Who is responsible for kindness?

March 8, 2019

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By Ben Thurman, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Over the past few years words like ‘kindness’, ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’ have become increasingly used in conversations about the challenges we face as a society. Given voice through social media campaigns such as #WorldKindnessDay and through organisations like Kindness UK and Compassion in Politics, there is a growing sense that we are at risk of losing something very important: human connection.

This dialogue about social connection is bound up in the recent political focus on loneliness as one the most significant social problems in the UK today. But it is also much broader that. As has been skilfully described in Julia Unwin’s Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy, there is growing recognition that institutional changes over the last three decades have crowded out the space for kindness and human relationships. This is important for all of us, affecting not just our professional lives, but our everyday interactions and relationships in our communities.

As a result, the policy landscape is beginning to shift, with major organisations and, significantly, local and national governments promoting values like kindness and compassion alongside economic development and inclusive growth. This leadership is welcome and important. But there are also risks that it manifests in celebrating and encouraging exceptional community action, rather than focusing on meaningful institutional change – and in doing so renders kindness the responsibility of an already-stretched voluntary sector.

Over the last 12 months the Carnegie UK Trust has been privileged to work with North Ayrshire Council to explore the changes required to embed and enable kindness throughout the region. This work has confirmed our view that communities – whether through voluntary organisations or informal civic action – continue to create opportunities for social connection, to act in kindness. But, increasingly, things get in the way.

Policies and frameworks that have been designed, for very good reasons, to ensure safety and accountability can inhibit opportunities for connection. Child protection policies formalise spontaneous and authentic intergenerational activities; procurement contracts prevent volunteers from coming together to make improvements to their local facilities; regulations around catering and events stymie informal community celebrations; and shrinking budgets mean that public assets – community centres, leisure facilities – are only accessible at particular times and for specific purposes.

This process has highlighted the existing tensions between local government and communities. It is no longer enough to promote the exceptional example of people who continue to ‘go the extra mile’ under increasingly difficult circumstances. Now is the time for leadership to look at how their policies, contracts and frameworks enable or inhibit kindness; to provide and protect the civic spaces that enable kindness; to think about ways to invest greater trust in staff and communities; and, at times, simply to ‘get out of the way’ of communities.

If we want to improve social connection and societal wellbeing, it is vital that governments take responsibility for the way that its policies – directly or indirectly – impact on kindness in communities. But these are challenging questions. They demand unpicking 30 years of policies that collectively have designed out flexibility and opportunities for kindness – and doing so in a way that retains and protects important public values of fairness, accountability, safety and value for money.  But if we agree that kindness is important, that relationships are what make life worth living, it is a challenge that, like North Ayrshire Council, we all need to embrace.