Kindness in public policy?
From a report by Carnegie UK Trust
Talk about kindness and public policy in the same breath and you get one of several reactions. There’s the slightly embarrassed grimace. Do we really need to talk about things like this? There’s the dismissive look. Don’t you know we are tackling unprecedented cuts now and you’re talking about this? And there’s the barely masked irritation. Don’t tell me that kindness can replace real, important services. That’s just sentimental.
And usually there is a strong sense that the person mentioning kindness has unhelpfully interrupted the adult flow of conversation about public policy. About planning targets, and about economic benefit, and value for money. Somebody is bringing a fairy tale to a meeting about Real Things. That’s good. A lot of people being kind will certainly help me balance my budget.
Talking about kindness does not fit easily within the rational lexicon of public policy and Carnegie Trust and Julia Unwin CBE have been exploring the complexity and contradictions of kindness and public policy through a series of roundtables and events. They have recently published a report that brings together their learning from these discussions.
The report argues that kindness and public policy is an issue with urgency and import.
As artificial intelligence, in all its forms, rapidly changes what we do, and how we do it, the disconnect between people and institutions, and the associated lack of trust, threatens to undermine much that is important in our collective life. As challengers to more established institutions disrupt systems and bring frequently welcome criticism there is a need for all of us to pay careful attention to the way in which emotional literacy and kindness are supported in the public square. Deep divisions in our society, hugely challenged public services, and reported declining trust in institutions, all challenge the ways we work, and the relationships we construct. Unless we find better and more understandable ways of focusing on our shared humanity, we risk a very sterile, and very much less effective, social settlement. And we risk entrenching gross inequalities of power which prevent us achieving our shared goals.
There is a need for a different way of thinking. The report is not stuffed full with policy recommendations, toolkits or calls for ‘compassionate impact assessments’. Instead it seeks to explore the big issues of kindness and emotion in public policy. Why does it matter? What gets in the way? And what are the risks of continuing to ignore and marginalise our emotional intelligence?
Public policy has always wrestled with the scarcity of funds and the need to do more as demand increases, and this has been particularly acute over the last decade. In the same decade, more attention has been paid to the caring capacity within the community, and the very many ways in which people express their solidarity by supporting others. There has been a heavy practical and rhetorical emphasis on the power of community to respond.
But for organisations and services working in and around the public sector, the challenges remain real, and the search for new ways of operating is urgent. There are three big challenges facing public policy that centre around operation:
1. How do we improve outcomes?
The evidence is clear that personal relationships improve care and that human contact and engagement is important both at points of crisis and moments of change. Just as we know that the health outcomes for elderly people in residential care improve when they are physically touched, so we know that young people will respond much better to advice and intervention from those they trust and recognise.
2. How do we build trust and confidence?
We know that trust and confidence in public services is essential, and that it is unfavourably contrasted with the hyper-personal, algorithm driven
communication of the global giants. And we also know that when people talk about public services disparagingly, it is so often about the tone and style of the engagement, not the content.
3. How do we encourage behaviour change?
The big challenges facing public policy are always about behaviour change. How do we get people to exercise more, save more effectively for their
retirement, pay their rent on time, put their rubbish out, immunise their children? Encouraging behaviour change is neither linear nor easy. But it is at the heart of so much public policy. It requires empathy and emotional intelligence and yet is frequently framed in ways that are simply not heard.
Human relationships matter and they matter enormously in times of change and challenge. Work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has tracked the everyday acts of kindness that make people’s lives so much more than tolerable, and that distinguish one neighbourhood from another. Building on this work, the Carnegie UK Trust has also shown the importance of encouraging kindness in communities and building relationships.
These relationships have a powerful impact on the wellbeing of individuals and communities. It is the everyday kindness in our communities and in our interactions with services that has such a profound impact on the lives of so many of us. Kindness matters and it makes a huge difference. Without acts of kindness the ‘state’ and indeed the ‘market’ would be incapable of functioning. There are acts of kindness that have achieved the status of civic duty, such as the very many blood donors, freely giving with no knowledge about the recipient. There are startling examples of individual acts of kindness and generosity, and of course there is the kindness of community – responding to crisis, supporting individuals, resisting intervention, raising funds.
But the reasons we are nervous talking about kindness and the power of emotions are real too. In a world of instant judgement and communication, in which simple answers to complex questions dominate and feed populism, and a world in which an appeal for emotional response can result in gross inequality and very poor judgement, the amplification of emotion in public services is risky indeed.
There are very good and compelling reasons for embracing a cool, measured and data driven approach to public policy. But this report argues that three huge drivers in public policy – the technological power to manage information, the digital power to manage communication, and the economic force of austerity – have made it ever more important that we look carefully at the role of emotions and kindness in public policy.
Download the report, Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy from here.
See also an earlier blog on Building the Common Good.
Retweet about this article: