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Solace blog

17th July 2019

Kindness in public policy: the importance of leadership

Recently, the Carnegie UK Trust brought together public sector leaders from across the UK for a roundtable discussion on Carnegie Fellow, Julia Unwin’s report, Kindness, emotions, and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy. Here, Jennifer Wallace, Joint Interim CEO at the Trust blogs on some of the implications for local government leadership.

When we first started talking about kindness four years ago, we were often confronted from all sectors by a sense that we had interrupted the ‘grown-up’ conversations about ‘real issues’. Now, we have moved on to a place where the Permanent Secretary in Scotland is talking about the importance of emotional intelligence in public policy; where the Welsh Assembly is debating the place of kindness in politics; where local governments in the North of England are building strategic plans around values like compassion.

There is a vanguard of people who have moved from ‘why’ to ‘how’, and public sector leadership has been critical in this shift. In Scotland, Leslie Evans’s vocal support for kindness gave it credibility as a serious policy issue, and was critical in convincing people that this is not just a ‘nice to have’, but a core component of achieving public policy objectives.

Kindness needs leadership and champions. And, as we move towards ‘how’ we do things differently, it needs them more than ever because the current public sector climate makes systems change incredibly difficult.

We have seen positive approaches towards kindness in the private sector, where corporate policies that prioritise relationships have enabled and supported staff to respond to customers with discretion. And we have seen the benefits that this has on staff engagement and productivity; on customer relations; and on trust, which is something that we all recognise as one of the greatest challenges facing the public sector.

But prioritising relationships requires taking a risk. It is a risk that the private sector has the freedom to take, in the pursuit of doing things better. But it is far more challenging for a public sector that is constrained by a rules-based approach, growing levels of public scrutiny, the sustained effects of austerity, and a significantly more complex set of duties and responsibilities.

Unlike the private sector, which can to some extent choose which goods and services it provides and to whom, the public sector exercises a particular and complicated set of coercive and allocative powers. These are powers that only the public sector holds. Due to the levels of risk, it is not easy to be coercive ‘in a kind way’; and there are also tensions between kindness and making crucial allocative decisions that affect the lives of the people who work for you and who you serve.

And this makes kindness in the context of austerity particularly hard. Local government leaders are constantly required to make complex decisions on expenditure. It is hard to talk about kindness and compassion if you are in a position where you have to make decisions about staffing and cuts to services that feel unkind. And it is hard to carve out the time that is required to think about doing things differently when senior management remains accountable for targets and performance indicators that are increasingly hard to deliver.

Even without the resource implications of austerity, local government operates under a level of public scrutiny that means ‘doing things differently’ is fraught with risk. Among the people we have spoken to, there is a real sense that doing anything ‘outside of the rules’ of fairness, safety and efficiency will lead to challenges from a hostile media. This inhibits public sector professionals from being open about what they haven’t got right or what they are trying to do differently – all of which fosters a risk-averse environment that doesn’t encourage change and innovation.

Finally, this risk-averse culture is further reinforced by the ‘ego’ of leadership. Our organisational structures place high levels of accountability on individual leaders for the consequences of decision-making. And, with so much responsibility concentrated in one person, it is unsurprising that local government leaders make rational, rules-based decisions to mitigate risk.

This could all mean that now is not the time to be talking about emotions and relationships; that we cannot expect to create the conditions for kindness in an ‘unkind’ environment. But in fact, the public policy challenges that we currently face – falling levels of trust, rising demand for services – cannot be met without a clear focus on the importance of relationships. And as digital technology transforms our interactions and public services at speed, this is an issue of urgency.

So what can we do to encourage kindness and relationships? For the last 12 months, we’ve been working in partnership with North Ayrshire Council to see what it might take to embed these values into ways of working. Our new report, The Practice of Kindness, highlights the importance of supporting and encouraging staff to exercise autonomy, prioritising people over procedures, and removing the barriers that inhibit relationships.

But in order for this to happen, we need flexibility, openness, and trust: leadership needs the time to have these conversations, the space to innovate and, perhaps most of all, the permission to fail in the pursuit of doing things differently. We need our leaders to champion kindness – but we also need to be kinder to our leaders.

Jennifer Wallace, Joint Interim CEO/Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust