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Homes, houses, units and incidents: the emotions in public policy

From a talk and conversation at Northern PlaceShapers, April 10th 2019

A large part of public policy is concerned with where people live: are there enough houses? Are we maintaining them well enough? Are they secure, affordable and decent? And whose living in them?

We know that housing matters enormously. It’s a huge source of the generational tension we face as a country. It should be an integral part of the infrastructure, enabling growth and mobility. It’s a political hot-button issue. And there’s no shortage of reports and policy recommendations about it. In fact, Housing Report Bingo is a parlour game in many circles, as report after report makes the crystal-clear case: we need more housing for everyone, the current arrangements are broken, there needs to be grater sustained investment. It’s obvious.

And yet we fail to cut through, either with government, or too often with the people who need housing, and those who live in our homes.

Is this another blind spot in public policy? Professionals and board members, ministers and regulators happily talk about supply, and units. We spend millions of pounds and in conferences, round tables and seminars we agonise about the differences between affordable and social and council and private housing. We know all about scheduled repairs, pipelines and managing demand, and we can even talk the language of allocation and support. We dabble happily in the KPIs and the league tables.

But nearly three years after a slogan called Bring Back Control changed the course of British history; we seem to be very poor at identifying why where we live matters so much. For all of us our home is the most precious thing we hold, and our emotions about home are only matched by the love we have for those who are most close to us. Home is the place of intimacy and warmth. It’s the place where our most precious inter actions take place. Its the place we raise our children. The place we go to when we need to feel safe. Its where we are ill and hope to die. It’s a place for times of vulnerability. It’s the place where our memories are born and where they grow. and Home provides our identity and our sense of who we are. Home provides nurture and security. It is in our homes that we most need control.

That’s why things going wrong in a home are so horrific. Its why domestic violence is rightly seen as the most hideous crime – the betrayal of the safety of home. Its why burglary can be so catastrophic and why its occasional dismissal as not really bad because it wasn’t violent, fails to recognise the violation it represents. Its why internal sewage flooding is such a tragedy and why floods and fire still touch our deepest emotions.

Home matters to us.

It’s not a coincidence that moving to a new house ranks up there on the scale of stress with bereavement and divorce.

It’s also why people get so angry when things go wrong. Its why the twitter messages to so many chief executives feel so aggressive. No wonder people are angry – that failing boiler, that damp patch, that botched repair is affecting them in their most important place. It’s not a late train, it’s not an incident or a scheduling issue – its damage to them in the place they need to feel most safe.

Its why people are so angry when their right of quiet enjoyment, so beautifully described in otherwise dull legislation, is threatened, as it so often is.
Public policy is beginning to talk about trauma: its time that housing policy thought about how it causes trauma.

Our home is what we own, regardless of housing tenure. Our home belongs to us in ways that resist metrics and legal title. Housing associations and local authorities may have housing on their balance sheets: but the homes they support are only held in trust for the community – for today’s generation and for ones not yet born.
And if this is true, shouldn’t public policy change too? What would housing policy look like if it recognised the central importance of a home to the people who live in it, and the lack of one to people who are homeless? What would housing management look like?

And perhaps far more importantly, what would our political discussion look like? That might really start a different conversation.

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Kindness and emotions – the public policy blind spot

In the last  two years I have been privileged to have a Fellowship with Carnegie UK Trust. This has allowed me to explore a long-held interest of one in kindness and emotional intelligence – and how  this fits into public policy.

This short blog, written for the publication date, was first  published on the Carnegie UK Trust website.

We all want to be kind and calls for kindness in public services are everywhere. Who wouldn’t want to be kind?

But we also want services to be fair. We want them to be accountable and run by professionals with a strong sense of boundaries. We want to scrutinise and understand decisions.

Public policy is about relationships and it is about emotions. It’s about how we love and how we care. It’s about where we live and where we feel we belong. It’s about how we change and grow. It’s always and at all times about emotions. And yet talking about emotions in public policy is embarrassing and uncomfortable.

That’s because kindness in public policy is a deeply disruptive concept. It recognises the emotions at the heart of what we do and gives them the status normally reserved for KPIs, risk registers and metrics of things that can be readily enumerated. Its difficult, and it challenges our deepest beliefs. But a recognition of the need for kindness is essential if we are to build trust, enable people to change their behaviour, and secure the outcomes that all the rest of the apparatus is designed to deliver.

Read the new report, Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy here.

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power

 

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Could the algorithm kill our capacity for kindness?

We all want services to be kind. Nobody seriously disputes it. All social change starts with the  very personal relationship between two people, and yet, as I’ve commented before, we struggle to be kind, citing professional codes, financial challenges and regulatory restrictions to explain our rather cool, and sometimes frankly impersonal,  approach to the decisions that public policy makes. Relational seems to be OK in theory, but much more problematic when it encourages  us to break the rules. Rules help and protect the professional, reducing the discriminatory impact of discretion. They allow us to sensibly ration spending, make clear and transparent decisions – and create a framework that seems to be fair.

And we want our services to  be fair. We don’t want our outcomes dependent on whether the nurse likes us or not. We don’t want some children encouraged more than others because the teacher enjoys their company.

We also want our services to be transparent. We want to know that the choice of drug regime for  a particular condition  is not governed by hunch, but by sound medical rationale, linked to outcomes. We want university places to be awarded in ways that can be understood. We want to be cared for by people who we can trust not to have favourites.  We fear the discretionary and the partial.

We’re getting better and better at demonstrating fairness, and encouraging transparency. The algorithm provides a  powerful support. We’re all familiar  with the amazon algorithm – you bought this so you’d like that – and we don’t need to be terribly insightful to recognise that our daily scrolling and browsing and tweeting provides an enormous body of data that allows companies large and small to target their wares very precisely at our credit cards.  The predictive power of data analytics, and their capacity to shape services can be seen in every clinical pathway, every assessment form, every checklist – and they daily grow in power. Protocols and pathways ensure that intervention most likely to result in the right outcomes are always chosen, and that time – and money – is not wasted on experimentation and following hunches. It’s clean, its straightforward, it passes the test of legislation, and social media challenge, but is it kind?

Kindness requires intuition. It requires a personal relationship. It require both  warmth and risk. It probably involves personal liking, and empathy, and it may not always be fair. A doctor treating patients with warmth and humanity may not follow the prescribed pathway. A teacher may see a spark that would never register on any scorecard. Someone else might see the sadness behind the eyes. A care worker might understand the  grief and loss that is the source of  so much anger and frustration. They might all recognise the boredom and tedium, the fury, the fear – the raw emotions that drive us to need public services, and  sometimes to  loathe them too.

No algorithm in the world can replace human understanding. It can produce fairness. It can resist challenge. It can tolerate the bright light of public transparency. And it can protect  the professional from accusations of partiality. It can make sure that both money and services are carefully rationed (and in any system, at any time, that will always be needed.)

But if it can’t also allow for the warmth of human interaction,  we may need to recognise that sometimes kindness and human relationships trump mechanical approaches to fairness, and to transparency. It might not be the algorithm alone that challenges kindness. Our approach to fairness and to transparency might also be questioned.

 

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All Our Children – A Play for our Times

This website doesn’t normally host theatre reviews, and I know that  I have none  of the skills or experience  to be a critic. But last week I went to see All Our Children by Stephen Unwin (full disclosure, he is my brother). It’s a moving play and  it’s brilliantly acted. It describes a particularly  hideous episode in the horror of the holocaust, focussing on the Nazi murder of  disabled young people. Of course the audience was rapt with attention.

But what I hadn’t expected was such a profound exposition of what seems to me to be one of the biggest – unspoken – social policy dilemma of our times. By using the horror of the past, the play forces us to think seriously about  what we really think about people who are never going to make an economic contribution. Those of us who grapple with public policy dilemmas would never dream of  using the harsh rhetoric of the Nazi administrator, but in our pursuit of  supposed fairness, and our obligation to make spending decisions transparent and apparently equitable, we regularly  witness decisions that ascribe differential value to human life. When the zealous Nazi administrator contrasts the vast expense of maintaining severely disabled children, with the good that could be done for so many other children, it was hard not to think of the agonising commissioning decisions taken daily in local authorities. And this is not only about austerity, or recent policy. The need to allocate money to support, ‘the few, not the many’,  in a reversal of the current Labour party campaign slogan, is a daily decision, and one which we need to talk about. Otherwise, those who don’t contribute economically are seen as objects of pity,  and discretionary generosity, not fellow citizens with intrinsic value as human beings.

 

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Communities – 9 ways to break them

All my working life the call has been for stronger communities. Communities that could – depending on fashion and decade – care for their neighbours, enable regeneration, manage their carbon footprints, be more resilient, engage in community governance. You name it, reports of all kinds and all types have frequently concluded that stronger communities are what we need.

Most recently I have been very struck by work in Scotland, led by Carnegie UK Trust (where I have a fellowship,) and JRF where I used to be CEO, and by Lloyds TSB  Foundation for Scotland , where I chair the Observers Group, describing the web of support that enables communities to survive, and even thrive, in troubled times. In a lovely phrase, one of the participants described this as

‘spraying water on a spider’s web, and seeing the drops’

The metaphor recognises the strength, and the invisibility, of these webs of support and engagement that make life worth living. The challenge is to find out how such webs grow. We can see that they are just as important for well-being, happiness and a good society as the far more visible webs of economic flows, digital connectivity and a transport infrastructure, but we don’t know much about how to build them.

However, we do know quite a lot about how they can be destroyed. And the more I consider the vital significance of this human interactive web, rather than the one we access via our computers, the more I am struck by the things we have, almost systematically, done to extinguish them. Here’s my list of the things that make communities weaker rather than stronger
1. Make people so busy that they haven’t got time to take part. We know from study after study that people are working harder and longer, and that in particular poorer people are doing several jobs just to make ends meet. Shift work has always been a threat to community engagement – precarious, unreliable and irregular work is a formidable adversary. Make sure that financial survival requires that people are always either working or actively looking for work.
2. Keep them moving. Six months’ tenancies, rents that increase when the wages go up, short term tenancies with periodic review. All ways to make sure people have a minimal stake in where they live, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, believe that their neighbours have little stake too.
3. Take away the places people meet. Civicus have documented the decline in the amount of civic space. As we attend church less often, have an apparently limitless choice of places to eat and drink, and our community centres get more dilapidated and the public realm is either neglected or private, safe places for community engagement are vanishing. .
4. Make the rules scary. Work commissioned by JRF a few years ago made it very clear that the fear of regulation, and litigation, and uncertainty about both, was a real inhibitor to actively engaged communities. Why would you clear a path in your local park when you are told that that might make you liable for someone falling over?
5. Use architecture to divide How many new housing schemes provide genuine, informal places to meet and coincide? I have visited far too many estates that could have been designed to keep people from chatting casually, that privilege privacy over inter action, that make chance encounter extremely unlikely.
6. Dismiss engagement. Talk about those who try to organise as busy-bodies, phone leaders, trouble makers, angry and difficult people, persistent complainers or the ‘great and the good’. Make it unfashionable to want to get involved.
7. Punish those who do – unleash the power of social media and be hyper critical of anyone who expresses an opinion, or tries to do things differently. The modern face of public shaming  on Twitter and Facebook  seem to work well.
8. Introduce new policy without thinking of community impact. Plan the bus route so it doesn’t connect parts of the community. Charge for the collection of old mattresses and furniture so that the poorest parts of the estate look like rubbish tips. Design a lettings policy to make sure that people don’t live near people who are too like them. But also make sure that the people facing the biggest hcallenges are all together.
9. Demand the impossible. When you know that a community group is running a successful toddler group, ask them to take on the management of a dilapidated piece of public space and suggest that at the same time they could take on running a library. Lament their failure, and lack of ambition.

Talking about community self-organising, engagement, self-efficacy or just action can readily be dismissed as ‘motherhood and apple pie’. (Though in my experience, motherhood is fierce, incredibly hard and essential so I’ve never quite understood th point of that jibe). It is easy to see it as a spray-on bit of language and to continue to round off our reports with a call for a bit more of it. But agency in the community is essential if we are going to begin to  address the huge challenges we face as a society. We will never provide the mutual support that is needed, raise resilient and confident young people, and stand up to the tyranny of both state and market, without active, engaged communities .

It’s about time we put a stop to the practices that tear the web of engagement and weaken rather than strengthen the bonds of community. Unless we never really meant all those many recommendations.

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Kindness and public policy. Really?

There are words that are rarely used in public policy, or if they are used they come with an accompanying grimace. Kindness. Loneliness. Love. Relationships. And there are other words that trip off the tongue with so much more ease. Outcomes. Frameworks. GVA. Infrastructure development. Workforce Planning. I am  starting a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust to use just these tricky, dangerous words, and in doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

Because the one thing we know both from deep academic  research, and from our own experience, is that it is kindness, love, relationships that make life worth living. We know that the outcomes for people in hospital are so much better if they are physically touched – and not just for the insertion of needles and tubes. We know that communities and neighbourhoods are only really revived and reinvigorated because of the active engagement, and frequently the furious anger, of people who live there. We know that  the biggest challenge facing people who need social care can often be the profound sense of loss and grief they feel. We know that for young people, their first experience of deep personal relationships  with people who are unrelated to them, have a  profound and non- negotiable impact on the rest of their lives.

And yet we continue to build housing developments that minimise the possibility of human inter-action, and kindness. We invest more in mapping the economic flows and investment returns than we do in noticing who talks to people in the local shop, and what role  the local taxi driver is already playing in reducing demand on the social care budget. We sign up – for very good reason – to regulatory frameworks that minimise risk by reducing the opportunity for human inter-action. We adopt – for very good reason – professional codes and protocols  that minimise discretion and so can  inhibit human relationships . We rely on front line staff who are frequently treated abysmally to provide just the sort of kindness and generosity that we too often fail to model. With grateful thanks to @CatherineB201 who drew this to my attention we also know, if we didn’t already, that the ways in which people relate to each other have a direct effect on those precious, vital outcomes.

We know that all social change comes from the relationship between people,  and yet we are nervous about talking about it. This isn’t because people are nasty. It isn’t because we don’t know this stuff.  It is not because planners, regulators, auditors and professionals are malevolent. It’s because talking about kindness, and talking about human behaviour is scary, and  requires us to think more deeply about motivation, and  behaviour, about friendship and love, and the things that make life worth living. To do so requires courage and focus, but a more humanised state is necessary if we are going to meet any of the huge challenges facing us. Dorothy Elmhirst, the founder of Dartington Hall Trust  where I am privileged to be a trustee, wanted us to try to live a ‘many-sided life’. The challenge for those of us engaged in public policy is to recognise that in our modern world the many-sided life involves us in recognising the human – and that can be messy and uncomfortable and challenging.  But we need to put aside the grimace. Stop treating this as extra, and recognise that how we treat each other is at the core of all public policy. Always and everywhere.