‘You can see the beginning of an empathy-driven policy framework’ – how to get kindness into policy

One of the leading figures in a civil service reform drive has set out details of how to create more empathetic policy making across government


By Richard Johnstone

11 Dec 2019

Official across government should undergo empathy training, former civil servant and One Team Gov Kit Collingwood has told The Civil Service World Podcast.

Reflecting on her experience in the civil service, Collingwood, who founded One Team Gov with the aim of reforming government for the benefit of citizens to make it fit for the internet age, said her interest in how empathy could be embedded in policymaking came when she made the move into the world of digital transformation.

“I reflected back on my time in policymaking and observed that the driver towards being analytically-driven in decision making is actually ignoring a huge amount of context by the way the decisions are made, including incredibly high profile and important areas,” she told podcast hosts and CSW editors Jess Bowie and Suzannah Brecknell.


“So I would frequently see policy being made, and I would frequently make policy myself, that didn't touch end users of services at all, even when those services were high risk and involved a huge amount of vulnerability on the part of the people on the receiving end.

“That was completely legitimate at the time, and I think is fairly legitimised as a practice now. But what I overwhelmingly felt at the end of my time in policymaking was that we'd left a huge gap in how we deliver policy. And that, to me, felt like a huge financial and delivery risk because what you were doing was making policy that was not particularly realistic.

“But I really felt that at the heart of it was a lack of empathy for the people on the receiving end of policy was massively more important [to address] than it had ever been thought about before.”

Collingwood said she had seen this most during her six-month stint working on women's offender management policy at the Ministry of Justice.

“This is a long time ago, so I'm sure it's changed a lot now, but I didn't go to a women's prison for the whole time that I made women offender management policy. It was never something that required of me, and it was never something that was suggested to me. Looking back on that experience, I was flabbergasted at my own blindness in making policy about a group of people and how to manage them in prison without ever meeting one or ever going to a women's prison.

“You can see, just logically, your work would be less high quality if you didn't understand fully the people you're writing policy about. But also, the financial implications of carrying through an operational change across a prison network is huge. And I wasn't fully briefed on what that actually meant, because I had never seen it in situ. And that terrified me so much, and I've never forgotten it.”

Collingwood's comments came shortly before she announced her return to the public sector today. Announcing her new position leading digital and technology for Greenwich Council on Twitter today, Collingwood said: "Thrilled that I’ll be working with such an amazing team, building great services for residents in my home borough. Can’t wait to get started!"

System reform

During her podcast interview, Collingwood acknowledged “policymakers will look at the data obsessively and good decisions can be made from that” when developing offender policy, but said a lack of understanding the situation risked interventions not working.

“So for example, data cannot adequately acknowledge the emotional state of the women. Some of that policy was designed at certain interventions for women's offender groups, but we never went and asked them whether it would have that particular result.

“How can people sitting in Whitehall adequately describe and predict the behaviour of a group of people that they've never met, particularly when that group of people is not necessarily at its most rational because they're in a period of crisis? So even if the data tells you everything's going to be fine, you never know until you see it for yourself.”

However, there is the potential to combine data-driven policy with s greater understanding of effects on individuals, Collingwood said.

“I think that if people were to take a step back and be open minded about this, you could very easily see how operational observation of emotional state could be aggregated up to make a quantifiable data set. You could very easily make that leap.

“We haven't legitimised the conversation yet. That's just a few examples that I can think of. But we have this great strength of huge analytical minds in the civil service. And I'd really like to see some type of A/B testing [comparing two interventions to measure effectiveness] about trying to apply empathy and policymaking and then measuring the results of that.

“You can very easily design in your head, the beginning of an empathy-driven policy framework, which would be observable. It just takes a bit of courage to do it. And I would guess it would take a government less distracted by something like Brexit. So I think it also has to find its right time.”


Collingwood said HM Revenue and Customs provides empathy training “that allows people to literally learn how to learn and apply empathy in their day-to-day lives”.

Similar training might be needed across the civil service, she said.

“I do think you should mandate empathy training. And I do think that appreciating emotional state, and vulnerability... should be a mandated part of developing policy.”

The podcast also heard from Sarah Davison, the chief executive of the Carnegie UK Trust, and Dr Elizabeth Kelly, a GP, about the development of policy in Scotland, as mentioned by Collingwood. To listen to the whole episode, click here.

Read the most recent articles written by Richard Johnstone - Building the future: Steven Boyd on making government property work for the civil service

Share this page