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Kindness, emotions and relationships are blind spots in public policy

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A guest briefing from Julia Unwin, chair, independent inquiry into the future of civil society.

Kindness is disruptive. 

This may seem like a surprising thing to say. Everyone wants to be kind. From a young age we recognise kindness when we see it, and as adults we know that relationships and human connections make life worth living.

But talking about kindness in a local government context is uncomfortable. How can we provide more of it amid increasing demand and public spending cuts? How can we measure and assess personalised responses to individual circumstances? And how can encourage kindness while mitigating the risks of human interaction?

There are also good arguments against kindness. If we want our public services to be fair, we need to establish clear procedures. And if we desire accountability and professionalism, we must put in place clear rules and regulations.

Perhaps most importantly, if we demand good value for money we must introduce measures to analyse outcomes and drive efficiency.

But so much public policy is about emotions. It’s about where we live, our sense of belonging, and how we are supported in times of need. This is complex, messy and cannot be easily quantified.

Yet the big challenges facing our public services – improving outcomes, rebuilding trust and confidence, encouraging behavioural change – demand an approach centred on emotions and human relationships.

So kindness matters. And changes over the last 30 years have crowded out the space for it in public services.

Our drive for efficiency, measurement and analysis enabled us to radically improve outcomes. But this same focus on impact has led to increasingly transactional services, less equipped to respond to complex individual experiences.

Reintroducing kindness is also urgent because of the speed of technological change. Automation, algorithms and artificial intelligence are moving beyond markets to affect public policy, bringing so much potential to enhance the quality, efficiency and responsiveness of our services.

As artificial intelligence changes how we do things, it is critical we invest equal importance in our emotional intelligence and retain a clear focus on the importance of human relationships in public policy.

This does not just apply in communities and among frontline staff. It is an issue for those with power and authority, who make the decisions that give care assistants, hospital workers, teachers and youth workers the flexibility to focus on kindness and relationships.

It is in policy design and evaluation, and in-service procurement and implementation, that we really need to think about kindness. It’s in the way that we set targets, provide incentives, regulate and reward things that kindness becomes a radical, disruptive concept.

Public services are under increasing pressure, and many communities feel disenfranchised and unheard. As new technologies enter the public sector, there will be a temptation to harness this to drive efficiency and cut costs.

At this critical moment, decision-makers in local government must recognise the importance of kindness and shape our new capabilities around the needs of people, to deliver more responsive services and a more connected society.

Julia Unwin, chair, independent inquiry into the future of civil society. Her recent report is Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy

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