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Emotions, empathy and what it means for us now.

I wrote last week about the nine things I’d noticed at the start of this crisis, but I’ve carried on watching. And I’ve since observed

  • That emotions really are the blind spot in public policy and in the way in which we talk about things. In all the words that have been expended so far about the impact of this crisis, I have not seen much attention paid to the fact that we’re all experiencing grief: grief for hopes and plans dashed, for security taken away and for some, the terrible lasting grief of bereavement.
  • And we’re all terrified: scared about what the future holds, anxious at a time of such uncertainty, frightened for those we love. And we’re angry – angry at a government that has failed in its basic job of protecting us, furious at those who we see as exploiting the situation, raging at forces we cannot control. And at times of grief, terror and anger we cannot always be rational, we are all easily triggered, so the language we and others use really matters.
  • And because language matters so much I’ve also noticed that Zoom and Skype calls, social media tweets and blogs and conversations that don’t acknowledge the pain we are feeling are dangerous places. When I hear people talk blithely about the great opportunity this is to shape our economy, or who seem to exult in ever last bit of tragic or terrifying news, I retreat in horror. I notice the armchair epidemiologists who spread fear or rush to darken any glimmer of light. I fear the Cassandras who spread gloom and despair as our predicament continues.
  • And I know that trust in these dark and difficult time, is the most precious currency. The most fundamental contract the people have with the state has been broken. We expect the government, whatever that government is, to keep us safe, and while we know that many of our fellow citizens were long ago abandoned by a state that failed them in this fundamental duty, this time we have all been betrayed at some level. We need to trust the science even while we know that science can be flawed. We need to trust the NHS even though we know its grossly underfunded and can make mistakes. We need to trust people making decisions on our behalf, and that’s really hard when so many of them have let us down so badly.

None of this sounds at all ‘strategic’, but I believe that it is. Because we are learning three fundamental lessons

  • That we need to be kind and thoughtful and intentional in the way we talk- and behave – and that is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I argued in  Kindness, emotions and human relationships will be vital in public policymaking. Indeed, the really disruptive approach is to be kind in a world which favours cool rationality,
  • That anger, like revenge, should be a dish best eaten cold. We have seen the underfunding and the vilification of our public services, and our public servants, we have watched the undervaluing of the work done by carers. Now at the time of crisis, we can witness appalling behaviour by some employers, observe the machinations of profiteers and speculators, and see the disarray in our political leaderships. We should neither forgive, nor forget. But let’s not waste precious energy right now, and risk fuelling more despair and anguish when it is already abundant.
  • And that while we plan for a better tomorrow, and we must, we need to do so in a way that recognises this is so much more important than ‘a political opportunity’, so much more profound than an attempt to simply repeat what we have always said before. We need to recognise that we are observing and learning things that challenge our most precious preconceptions.
  • Real social comfort, real solidarity and therefore real change, comes from people and the relationships they have with each other. And that anything at all that devalues or undermines those precious relationships diminishes us all, and threatens our chances of getting though this sad and frightening time.
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Nine things I’ve  noticed  this week

We’ve known that a global pandemic would come for decades, and it’s been modelled and planned for time after time. But when it comes it’s a massive and terrifying shock, and the implications will be felt for decades to come. Just now we’re wrestling with the health and economic impacts and learning things we didn’t know about ourselves, as well as confirming what many of us have always believed. And primarily it has confirmed, if it was ever needed, that global shocks hit the poorest people most badly.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say that this extraordinary period is variously as big in its impact as 2008, or 9/11 or 1945. But it clearly is a hugely important moment in our lives and will probably change everything. I feel it’s a bit too early to make dramatic predictions (after all, what use are they just now?) but it is probably the moment to notice accurately what is going on. I often think that change happens in the most unexpected places and when we are not really looking. This is one of those occasions.

  1. We’ve learned that we need strong, trusted institutions. After a decade or more of it being easy to throw brickbats at the NHS, the BBC and the civil service, at a time of national emergency those authoritative and powerful bodies are needed more than ever before. Just notice how often senior politicians invoke ‘our NHS’.  Remember that only 10 days ago the end of the BBC was called for, and carelessly compared to Netflix.  And we’ve learned once more that trust is, and always has been, the most precious currency.
  2. We’ve learned that people do look out for their neighbours and friends, and that a dense network of connections is keeping people going, supporting their well-being and offering practical help. Support really is local, mobile and social – and the outpouring of local support and friendship has been astonishing and heartening to see.
  3. But it has its shadow side and the panic buying, stripping of supermarket shelves, and shameless profiteering is a powerful antidote to those of us who like to think that crises produce the best in people.
  4. We need the state. Anyone who in the last few years has been tempted even for  a minute by the siren voices proposing that the market or the community alone can cope, now knows the absolute importance of a connected, capable and properly powered state.
  5. Experts matter. We need to be allowed to trust the science and the advice. The clear voice of experts rings through all the noise.
  6. But in a world where everyone has access to a publishing platform, we’ve also learned of both the dangers of rumours and false information and the extraordinary benefits of rapid organisation, and the ability to raise concerns from anywhere in the country.
  7. We’ve learned that 1:10 of us in the lower half of incomes can work from home, and 9:10 of us in the higher half can (thank you Resolution Foundation) and that really matters because it makes our economic prospects so hugely different. The Universal Basic Income has its detractors (and I’ve been one) but if ever here was a time for it, it is now. It is feasible, effective and could remove economic anxiety from a nation already massively anxious.
  8. We’ve learned how appallingly degraded our public services have become over the last decade of austerity. We’ve learned that 5000 ventilators for a population this size is the lowest in the developed world. And we’ve learned how very badly some companies have behaved. We’ve learned that even social landlords needed to be told not to evict people who couldn’t pay their rent, and others in the private sector have tried to by-pass this instruction. And we see that, and we will not forget and forgive.
  9. And we’ve seen the very best of what we can do as humans, as community networks and as big institutions, moving to support, to salvage and to save. The generous leadership, ability to organise, willingness to forsake brand and position and just make change happen, has seen the very best of us at the very worst of times.

It’s been a terrifying week, and it doesn’t look as if it will get much better very quickly, but what I’ve observed and felt will stay with me for ever.

 

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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.