Net Equality - Sharing our Learning


In this final blog post, Christine Goodall, HEAR Network Coordinator, reflects on our Sharing Our Learning online event on 28th September, and looks forward to possible next steps and different ways we will be using what we’ve learned. 


Sharing our Learning online event


We were pleased to have a really wide range of people participating in the event, with different perspectives and priorities to contribute and different ways they were connected to Net Equality. In addition to project partners, we were joined by a number of members of our ‘Experts in Access’ group, people who had otherwise participated directly in the project, some colleagues who had supported us in the very first developmental stages and had followed the project with interest, and one of our fellow Cornerstone Round 1 funded projects.


We started by demonstrating the different tools we had used during the project, and refreshing everyone on the activities we had delivered, and how we had come to build a co-design process that clearly signalled the project as a journey of learning, ‘naming’ each section as an ‘experiment’. 


We had found that both partners and participants had initially found it difficult to adapt to a project where learning and experimentation were key components, rather than working to fixed activities and outputs. Creating a set of ‘experiments’ to work on was key to signalling to all of us that it was ‘OK to learn’ - you can find out more details about the experiments here. Sitting above the experiments was the Net Equality Community. Creating this enabled participants to feel they were part of something where everyone involved wanted to share and learn together; they could choose to be involved in some or all of the project without having to feel committed to everything; and they could trust those who they were engaging with (more about this further on in this blog).


At the event, we then went on to share what we had learned, and invite participants to share their thoughts, feedback and experiences to add to our learning. Finally we shared some ideas for a possible future project building on this work and again invited comment and feedback from our guests. 


What we learned 


In our original application to the Cornerstone Fund we said we would explore the use of mapping as an active, participatory tool for building solidarity and connecting VCS organisations across London, particularly grassroots, user-led and equality specialist groups. We found that the activity of mapping was extremely helpful in supporting people to think about their existing connections and networks in a more holistic way, and identify key and potential allies, and gaps in their networks. It also gave participants new skills and confidence, and importantly handed more power to those at the grassroots by involving them in experimentation from the beginning.

However we learned that it is important to start with ideation rather than specific tools; whilst the mapping process was extremely useful, it became clear that the tools we identified at the start of the project were not sufficient or fit for purpose to deliver all that was needed by beneficiaries; we learned not to take a ‘tools first’ approach.

We also learned that it is important to recognise the time needed to engage in network mapping, and that if you are hoping to have smaller organisations and individuals actively using the map, resources of time are key. Skills and support needs are also important factors. Accessibility for people with a wide range of access needs must be factored in from the outset, and continuously checked and improved with input from experts by experience. It is important to recognise their expertise, and sufficient time and funding for iterative testing and feedback is vital.

We also learned a lot about working in partnership with a diverse range of different partners of different sizes, scope, culture and resources, and including individual consultants as well as VCS organisations. The ability to do this was one of the valued parts of being a Cornerstone project, but we learned that it is important to keep checking in on assumptions and to concentrate on relationship building as well as delivery.

Our evaluation also showed up the importance of avoiding ’design by committee’ in the search for co-production. We learned that it is ‘OK’ to try different things alongside each other so as not to get ‘stuck’ where nothing can move forward. Balancing the two sides of a design approach can be complex, but important if a project is to succeed.

Despite challenges this project produced many significant achievements. We tried out new tools and approaches, we managed to bring together a very diverse group of partners to work together, and our members engaged actively and enthusiastically, valuing greatly being involved in something ‘from the bottom up’. We learned a great deal about what our members and others need from, and can contribute to, networks and how networks function. We developed a joint campaigning framework co-produced with our members and enabled people to develop skills and confidence, as well as new connections. 


What event participants told us


We learned that when conducting projects which are both experimental and rely on sharing information, trust and security are extremely important. This was an important theme in the project, and we spent time thinking about this, including introducing the Net Equality Community. At our event, participants told us that they could connect using social media, for example Twitter and Facebook, but they found this difficult from a trust and security point of view, as they were never sure who they were communicating with. The Net Equality Community enabled them to share in a much more trusted environment.

The Covid-19 emergency presented very significant challenges to the project. We had planned many face to face activities around network mapping and only one was able to take place, all others needing to be virtual. The face to face event, organised by Inclusion London with disability campaigners in Greenwich (read more about it here), showed us the great potential for this type of delivery, and it was challenging not to be able to replicate it. At the Greenwich event participants reported that the act of thinking about their networks in a holistic way and where their points of influence were, was extremely helpful, and being able to use large sheets of paper on tables, especially with some participants having different access needs, was really supportive of the process. We invested time and creativity into delivering virtual workshops, but it must be recognised that this method of delivery changed the project. This impact was reflected in contributions by attendees at the event. However, one positive consequence of virtual engagement was that some people who find it difficult to attend events in person because of mobility problems or caring responsibilities for example, found it easier to engage.

However attendees reminded us of the importance of digital inclusion in any technically based project, reflecting our own learning about factoring time, skills and support needed to engage at a grassroots or individual level. Participants also stressed the importance of remembering the strategic uses of network mapping and analysis by larger and infrastructure organisations, which in turn supports the activities and campaigns of smaller and grassroots groups and campaigners. We were also reminded about the importance of keeping up frequent enough communications with project participants in between activities, events and meetings, for example through project newsletters that could keep people engaged with items on new map members, technical tips etc.  We will certainly factor this in to future work. 


What about the future?


We have developed a draft outline for a future project, which still needs refinement before we decide about possible future funding. We have used all our learning, pilots and experiments to develop a framework of what we think is needed for equalities groups and campaigners to successfully connect, campaign, flag allies, work together and build solidarity in a trusted environment. We have developed ‘user case’ examples and sample user journeys in order to test the appropriateness and efficacy of our plans, and to make sure that using this system would not be duplicating any other way of doing similar things, but would be more effective in achieveing the desired user outcomes.


Image of a potential digital tool user interface, supporting connecting a key worker with Bangladeshi disabled men in Brent


Our plans need more refinement and development before we decide on future projects, but are a strong foundation for the next steps in HEAR’s work.


In addition to any possible new project, many of the outcomes will be used to further build and support our network of equalities focused organisations and campaigners. The Campaign Pies framework model will be used to support the building of solidarity around specific themes and issues and facilitate joint campaigning and influencing work. The learning we have around how people use the networks they are part of and how these are grown will also be used across HEAR’s work. The network map will be used strategically to spot points of influence, key organisations and people, spot gaps and strengthen the network further. As HEAR currently has more than 1,000 members, these outcomes have great potential to have a wide reach. In addition, a number of the participants have expressed the wish to become more involved in network mapping beyond this project, and have been supported by one of our partners, who is starting a Community of Practice on network mapping funded by Lankelly Chase.


Overall our event participants expressed very positive feedback about the achievements of the project, and were very supportive of ideas for future development, which were described as ‘exciting and full of potential’. This project has been challenging, exciting, interesting, frustrating, stretching and rewarding. Our members and beneficiaries and wider network have gained greatly from the work done, and as well as the practical outcomes outlined, we have learned so much to take forward for the future. We have been very grateful to the Cornerstone Fund and to the National Lottery Community Fund for the opportunity to deliver such an innovative and experimental project, and being able to be part of a Cornerstone ‘family’ of projects learning together and tackling the more challenging problems within the overall systems within which we work.