Kindness and Public Policy. Really?

March 6, 2017

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Julia Unwin, Carnegie Fellow

This blog was originally published by Julia Unwin at www.juliaunwin.com 

There are words that are rarely used in public policy, or if they are used they come with an accompanying grimace. Kindness. Loneliness. Love. Relationships. And there are other words that trip off the tongue with so much more ease. Outcomes. Frameworks. GVA. Infrastructure development. Workforce Planning. I am starting a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust to use just these tricky, dangerous words, and in doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

Because the one thing we know both from deep academic research, and from our own experience, is that it is kindness, love, relationships that make life worth living. We know that the outcomes for people in hospital are so much better if they are physically touched – and not just for the insertion of needles and tubes. We know that communities and neighbourhoods are only really revived and reinvigorated because of the active engagement, and frequently the furious anger, of people who live there. We know that the biggest challenge facing people who need social care can often be the profound sense of loss and grief they feel. We know that for young people, their first experience of deep personal relationships with people who are unrelated to them, have a profound and non-negotiable impact on the rest of their lives.

And yet we continue to build housing developments that minimise the possibility of human inter-action, and kindness. We invest more in mapping the economic flows and investment returns than we do in noticing who talks to people in the local shop, and what role the local taxi driver is already playing in reducing demand on the social care budget. We sign up – for very good reason – to regulatory frameworks that minimise risk by reducing the opportunity for human inter-action. We adopt – for very good reason – professional codes and protocols that minimise discretion and so can inhibit human relationships. We rely on front line staff who are frequently treated abysmally to provide just the sort of kindness and generosity that we too often fail to model. With grateful thanks to @CatherineB201 who drew this to my attention we also know, if we didn’t already, that the ways in which people relate to each other have a direct effect on those precious, vital outcomes.

We know that all social change comes from the relationship between people, and yet we are nervous about talking about it. This isn’t because people are nasty. It isn’t because we don’t know this stuff. It is not because planners, regulators, auditors and professionals are malevolent. It’s because talking about kindness, and talking about human behaviour is scary, and requires us to think more deeply about motivation, and behaviour, about friendship and love, and the things that make life worth living. To do so requires courage and focus, but a more humanised state is necessary if we are going to meet any of the huge challenges facing us. Dorothy Elmhirst, the founder of Dartington Hall Trust  where I am privileged to be a trustee, wanted us to try to live a ‘many-sided life’. The challenge for those of us engaged in public policy is to recognise that in our modern world the many-sided life involves us in recognising the human – and that can be messy and uncomfortable and challenging. But we need to put aside the grimace. Stop treating this as extra, and recognise that how we treat each other is at the core of all public policy. Always and everywhere.


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