Listening is Golden: but to listen you first need to be quiet

Getting great results requires listening. In our work we measure and analyze data to ensure our clients deliver the best possible service. But data doesn’t just mean numbers and graphs and statistics. Data can include lived experiences, how legal processes feel to a person, what social conditions mean when you live them every day, and what people want. At the heart of Get the Data’s Measure package is understanding what our clients want. And to understand we first have to listen. Our clients know what is important to their work, what resources they have, and what needs to be measured. Our work starts with being quiet, listening to our clients and identifying what their organization wants to achieve.

“To listen” is a verb, it’s an activity. It means we actively engage with what our clients are telling us. It also means not responding to new projects with our own pre-conceived notions of what we think is important.  Get the Data’s team has a wide range of skills and experience, and we use them to provide a unique service for each of our clients. We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions.

The experience of justice

For example, much of our work is for clients in the criminal justice sector in both the USA and the UK. For these clients our work may not always be about determining ways to reduce reoffending, or understanding efficiencies in the system. It may not even be establishing what works from the perspective of the criminal justice system. Often it can be about measuring things that are important to the justice-involved person. How were they were treated by their defense attorney? What was their experience of being in court? What was the nature of their relationship with their probation officer? Did they receive justice? What was the quality of that justice? In short, how does it feel to be in the criminal justice system?

Justice is often an abstract ideal. At other times it might be quantified in statistical reports and newspaper articles: conviction rates, rates of recidivism, the cost of offending to an economy. But  justice is also a process that acts on many different people and which can be experienced in many different ways. As one of our current projects we are developing tools to measure the quality of legal representation received by young people in foster care. My colleague Ammeline and I held a series of focus groups with young people to understand their priorities and what “justice” felt like for them.

Initially the participants were quiet or hesitant. We resisted the urge to prompt them and instead we embraced the silence. Out of that silence their voices started to emerge: angry voices, defiant voices, pained voices, and sad voices. Voices that carried the experience of being ignored, talked at, talked down to, talked over by social workers, educationalists and attorneys who should have been there to help. Who should have been there to listen. By creating the space they needed, by listening, our silence enabled their eloquence.

Listening to other voices

Our work shows the importance of listening to those who have found themselves in the criminal justice system. This requires professionals to take their time, to put their expertise on hold, and to refrain from speaking over other voices. It creates the space needed for listening. The voices of those who experience the criminal justice system should be used to inform their professional practice. Listening to those voices contributes to effective advocacy in court, more appropriate sentences and sentence planning that responds to the needs of the offender.

The same goes for those of us who research and evaluate the criminal justice system.  We need to yield to those who have been marginalized, to refrain from filling the awkward silences, to listen to them. And to really hear what is of value to them. That takes time and patience. But we know that taking the time to listen is what provides a firm basis on which to develop meaningful measures. Listening is the first step to understanding, whether that is understanding what our clients want or understanding what people need from the criminal justice system.

Well designed and executed focus groups and interviews form an important part of our quantitative analyses. At Get the Data we have developed the expertise of engaging hard to reach individuals to help develop organizations’ outcome measures. If you want to learn more about how our approach to measurement can benefit your business or organization please contact Alan or Jack.