Pilot Study: Banyule remote engagements
This pilot study was led by Dr. Brian Cook and conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Melbourne. The pilot was in partnership with The Banyule City Council and the Victoria University of the Third Age (U3A). These groups identified a shared interest in empowering communities to be more resilient, informed, and prepared for disasters and emergencies, especially in the context of flood risk.
Our research aims to better understand public perceptions of risk and preparedness at the household scale, measure the impact of relationship building on participants’ behaviours, identify potential spillover effects, and better inform future community engagement and emergency service practices.
The primary purpose of the pilot was to trial a remote (as opposed to traditional doorknocking) community engagement methodology in response to Covid-19.
Activities and methods
Participants were recruited from the University of the Third Age in the Banyule City Council area. U3A identified 60 members who were willing to participate, and shared their contact details with the CEDRR team to schedule suitable engagement times.
The CEDRR methodology involves multiple engagements with participants, which combine a quantitative survey with open ended questions to foster a deeper conversation that is recorded for qualitative analysis. Surveys were conducted via Zoom or telephone, according to participant preference.
The first engagement sought to understand the participant’s lived experience of risk, the risk mitigation actions taken or intended to be taken by the household, and contextual factors including community connections and demographics. These engagements take approximately 30 minutes, although when the participant felt inclined to share stories and deeper reflections the conversations lasted up to 2.5 hours. This engagement forms the beginning of the relationship between the research team and the participant. During July and August 2021, 45 initial engagements were completed.
Approximately four months later, the CEDRR team reached out to participants for a follow-up engagement. Where possible, CEDRR researchers were matched to the original participants to aid the potential for relationship-building. Participants were asked whether they had taken further actions to address flood and other risks in their household since the initial interview, and invited to reflect on successes, barriers, whether they were still interested in taking these actions, and if they had prompted others in their community to take action. Lastly, participants were asked to provide feedback on the CEDRR methodology, in particular why they had chosen to participate, and what they had found valuable about the process. With 12 participants uncontactable and 5 not wishing to participate further, total of 30 follow-up engagements were completed.
Reflected by the sample of participants referred by University of the Third Age, this study focuses on these issues specifically from the perspective of senior citizens. While this means the findings of the study cannot be extrapolated to the general population, they do provide rich insight into seniors’ experiences and perceptions of risk at the household and community scale.
Summary of findings (for more detail see Research Outputs):
It is possible to conduct meaningful community engagement and relationship building remotely.Regardless of whether engagements happened on zoom or phone, they were consistently engaging, and often deeply personal conversations.
One third of participants had spoken to families, neighbours, and risk following the initial engagement. This suggests that the experience and/or the content of the engagement was considered worthy of sharing, and in this way, risk preparedness can ripple out through the community.
Prior experience of emergencies and disasters is likely to prompt effort in household risk reduction. Participants who have experienced environmental hazards were consistently more likely to put at least a ‘little’ effort into household risk reduction, in comparison to those who had not previously experienced environmental hazards.
Spending the time creating quality engagements leads to stronger intentions and decisions to act. During the follow up engagements, our participants were often surprised to hear from us again, and generally remembered our researchers and their conversations more than the risk related content. Many participants admitted that they had not yet taken actions, but the prompt of the follow up, and the opportunity to reflect on inaction and whether they were interested in these actions saw many participants give stronger indications of wanting to act.
Older communities are not passive recipients of risk. Despite identifying ‘the elderly’ as vulnerable, nearly three quarters of participants (almost all aged over 65) did not consider themselves to be vulnerable. Vulnerability was highly linked to independence, regardless of age. Many participants felt connected, cared for, and supported by at least some of their neighbours and communities, and these highly active networks of care formed through organisations like U3A serve to mitigate vulnerability.
Covid was largely absent from perceptions of risk among our elderly participants. At a time in history when we were hearing constantly about the vulnerability of the elderly, catching Covid was rarely mentioned as a risk of primary concern. Many participants were more concerned about the isolation and breakdown of social networks of care due to lockdowns than the health risk of Covid itself.
There are many exceptions to the 'rationality' that is often assumed to guide decision making in disaster risk reduction policy and practice. These exceptions include a higher priority given to managing health issues, a lack of incentive to take risk reduction actions when living alone without loved ones to care for, spiritual or superstitious reasons such as not wanting to summon risk by thinking too much about it, and not wanting to waste time preparing for risk one might not be around to see. These motivations behind decisions to engage in risk reduction behaviour, or actively avoid it, potentially shed light on persistent participant inaction reported by risk reduction practitioners.
Relationship building models can have powerful co-benefits. Due to a lack of familiarity and confidence with technology, it was necessary to incorporate an element of digital literacy training to achieve the CEDRR engagements. In the follow-up engagements we heard that participants subsequently felt empowered to use digital services such as telehealth. Through these engagements, CEDRR researchers were also able to provide conversation and a sense of support to people who were very isolated during Covid, as was often appreciated by participants. Finally, by funding participation, the CEDRR project was able to channel funding towards the very community organisations that are often critical for community resilience and risk response.
Our research has impacts on our researchers. Engaging communities in relationship building is a two-way dialogue which affects the community members and researchers involved. While practitioners have traditionally measured the ways in which participatory methodologies affects the public, our research has shown that relationship building research also supports greater risk reduction and community resilience on behalf of involved researchers. Through the process of conducting community engagements, researchers critically reflected on and changed their risk perceptions, intentions, and behaviours. Moreover, these impacts spilled over to affect researchers’ households, social networks, and wider communities; by increasing social practices of disaster risk reduction and community resilience. By self-reflexively analysing the ways in which researchers’ also ‘participate’ in community engagements, we can better understand how relationship building is coproduced by, and beneficially affects, both sides of the engagement. Measuring the ways in which community engagement spills over to affect researchers can also help us better appreciate how doing ‘good’ research spills ‘back’ over to improve the facilitation and objectives of the research program.
The findings of the pilot were used to inform the current project.