So much has been written about the pandemic, most of which seems to focus on the plight of the working professional classes. When attention is given to those who face multiple disadvantages in our society, the analysis is too often based on unfounded assumptions.  

Our teams at Changing Lives have never stopped providing outreach helping people come in from the streets whether rough sleeping or selling sex, working with people in prison and supporting those in active addiction. The impact of lockdown has not always been what we expected. Early on some people thrived without having to ‘jump through hoops’ imposed by services; some felt they were no longer the ‘outcasts’ as we were ‘all in it together’; some said it was the first time they were asked how they were and whether they needed a food parcel – a fundamental shift in dynamics of relationships with professionals.  

But experiences of the pandemic are not static and over the months we have seen a 67% increase in people we support harming themselves intentionally; we have seen a 179% increase in women we support reporting experiences of sexual violence – I could carry on.

What has remained the case throughout is that it is those people and organisations most embedded in communities and contributing to people’s wellbeing who are relevant.  Everyone else was – for a time at least – pretty superfluous to requirement; delegated like me to commentating about how we might ‘build back better’ from afar.

Too often the methods we typically use to obtain and impart information can be experienced as impersonal, dehumanising and clinical, and fail to engage people or reassure them that they will have any impact.

The experience of Covid-19 has made the executive team at Changing Lives realise we need to work differently. It has taken a pandemic for us to recognise that we have to change how we do things. We need to listen better and make sense, learn and adapt to what we hear. 

Learning to listen again

In partnership with Centre for Public Impact we have embarked on a mission of discovery. We realised we needed to throw aside all assumptions about how to listen and engage with people in this very different context, and experiment with a ‘bottom-up’ approach that would itself adapt to the needs and preferences of people we wanted to hear from; those whose voices are seldom heard.  

Members of our teams spoke to 90 people we already support and engage with across Northern England - people subject to multiple disadvantages, including homelessness, domestic abuse, addiction, sexual exploitation or involvement in the criminal justice system and those with insecure asylum status. 

Trust in authorities was rapidly lost during lockdown and people have found messaging confusing and contradictory. This has exacerbated feelings of isolation and emotional distress.

The process has been iterative. There is no agenda; even asking directly about the pandemic felt too prescriptive. We wanted to know whether people already experiencing untold hardships actually want to be listened to?  If so, how in these radically different circumstances?  Who do they want to do the listening?  Are they keen to be involved in a sense making process to help us learn about what is heard?  And what do they want to happen next? Too often the methods we typically use to obtain and impart information can be experienced as impersonal, dehumanising and clinical, and fail to engage people or reassure them that they will have any impact.

What we have learned so far?

What we have learned already is that trust and connection are important.  People want to be listened to but only by those with whom they already have a relationship.  Trust in authorities was rapidly lost during lockdown and people have found messaging confusing and contradictory. This has exacerbated feelings of isolation and emotional distress. The ‘circle of trust’ people rely on is small and hyper-local: Changing Lives workers, friends, family or people from their own community.  These people are the vital connectors.

We have gained some sense of the social and technological barriers.  No single form of communication could be accessed by more than two-thirds of people.  One-to-one face-to-face communication is clearly most popular; digital platforms facilitated engagement for some but were barriers to others.  How we listen needs to be bespoke.

The type of conversations and the spaces to have them in are not dictated, nor do the professionals dominate the sense-making sessions.  It has become evident that people want their voices to be heard and they want to have some influence on what happens next. Many were most motivated to engage in conversations that would help improve things not just for themselves but for others.  Such altruistic qualities are not those often attributed to the people we work with at Changing Lives.  

Our work is also making us question whether this kind of listening and sense making has the potential to change power dynamics and public services more broadly.

Our next iteration will be to explore whether this methodology can become integrated into ‘how we do things’ at Changing Lives.  For years we have grappled with how to genuinely involve people with lived experience in our decision-making processes and service design (often grandly described as ‘co-production’ or ‘co-design’). 

  • Can we test more agile ways of listening and sense making to create the conditions for it to happen all the time throughout every level of the organisation? 
  • What are the cultural and behavioural shifts to do this and what change might be required in how we support people going through challenging times?  

It may have taken a pandemic to move us in the right direction.

Our work is also making us question whether this kind of listening and sense making has the potential to change power dynamics and public services more broadly. To build collaborative spaces for learning across the silos of public services. To enable those seldom heard to be involved in democratic processes and decision-making. Even to connect to a radical devolution agenda that challenges dislocation and divisions, building community and social cohesion.

These aspirations might sound grandiose, but perhaps through this work we can begin to contribute to closing the democratic deficit that exists when we don’t believe all voices have equal value.  It is the moral duty of all in public service to elevate the voices of everyone. But we don’t need to speak for people. They do this very well themselves.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Laura Seebohm is Executive Director at national charity Changing Lives. She has over 20 years’ experience in the statutory and voluntary sectors supporting people subjected to multiple disadvantage and raising people’s voices to influence policy and system change practices. 

Changing Lives is a nationwide charity helping people facing challenging times to make positive change for good.