Julia Unwin: The power of kindness in policymaking

When we evaluate public policy we reach for the rational lexicon, but this risks creating cold and ineffective public services

Photo: PA

By Julia Unwin

07 Dec 2018

There are some things that matter to every one of us. The places we live, our sense of identity and belonging. The people we live with, love and care for. And the way we are looked after and supported when we are most in need. At the heart of all of this are emotions and human connections. We all know that it is love and relationships that fill our lives with joy and make life worth living. And equally, when we are at our most vulnerable, it is kindness and compassion that get us through the tough times.

But talk about kindness in public policy and you often get one of two reactions. There’s the out-of-hand dismissal, that says kindness is not the stuff of real policy. And there’s the “kind reaction”, that agrees, of course we want to be kind, wouldn’t it be so much better if communities and frontline workers were nicer to each other?

In both of these reactions, there is a sense that this isn’t about “us”, it’s about “them”. Kindness is deflected onto others – onto the care assistants, nurses and teachers, the most hard-pressed and least well rewarded people in public service. And that’s because kindness is uncomfortable and disruptive. It challenges the core of our approach to policymaking, the nature of evidence and professional boundaries.

But it has never been more important.


Over the past two years, as a Carnegie Fellow, I have been exploring the role of kindness in public policy, through a series of public and private events across the UK. These discussions have confirmed to me that there are two lexicons in public policy. There is the rational language of metrics, value added, growth, resource allocation and impact. And there is the relational language of kindness, loneliness, love and friendship.

In the last 30 years, our focus on rational speech has empowered us to do many things much better than ever before. The capability for measurement and analysis and the ability to amass data on a grand scale have enabled us to understand and interrogate inputs and outcomes, drive efficiency and rapidly modernise organisations. And careful attention to regulation and professionalism have provided much greater certainty around behaviour and boundaries, increased transparency and fairness, and allowed a more reliable assessment of risk and safety.

And yet, combined with strong downward pressure on costs across the UK, the forces that have created so much positive change have also raised questions of kindness, relational care and the emotions that are bound up in public services and the way we live together.

Public policy is all about emotions. It is concerned with our homes and communities, our economy and livelihoods, the education of our children and the care of those in ill health. It engages with our humanity and our vulnerability, it requires trust and sharing, and therefore – always and everywhere – it engages an emotional response. And yet, when we design public policy, evaluate its impact and think about quality improvement, we invariably reach for the rational lexicon.

“Kindness is uncomfortable and disruptive. It challenges our approach to policymaking, the nature of evidence and professional boundaries”

This is important for a number of reasons. After a decade of austerity, we are operating in a challenging environment, with rising demand on already stretched services and declining trust in public institutions. We know that compassion and personal relationships can improve outcomes – just as we know that designing more human services can help to rebuild confidence in the public sector.

The role of kindness in public policy has a particular urgency, because we are undergoing another great change. The growth of digital technology and artificial intelligence have already transformed our experiences of banking, retail and communications. These technologies and capabilities are beginning to transfer from markets to public policy, bringing major opportunities to understand and evaluate complex problems, and to enhance public services.

But this change needs to be shaped around people’s needs, and these opportunities also bring risks. If we fail to respond to this challenge, we could end up generating greater inequality and social division, perpetuating the sense of disenfranchisement in communities across the UK, and delivering some increasingly cold, unresponsive and ineffective public services.

This is why kindness cannot be about “us” and “them”. Kindness is an issue for those with power and authority just as much – if not more – than those in communities and frontline services. The challenge is to retain a focus on how kindness informs measurement and audit, policy design and regulation; and to use our understanding of the importance of human relationships to drive the higher levels of trust, improved engagement and better outcomes that we so desperately need.

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