I was at our District meeting last night and we were talking about developing community - being active and engaged. I was talking about listening to people to understand what it is that they want and need. I was reminded of when I moved from working with one local authority to another in social services.
In the first local authority for anything to change there was a whole process which meant writing committee papers and getting agreement from several layers of management before planning what to do and blah blah blah ... as the confused and complex process meandered on. It essentially meant that not very much changed, certainly not much change was instigated from below. The frustration levels were very high and the services were very outdated and did not serve the local population well.
I moved to the other authority and it couldn't have been more different. There was encouragement to find solutions locally and to change services quickly in response to need. When 18 months later I was promoted to manager of a new day services team we had numerous occasions when we heard that people couldn't get to a group or they needed specific help. As a team we had the authority to start new groups and try new approaches, within boundaries. This made for a more responsive and more effective service. You are then not waiting for formal feedback but taking note of conversations and picking up information from a variety of places. We could set up a new group in a matter of weeks.
This is what we need to do. If someone has problems or feels that things are not quite working for them then is there a way round that? There are some very simple things that we can do for example large print hymns, giving people a lift to and from the building or finding out people's food preferences and making sure they are included. We have a vegan and someone who has an allergy to wheat - you may need a magnifying glass when you got shopping for biscuits but we've found a great variety of oat biscuits that suit both. It is so often the little things and most importantly the attitudes which impact on people. Does everyone really value me enough so that what I want counts?
Which begs the question - who needs to do the listening? In my social services role it was clear that it was me and my staff but we also asked other people who used the service not only about what they thought but also what their observations of how other people were getting along. We all have a responsibility to listen to each other and to think about solutions to problems. It can be difficult to ensure that everyone is on board with change - and with significant change this must happen. But some things - like starting a mid-week service should only matter to those who will have to do something, not those who do not want to get involved.
So active listening and then some - which means finding ways to make the experience of our communities even better as soon as we can after finding out that someone has a problem.