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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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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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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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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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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.

 

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The future of civil society

It has become increasingly commonplace to say that the world around us is changing and changing fast. The impact of the digital revolution, the rise of new populist forms of politics, globalisation, gender fluidity, demographic change – and everywhere there is a crisis of trust.
Devolution in the nations of the UK, changing powers and behaviours for the cities, new forms of governance, the impact of funding reductions are all transforming the role of the state. And the market too is changing too with the emergence of the platform economy. New ‘industrial’ giants like Air BnB, Task Rabbit and Uber, are making old notions of market power obsolete while the titan collectors of information and data, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now control assets that are more valuable than oil and diamonds were in earlier centuries. These market makers and disruptors have been joined by the B Corps, the activist investors, and the companies now loudly claiming the importance of their social value.
Wherever you look there is change, and civil society needs to respond and respond without veering between wild panic or a retreat to the eternal verities of the past.

But we should remember this.

Every social and economic change has seen a response from civil society that both changed our sector, and influenced the future. The Industrial Revolution turned upside down the lives of people who had previously eked out a life in the countryside. They flocked to the towns and burgeoning cities, encountering hardship, a new kind of squalor and a hazardous liberation from the rules and norms that had previously governed their lives. But the moral panic that ensued brought us some of our greatest voluntary institutions: the working men’s clubs, trades unions, the university settlements, rescue missions for children and hundreds of charities. They were the products of an active, engaged, and entirely voluntary response to the challenges of the times.

Later, in the interlude between the great wars, NCVO was born, as an association of civil society, along with institutions supporting injured returning service men.

Then, in the aftermath of that massive global catastrophe, the second world war, new forms of associational life and service provision were devised to support the displaced peoples of Europe, and the dispossessed of the UK.

Civil society observed change, organised to respond to that change and in doing so, altered the trajectory of our culture and social order. Successive waves of organisational forms, the women’s aid refuges of the 70s, the organisations for people with AIDS in the 1980s, rights groups for gay men and lesbians, ethnic minority bodies in London, Liverpool, Leicester and so many other cities, demonstrate the capacity of our sector to shift in response to huge change and also shape it. So too did the housing co-operatives, the Claimants Union, the organisations of parents of children with learning difficulties, campaigning for change.

Now the boundaries around our sector are shifting, even blurring. We witness the internet and the digital revolution altering not just how we do things but what we do. We can see that some of our global institutions are in peril. The most recent Edelman Index suggests a weakening of public trust and confidence in NGOs. This is the right time to revisit our ways of operating and examine whether our values match up to the imperatives we face. This is not a time to withdraw into nostalgia about the past, nor to simply do what we’ve always done, and get what we have always got. It is the time to examine our powers of connection and our capacity for association. To examine our accountabilities, and our relationship with others, and forge a new future, just as surely as our predecessors did before. We need to ask some fundamental questions about who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

That’s why a group of grant-making foundations have created an Independent Inquiry into the future of civil society. We’re approaching this important task in a spirit of considerable humility, recognising that some of the answers to our questions will be found in the most surprising places, and that what we find may challenge our preconceptions. But I also approach it with considerable confidence that today’s civil society will develop and change to make a positive difference on our fast-changing world.

Julia Unwin
February 27.