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New report shows the so-called 'hardest to reach' may hold a key to pandemic recovery, but are not being listened to
A report published today and based on a listening project led by the non-profit organisation Centre for Public Impact UK and charity Changing Lives warns that a failure to meaningfully connect with so called ‘hard to reach' individuals by government and public services at national and local level has potentially wide ranging implications for public health and wellbeing, as well as collaboration on Covid safety guidance in the ongoing pandemic. Doing it well, however, could hold a vital key to the Covid recovery in the coming months.
‘Learning to listen again: How people experiencing complex challenges feel about engagement and participation through the Covid-19 pandemic' recounts the early findings from conversations with people across Northern England experiencing the most challenging of circumstances, including poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, addiction, sexual exploitation and involvement in the criminal justice system. The report clarifies that these groups, often dubbed ‘hard to reach', should instead be considered the ‘seldom heard'.
The report establishes that not enough is being done to engage people whose lives are already tough and traumatic. Many didn't feel heard or understood by public services and government but did feel a sense of connection with people they already knew well. Instead, they have a small circle of trust to stay connected to support and to hear and seek advice. The report stresses that this circle could hold the key to future collaboration over Covid measures, and to more inclusive discussions about the future of policy and Britain.
Yet continued lack of good engagement with the seldom heard poses a serious risk to wider public health and the ability to manage the second wave, the report warns. With numbers unemployed and living in poverty set to sharply rise, the report offers a stark warning: “If we cannot effectively listen to and engage with people who have varying levels and types of need, our policies and responses at a local and national level will always fall short.”
Nadine Smith, UK Director of the Centre for Public Impact, says: “There is growing recognition that a successful response to coronavirus hinges on our ability as a country to communicate effectively across places and populations, yet we seldom hear from people experiencing the most serious life challenges. Trust in public services locally is fragile and we heard trust between people and government nationally deteriorated in lockdown too, so we need to remove hierarchy, assumptions and bureaucracy from all communications and engagement processes and instead enable those who have that trust to be vital connectors to the parts of society others are failing to reach, whoever they are.”
“Listening better not only saves lives but enhances people's sense of belonging at a time when services are struggling to cope with the knock-on effects of people who feel ignored. It is our duty as a democracy and to all those who work in government and public services to ensure every voice can be heard, valued and acted on now and in the rebuilding of Britain.”
The listening project found that effective listening which leads to impact can improve a sense of connection and wellbeing. Insights reveal that people want agency and choice in how to be heard and communicated with, and said how much trust and relationships matter to not just feel heard but to play a part in the recovery and the rebuilding of Britain. The listening revealed an altruism in people, even those suffering extreme trauma - many wanted to participate in further listening and learning conversations if it helped themselves and others.
Laura Seebohm Executive Director, External Affairs at Changing Lives says “The seldom heard are a significant minority - and they are those most affected by the pandemic. Contrary to received wisdom, they are a group that want to engage, want to be heard and want to offer their experiences for the benefit of themselves and others.”
“If government and civil society don't enable these people to engage on a shared basis of trust and in a way that promotes agency, we fail them. And, with so much of the management of the pandemic and the later vaccine strategy relying on people engaging with and responding to public health messaging, we also put public health and our recovery at risk. There is an urgent imperative to get this right. If we don't, the implications will be felt across society.”
Project participants expressed the importance of rebalancing engagement to focus on families, community, mental health and social needs rather than the overall health of the economy. Changing Lives and Centre for Public Impact noted the difficulty for government to be empathic when far away and disconnected from local listening. They therefore urge central government to move away from top-down communications as a way to reach all parts of the population and value more the network of local actors capable of facilitating bespoke, local listening through which local and national communications and action plans can be informed.
A second phase of CPI UK and Changing Lives' listening project has now commenced with the support of the National Lottery Emerging Futures Fund. The second phase aims to draw further conclusions on effective listening methods for people experiencing tough challenges as well as identify barriers to action from listening to aid more inclusive communications and to guide services and policy.
The full report is available here.
Notes to editors
About the research
Conversations about how listened to people feel took place throughout the March lockdown and again as lockdown eased in June and July, and involved 90 participants across the North East. By not prescribing a questionnaire or a method of listening (e.g a focus group or online platform) CPI UK and Changing Lives learned that insights about how people feel at this time came more naturally through bespoke listening and via trusted intermediaries.
Key report findings
Government messaging immediately after lockdown was clear and comforting to many who took part in conversations. However, as time passed it became harder to follow. People listened to say there were gaps in central Government communications during the pandemic, aggravated by the use of jargon, politicised speech and a classist tone.
People withdrew into small circles of trust, often those people already trusted were charity, family or community workers - not necessarily GPs and other public health professionals. Crucially few new relationships formed, making existing services a key lifeline.
Though those existing local relationships got stronger, ineffective interactions and assumptions about people's lives and experiences and preferences to engage can aggravate people's personal challenges, exacerbate worry and impact negatively on future engagement.
The small circle of trust people have is fragile. One bad interaction, the report says, can impact on people's likelihood of staying connected and being heard in the future, even by those they trust. This, the report says, could have consequences for the management of the second wave of the pandemic.
People did feel more willing to have conversations with others if they were to have impact and be of help to themselves and others. This sense of altruism could unlock communication barriers, something CPI and Changing Lives will explore further
Listeners (Changing Lives staff) felt the trust they and those they work with had from government locally and nationally was being withdrawn so simple actions, such as how often prescriptions can be collected, was out of their hands and that risked damaging a vital but fragile relationship.
About the Centre for Public Impact
The Centre for Public Impact is a non-profit foundation, founded by BCG. Our mission in the UK is to help governments and public sector organisations listen, learn and adapt to help achieve better outcomes for citizens.
We support governments and citizens to listen better to one another by bringing government and society together to reimagine what their places and futures can be in trusted spaces where everyone matters.
We partner with government and public sector organisations, and all who work in them, who are looking to learn by providing practical tools, research and insights from across the UK and the world.
We help government and public sector systems to adapt to these fast-changing times by guiding organisations and teams on their journey towards a more human government that places people first.
About Changing Lives
Changing Lives is a nationwide charity helping people facing challenging times make positive change - for good.
The charity supports over 14,000 people annually through 100+ schemes, stretching from Northumberland to Merseyside and the Midlands. Changing Lives is dedicated to supporting people to reach their potential, including addiction and recovery programmes, employment guidance, help for people in prison or on probation, and support for people experiencing sexual exploitation and domestic abuse.
By focusing on their strengths, potential and opportunities, Changing Lives helps people overcome their challenges and live safe, successful, independent lives.
Changing Lives is the operating name of The Cyrenians. Registered Charity No. 500640
Learning to Listen Again
What we learned about building better listening into everyday public services, the huge benefits that this can bring to both the services and the people who use them, and key questions that those in government who want to listen to the seldom heard should be asking.