Planning ahead for our members

15 July 2020, Debbie Wood, Executive Director of Membership & External Affairs, CIEH

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Coronavirus crept up on an unsuspecting world without much fanfare and, within a very short space of time, managed to turn it upside down.

Every aspect of our lives has since been affected, and it’s fair to say that nothing will ever be quite the same again.

At CIEH, as with all membership organisations, our focus is on supporting the needs of our members. However, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown rapidly changed both the nature of those needs and what we had to do to continue to support them.

As the professional organisation for the environmental health community, we were acutely aware that our members would be playing a critical role in safeguarding the public’s health. While we are used to providing the support, information and representation our members expect, the nature of the crisis made it clear that we needed to adapt and respond, while also managing the impact of the coronavirus on us as an organisation.

At a very early stage, we made the decision to reprioritise our activity to focus all our efforts on the coronavirus response, providing practical guidance to support our members’ frontline work, and engaging with governments in England, Northern Ireland and Wales to highlight the important role the profession is playing.

Internally, we established a joint team of staff to meet daily to lead on policy, lobbying and communications, which in turn is supported by our member panels and a Coronavirus Action Team made up of member volunteers.

As we quickly began to issue news, blogs, guidance and resources, we created a dedicated section on our website to gather this content together in one place to ensure that members could quickly access the latest information. To further ensure our members were kept up-to-date on developments, we established a weekly email update to report on the latest government regulations and directives and what we were doing in response to them, while also changing the frequency and focus of our EHN Extra newsletter.

However, we realised that in addition to merely accessing the latest information, what our members and the wider environmental health community really needed was a means to engage and discuss the latest issues online. Enter webinars.

We swiftly replaced our planned 2020 webinar content and responded with a series of five regional webinars, christened 'Covid-Conversations', in early April. Their enormous popularity led us to swiftly introduce a weekly programme of webinars that included a general Q&A session on Tuesdays and a complementary subject-specific webinar on Thursdays. We also made the decision to open these up to members and non-members alike to ensure that there was no barrier to accessing professional engagement, support and best practice at this critical time.

The response to our activity during the pandemic has been incredibly positive. However having mobilised all our efforts to focus on coronavirus as the pandemic took hold, we now recognise that we need to move towards a new normality in both our professional and personal lives and look to delivering long term, sustainable solutions for our membership products and services, most notably our events offering. We also need to ensure that we can continue as a viable organisation, especially in light of the financial challenges that many organisations like us are experiencing.

The success of the webinars particularly stood out and, in enabling us to quickly address topical issues with audiences unrestricted by geography, we believe that they have demonstrated that they have a vital role to play, not only in supporting our coronavirus response, but in our plans for the future. So while we will continue to provide these, we also need to start reducing their current frequency. This is partly to ensure that we can resource other areas and activity, but also so we can allow some of the staff who have worked incredibly hard to deliver them a much needed break.

We plan to run our well regarded Q&A sessions on a monthly basis from September, continuing the opportunity for members to connect and share information. To complement these regular online discussions, we will look for opportunities to respond in a flexible and responsive way to announcements and member needs with topical webinars, some of which will remain free as a benefit of membership. We will also need to introduce a nominal fee for non-members to attend to ensure that we can sustain them over the long term.

A wider strategy for membership engagement and our professional development event offerings has been pushed forward in the light of the pandemic as more people reach for online solutions. As part of this, we are pleased to introduce a pilot online training programme with a series of two-hour legal training sessions with Julie Barratt. We will continue to develop this model and are aiming to make more of our technical training available online in due course.

While we will look at further opportunities to do this, we still recognise the value of face-to-face networking events for providing growth opportunities at a personal and professional level. Not all our training is suitable content for online delivery in its present format and so providing a comprehensive, blended event programme, which is inclusive for all members and evolves with their needs, is our goal.

While our planning is ultimately going to be led by the outcomes of the pandemic’s ongoing resolution, we are currently preparing to pick up the delivery of our physical events programme from this Autumn. In preparation, we have been closely liaising with the dedicated team at our venue, 15Hatfields, and working to government guidance to ensure that these can be run as safely as possible for our delegates, trainers and staff. Exciting event projects which include hybrid and virtual conferences are all coming soon for the Autumn schedule.

We hope that these developments and measures will enable us to provide our members with a diverse range of high-quality opportunities going forward to debate and discuss the latest thinking and essential legislative updates.

Remember that CIEH is your organisation – we exist for our members, and we really need your continued support to enable us to continue to do that. We also need more EHPs to join us, and you can help us with this. Please encourage any colleagues and associates who are not currently CIEH members to consider it as, the bigger our professional community is, the more we can deliver for you and the profession as a whole.

Finally, we want to warmly thank both our members and the wider environmental health community for all the support over the last four months and hope that you will continue to engage with us on the journey ahead. We continue to welcome feedback and will gratefully receive ideas and thoughts on the types of events or training that will be of value to the profession in the post-pandemic world.

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