Kindness to future generations?

June 16, 2020

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by Ben Thurman, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Over the last few months, much has been written and said about what we might do differently to secure a fairer, greener, more inclusive future. But amidst the rhetoric about kindness, compassion and solidarity, and the debate about how we embed these values into politics and policy, one country has been taking steps to make this a reality.

Last month, the Future Generations Report 2020 outlined what it would mean for the Welsh Government to be ‘A Kind Government’, and how adopting a values-based approach could help to build trust and deliver on its wellbeing promise. The report recommends that the Welsh Government should:

“Lead the way in instilling values of kindness at every level of government and in public policy, following the Scottish Government example, and in seeking to implement the Well-being of Future Generations Act.”

The Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, makes it clear that this is not about encouraging frontline staff to be more kind – something that feels particularly important given the ongoing above-and-beyond contribution of many key workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, culture change and permission to do things differently must come from the top. Government should lead by example by ensuring that kindness is at the heart of everything they do – not just individual behaviour, but reflecting this in decisions about funding, commissioning, performance management and governance.

The full set of recommendations is currently being considered by Ministers and the Civil Service. But the idea of embedding kindness in public policy as a means of implementing the Well-being of Future Generations Act is built on determined work by Jack Sargeant MS to champion a #kinderpolitics, and subsequently a roundtable which the Carnegie UK Trust supported in January 2020.

The roundtable discussion, co-chaired by Deputy Minister Jane Hutt MS and Jack Sargeant MS, brought together representatives from the Welsh Government, the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner, academia and civil society to discuss how kindness could complement Wales’s existing approach, and where action could be taken to (further) embed values in policy making.

There are already strong foundations on which to build: in Wales there is both ‘an enabling set of legislation’ that gives public bodies permission to be bold, and a real appetite for change. While the Future Generations Act already provides a framework for delivering wellbeing, there was a sense that a kindness lens could contribute to the seven wellbeing goals by sharpening the focus on participation and coproduction, and by helping to challenge some of the things that get in the way of relationships – in particular, ‘compliance culture’ and performance management.

In short, kindness challenges leaders to ask, what would it look like if we were to focus on outcomes for people and communities? And, how can we align decision making on planning and infrastructure, public service design, commissioning and procurement to achieve these goals?

At the same time, the discussion highlighted the risks inherent in using the language of kindness, which have become more apparent in recent weeks. Conversations can too easily slip into a comfortable ‘kindness bubble’, that places responsibility on individuals and fails to address the reality of people’s lives. Some participants expressed concern that promoting kindness might mask power imbalances and ‘gift wrap’ inequality and discrimination.

And yet, radical kindness is about challenging inequality. We know that relationships matter; but we also know that certain people are less likely to experience kindness than others. A public policy approach that recognises this, that seeks to listen and understand people’s experiences, and works to create the conditions in which everyone experiences kindness in their communities and in their interactions with public services, could deliver a fundamentally more equal society.

But it is critical to frame kindness in public policy not in terms of urging individual behaviours, but as something that is structural. As Jack Sargeant MS concluded, “With kindness at the heart of what we do, we can build a better future.” But we will only achieve this future if we steer away from the notion that everyone should be a little more kind, and, as the Future Generations Report recommends, work hard to make sure that our institutions are kind too.