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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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The canaries in society’s coal mine

This has been quite an extraordinary week in the UK, even in a couple of years that have had more than their fair shares of surprises and shocks. I’ve spent a lot of the last year going around the country listening to people interested in Civil Society Futures and the more I do that, the more I wonder at the surprise expressed by those frequently described as the “political class.”

Nobody who was deeply connected to the communities in Hartlepool and Hull was surprised by the Brexit vote. Those who were surprised were simply not paying attention. Everybody working closely with tenants at Grenfell Tower in Kensington and Chelsea knew about their frequently expressed  safety concerns. They were of course devastated by the scale of the tragedy but they were not surprised. From the treatment of the Windrush generation, to growing  gang violence, to the damaging implementation of Universal Credit – across the country voluntary and community groups, churches and charities,  knew what was happening. But time after time they were they were ignored.

Every system needs early warning. Every system needs to know when things are going badly wrong. Every system needs to know about deep and underlying discontent. In the UK it seems to me that civil society is the canary in our coal mine. Shocks and surprises happen because we are not listening to those repeated urgent warnings.

And a society that does not listen very acutely to warnings of things going wrong, is a society that will always be shocked and dealing with crisis.

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Confessions of a Framing Sceptic

When I first heard about framing I heard spin. I thought that it was all about identifying  the prejudice of the public and then pandering to it. I thought it was better suited to advertising and the dark arts of politics than the much more complex world of policy development and communication. I thought it was a way of putting a coat of shiny paint on the crumbling edifice of some of our services.

I was so very wrong.

I learned through early exposure to the framing thinking on issues as different as children’s nutrition, housing and poverty that framing is a technique that is genuinely disruptive, hugely challenging to those of us who think we know best, and is a way of rethinking and challenging the fundamentals of some of the rather weary positions that we are all so ready to recycle.

I learned five things that have changed the way I think about public policy, not just what I say.

  1. I’ve learned something I should have known all along :  how we feel about something is as important as what we know. That old campaigning question – do you know, think or feel?  – needs to be relearned. How we feel really matters and this is true of the people who view an issue from afar, those who are personally and intimately involved and those of us with a professional label.
  2. I’ve learned that everything is  always framed. The question is how it is framed. If you describe your services in terms of pity and distance, than that’s how it will be experienced. If you talk about housing in terms of desperation and  need, then you can’t be surprised if it becomes an emergency service. The question is framing it accurately in ways that are completely authentic.
  3. I’ve learned that if you talk in the way that makes you feel comfortable, you’re probably not listening. And not listening probably means that you’ll never be heard by anyone except people like you. And that reciting  data and research evidence in the way I have been trained, may be easy, but probably means that you’re not being heard.
  4. But I’ve also learned that it’s always about us, not about them. I’ve learned that when I think about  ageing I need to think about what I want as I age, that when I think about poverty I need to recognise that the existence of poverty affects us all, and that the things that matter to me – security, home, love, friendship – are almost certainly  the same things that matter to everyone else.
  5. And I’ve learned that when you talk so that people can hear you, extraordinary things happen. It’s not that’s magically public opinion shifts, but it is that the way in which we all think about an issue shifts, and that shifts what we do, as much as how we describe it.

Framing allows us to challenge our deepest pre conceptions, to understand the ‘received wisdom’ , to interrogate all of our own baggage and to start to do things differently. Mostly I’ve learned that framing isn’t about communications. It’s about everything we do. It’s not a silver bullet, but what it does is challenge professionals, systems and all of us who think we know the answer to think a lot more deeply, and then behave so much more intelligently.

first published for #socialcarefutures @neilmcrowther

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A Community Response to #metoo

 

Over the last decade our institutions and industries have been rocked by accusations of sexual abuse and harm. From the Church through the BBC  to Hollywood and to some of our most precious charities we have heard stories about behaviour that has no place in the 21st century. And we’ve heard about harm done, hurt experienced and the terrible work of both repairing the damage, and atoning for the grief caused.

Most of us have been challenged to think about our past behaviour – not just the abusers, but those of us who fear we may have been carelessly complicit. The averted eye, the nervousness about intervention, the embarrassment when we  knew things were not quite right. And all of us, whether accusers, survivors, perpetrators and institutions have known that there needs to be a better way. We need to find ways of being together  that enable fellowship and friendship but avoid causing such devastating sexual harm and degradation.

I believe this strongly. That’s why I’ve signed up to support #preventsexualharm. Supported by an impressive coalition of organisations including the NSCPCC, NCVO, NOTA, Crimestoppers and powered by Re-shape, this coalition challenges us to think about what we can do to prevent sexual harm in our communities, in our networks and our  organisations. .

This doesn’t feel easy or safe. But I do think it’s a really important way of taking back some control. And a chance for all of us to get the confidence to stop sexual harm – and that should mean that at the very least in ten years’ time we’re not looking back with embarrassment at things going on that we really should have been able to stop. After all, that certainly  doesn’t feel easy or safe .

The Future of Civil Society – the year one moment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about civil society and its future over the last year because of my role chairing the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society 

Yesterday we published a range of content  – all well worth looking at. The long report marshals the evidence, the animation stimulates thinking, the map shows where we’ve been and what we have done, and the report describes our thinking.

I have also written a couple of blogs. One, done for NPC was a personal view about the experience, what I have learned and what I am now thinking. And the other, on the Baring Foundation website, was speaking to funders, recognising that charitable foundations and grant makers are crucial if any change is to happen. And if you believe, as I increasingly do, that change is no longer optional,  then how funders respond is going to really matter. The challenges are too important for us to simply blame others : we need to take  shared collaborative responsibil for rising to the challenge.

All of us involved in the Inquiry know that we have learned great deal. We have listened attentively, and heard a lot. But for the rest of this year we need to identify how this change is going to happen – and to do that we need everyone who is interested in civil society to join us, and most importantly, start making the change now.

the 5 Ss in Governance

The five Ss in governance

My interest in governance is as a governor, advisor, author, consultant and chair – and then as a CEO. And my interest also lies in the charity sector, because I think that is where the challenge of governance is most demanding, and the rewards are greatest.

But at a time when the criticisms of governance have never been greater, and the fashionable world-weary pose is to talk about governance as a problem, I want to start with the huge strengths that I think a strong board brings to any organisation:

– A ‘360 degree’ vision, which is the best protection against risk. A truly diverse board is the best protection against risk that I know of.
– The challenge of legitimacy, trust and authenticity is a challenge faced by boards in industry, by boards running public services and by boards of voluntary organisations. The disinterested yet passionate board that many charities attract provides us in this sector with the best possible demonstration of legitimacy, and it is legitimacy that – all research shows – drives trust.
– In a world of anonymous corporations, with shadowy decision making the target of external criticism, the accountable, open and transparent board provides the best route to clarity, but also contributes powerfully to our notions of shared citizenship.

The questions trustees should ask.

I am unashamedly breaking my questions into three, and equally unapologetically know that some of you will have heard some of this before. I am not a technical fixer of governance. I think it matters who the remuneration committee reports to, and I believe that clarity on governance is a crucial, and frequently legal, minefield, but I want to talk about governance as I have practised it, observed it, and written about it.

My questions are these:

– Why are we here?
– Who are we?
– What are we doing?

1. Why are we here?

In the public sector, the new arrival in the governance and board building world, there are two common responses to the creation of a board for any organisation, be it a government department, a quango, or an executive agency, or indeed, dare I say it? A government inspired charity.

First there is the desire to get together all the possible stakeholders on the issue. Lock them in a room, argues the besuited mandarin, and they can sort it out. And stakeholder boards do bring quality of representation, and perhaps therefore legitimacy. They are excellent parliaments for deliberation, for reflection, for the identification of common interest. But can they make decisions? Can they truly act only in the best interests of the organisation they are appointed to serve? And if they do, what do their stakeholder organisations think? Does the tenants association, brought onto the Board of a housing association as a stakeholder, feel betrayed when the board member argues for the rent increase which is the only way that development can be financed? And who does the board consult as a stakeholder, if the trustees are themselves stakeholders? How can the board of trustees sort out the inevitable clashing and contradictory noises of stakeholder opinion if the stakeholder is on the board? So the board has legitimacy, it may have recognition, it may even have short term protection from the attacks of stakeholders, but stakeholder boards struggle to make decisions, and critically struggle to find open and transparent ways of engaging with stakeholders.

This is not, incidentally, to argue against service users on boards. I think tenant directors, service user directors, customer directors, have all added value to the boards they are on, but first and foremost they are directors, or trustees, not stakeholders.

Ah, says the civil servant, in that case don’t go for stakeholders. They are only vested interests. Appoint instead all the acknowledged experts on the issue. If they are so clever they can sort it out. And so the second common response, the expert board, is created. Hugely expert on the issue, frequently divided in professional terms, often publicly wedded to very particular issues, now charged with making difficult decisions which inevitably start with a compromise between the views of different experts. The expert board has credibility in the field. All those who care about the issue breathe a sigh of relief. But the expert board now has to consider the propositions put by its staff. Where do they go for expert advice? How do they disentangle and evaluate the very different sorts of expertise they hear from? And how do they avoid privileging the experts who are their trustees or directors over the experts who are not? How do they analyse and process the different contributions made by experts? How does the board weigh the views of experts who are also board colleagues? Is your expertise bigger than mine? Does your doctorate trump his knighthood?

And so there is the third board, much more common now, and I would say much better represented in the charitable sector: the public interest board. The board that exists to stand in the shoes of the public, to consult the stakeholders, listen to their views, take advice from the experts, but in the end do the difficult task of making a judgement about where the interests of the public – today’s and tomorrow’s beneficiaries – really lie.

So my first question for all trustees to ask is: why are we here? If I am a trustee because I am a stakeholder, or because I am an expert, or because I want to represent the interests of the public, I will have a different set of questions, of weaknesses and of dilemmas.

2. Who are we?

My second set of questions is about who we are. It is very easy to download from the internet, or ask your solicitor, for a list of roles and responsibilities. What does the honorary treasurer do? Should you have a senior independent director? What about the chair and chief executive officer? Does a company secretary serve the board or the organisation? This is all very interesting. But in my observation of boards, both as an adviser and as a member, I have identified a number of different roles, and these all pose different questions:

The Peacemaker asks – can’t we find a common way? Surely there is a different approach?

The Challenger says – can’t we do better? This is simply not good enough for the homeless people in this town. Is it just because it has always been done this way?

But the History holder says, do remember where we come from. When we started we thought that we could really change opinions about obesity. We need to go back to our roots, and remember what worked in the past.

And the Compliance king or queen will always say, can we afford it? What will the auditors say? Is this legal?

To which the Passionate advocate will respond, for goodness sake, surely we must take a risk. People are dying of this disease, we must do more.

And the Data champion says – it is all very well shouting, all the evidence shows that however often we do that, it makes no difference to the outcomes for mentally ill people.

And the Wise counsellor says, we are not the only people trying to tackle this issue, we need to think carefully, plan properly, and take this step by step.

But the Inspiring leader will describe her vision, will point to the hills, will enthuse and excite.

While the Fixer says, I think we can get together outside the meeting and sort this out.

And the Risk taker says, the crisis in Darfur is simply too great. Let’s just spend the money, and it is such a good idea that the funds will flood in.

While the Strategist says, we need to think about what will happen in 2010, and recognise that if the Department of CPT does make the changes that they are planning, then our position will be much stronger and the whole environment will be different.

And the User champion says, I am worried that we are ignoring the interests of our beneficiaries. We haven’t mentioned their needs all though this meeting.

All those voices, and all those questions, make a really strong board. All good boards hold in balance the entrepreneurialism of the strategist, and the risk taker, along with compliance king or queen, and the data champion. I have seen boards that are entirely entrepreneurial and they are pretty scary. I have also seen boards that are entirely compliance driven, and they are terrifying.

3. What are we doing?

And the third set of questions is about what we are doing, and I have described this as the number of ‘S’s’ in governance. Again, we know what boards do – they receive reports, they set budgets, they make decisions, and you can get lots of guidance about that. But the things that boards really need to do all begin with the letter ‘S’.

Boards need to offer support. They ask if the staff are coping with the recent crisis. They check – and are assured –that the ICT works sufficiently, that the resource is enough to do the job. They provide a safe place in which tricky issues can be discussed.

But they don’t just support, they also stretch. They say is this the best we can do? Can we do more? Are we sure this is the only possible way? Have you thought of it differently?

And while they stretch and support, they provide the stewardship function. They hold in trust the assets of the charity. In some charities those assets may be large sums of money; more frequently the biggest asset is the reputation of the organisation. They are stewards of these assets, and like wise stewards they will check, remorselessly and repeatedly, whether an action enhances or damages that asset.

But they are also agents of scrutiny. In classic governance mode, the job of the board is to receive the propositions from the executive and really test them. They challenge and examine, they compare and they contrast. They set the hurdle high, and they need to be persuaded.

And they set strategy. They determine not what the charity will do this week, but next year and in all the years to come.

Good boards have a wide register of behaviour. They can range across the ‘S’s’ of governance and can both support and stretch, be stewards and strategists. But the really high performing boards are those which know what mode they are in and when. They know that the correct response to a report about persistently missed targets is probably not simply support, just as a routine financial report requires stewardship and scrutiny, not necessarily strategy and stretch.

Conclusions

You have asked me to reflect on the questions trustees should ask. I have thrown these back and said that there are questions that we should all ask of ourselves.
– Why are we here?
– Who are we? And who am I?
– What are we doing?

But the central job of charity trustees is to hold the charity in trust for today, for tomorrow and for the future. In doing so, charity trustees make possible both the high level of public trust, and the very high performance of charities. Let’s be as good as we can be at governance, but let’s not be so self critical that we forget the very real asset that is charity trusteeship.

The five Ss in governance

Studies of governance tend to focus on the processes and procedures of governance. Advice about roles and responsibilities is increasingly available, and the way in which governing bodies make their decisions is becoming the subject of informed debate. And yet, says Julia Unwin, for many of us who serve as trustees or directors, there is a whole set of other questions which the more technical guides tend to bypass. What sort of board are we? What mode are we operating in? Are we behaving in the right way at the right time?
I have identified five modes in which high performing boards operate and consider that while very good boards use all of these modes, excellent boards know which they are using and when.

Support
There are times when the function of the board is to support. Not just to encourage the executive,
but also to enable the executive team to work by ensuring that the infrastructure of the organisation works, that staff are employed, that systems work, and also that they are encouraged and enabled to do their work.
Boards in support mode say:
Have you got what you need to do that?
We really ought to celebrate that.
We really can’t allow you to be treated like that.

Stretch
Equally there are times when the board needs to stretch the organisation. It needs to challenge and improve what is put to it.
Boards that are stretching say:
Can’t we do any better than that? Can we create a strategic alliance for this?
Have you thought of doing it differently?
Couldn’t we develop a social enterprise to do this?
Surely we can improve by more than five per cent?

Scrutiny
Boards in scrutiny mode examine the propositions put to them, challenging them and holding them to account.
Scrutinising boards say:
But this really doesn’t make sense. We can’t change our services in this way.
Have you thought of the implications of doing this?
I don’t think you have made the case that….

Stewardship
Boards in stewardship mode guard the assets of the organisation. They are concerned to protect the money, the good name, the long term functioning of the organisation.
As good stewards they know that they need to protect and conserve, and if they are charities, they need to preserve assets for beneficiaries tomorrow as well as today.
Boards which are carrying out their stewardship role say:
But will the money be here in five years time?
Are we giving away our intellectual property too easily?
Is reputational risk too great if we do this?

Strategy
Boards also make strategy. They listen to what others have to say, they consult the experts, and their stakeholders, but in the end they make the big decisions that affect the future direction of the organisation. Boards in strategy mode will say:
The external environment means that we have to re-think….
This is a golden opportunity to open our doors to people from….
We can come out of this a stronger organisation.
In my experience of working with successful boards, the use of the ‘five Ss’ register, and an awareness of which mode is appropriate when, enables boards to really govern with confidence.
The risks boards face are when they need to be making strategy, and in fact they are offering support, or when they are so busy husbanding the resource of the organisation, that they don’t offer that vital sense of stretch.

some thoughts on all our childhoods

We’ve all got good at talking about adverse childhood experience and trauma. So good that we can name them, count them, measure their impact and they even have a handy acronym. We talk about the number of ACEs someone has with fluency and zeal. In lots of conversations recently I’ve found myself reflecting on the opposite.
What if we talked about their positive childhood experiences in the same way? What if we calibrated the impact of joining a sports or theatre group? Of learning to play a musical instrument or being a member of a choir? Of growing up in a home without the daily grinding poverty faced by parents forced to choose between eating and heating? Of growing up with strong networks of support? Of having a significant, reliable adult who isn’t your parent in your life? Of enjoyment of nature, of play? Of security?
What if we listed these experiences, and measured them, bringing together the evidence that we know exists to demonstrate what a difference the positive  childhood experiences make  not just to happy healthy childhoods, but long term resilience, well being, and health.
That would be a world in which no schools inspector could rate a school which had cancelled its music lessons as anything but poor. No local authority would be able to reduce funding for parks and open spaces without calculating the costs. It would be a world in which deep connections would have a value of their own. It would be a world in which changes to the system of welfare benefits would be assessed for their impact on the lives of children not this year, but in thirty years time. It would be a world in which it would be self evident that providing secure tenancies for families is a contributor to long term mental and physical well being. It would of course be a world  in which we would recognise trauma for what it is, but would also know that we were investing in all the positive childhood experiences that provide the scaffolding on which people build their lives.
Is this just a fuzzy utopia? The sort of wishful thinking that gets us nowhere? Or is it instead the foundation for a a different sort of relationship – one that recognises that the health of a nation is its biggest single asset, and that the best way of strengthening that asset is to recognise, and measure, the benefits that we gather through life, and understand what they do to our long term survival. That would be serious asset management and would contribute to building a strong, capable generation with the skills and capacity to take on the leadership roles we so desperately  need.

Why we overlook and ignore our shared need for care

This blog was first published on Unherd.Com as part of their series on the issues that are overlooked and ignored as the political machine is preoccupied with Brexit. I can think of no issue that affects every household in the country and yet seems to generate no sustained and thoughtful political response. I argue that it is our fear of our own frailty, our disgust at the need for care and our inability to see that our wealth is part of the solution that makes this issue so disgracefully neglected.

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Freedom on the Tyne – an evening of history, drama and celebration

A beautiful cold evening in Newcastle and Gateshead on Sunday got me thinking about the inter play between the history of a place, its stories and its sense of self. Freedom on the Tyne – a vast and awe inspiring theatrical celebration of Martin Luther Kings brilliant speech as he received his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle fifty years ago – culminated in a celebration on the Tyne Bridge eerily reminding everyone of the infinitely more terrifying march at Selma. But it wasn’t the extraordinarily skills acrobatic dancers, the stilt walkers or the moving speeches that hit me most. It wasn’t even the experience of seeing a busy urban route free of traffic.  It was the huge joint commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, the Jarrow Marchers, the siege at Amritsar, the Sharpeville Massacre as well as the decision to cross at Selma, which together fired a celebration of protest and resistance, of global connections, and of pride in a place that could put all this on. Our public square can be a desiccated place – here were people apparently from communities across Tyneside, reimagining history, remembering music, celebrating historic oratory, poetry and dance, and doing so in a way that made those apparently distinct unconnected struggles feel incredibly relevant today. Historic connections across time and space really matter – and they speak to all sorts of people.

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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.