A report published today, 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 can be downloaded here: Learning to listen again: How people experiencing complex challenges feel about engagement and participation through the Covid-19 pandemic’

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