlotte Britton, Fiona Simmons-Jones, Cate White, Emmy McCarthy, Neel Mookerjee, Siobhan Vaughan, Jon Morter, Jan Burton
PHIRST South Bank Research Team
Prof Daniel Frings (PI), Prof Andrew Whitaker (PI), Dr Megan Watkins, Dr Jaime Mallon, Dr Chris Flood, Prof Susie Sykes, Prof Jane Wills, Ms Grace Wang, Ms Catelyn Woelfe, Ms Ella Barry