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Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy

There is growing recognition of the importance of human connection and relationships for individual and societal wellbeing. Values that were previously considered ‘out-of-scope’ – such as kindness, love and compassion – just might form part of the solution to some of our most intractable social problems. However, talking about kindness doesn’t fit easily within the rational, dispassionate, evidencebased language of public policy. This is a challenge for many of us working within this current tradition.

The Trust was very fortunate that Julia Unwin accepted our invitation to become a Carnegie Fellow to explore the complexities and contradictions of focusing on kindness in public policy and public services. We rarely appoint Carnegie Fellows, who are people of exceptional experience, insight and ability who are given the time, support and space to consider a controversial issue with the Trust. As Julia writes, “the amplification of emotion in public service is risky indeed.”

This report adds significantly to previous work by the Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation that uncovered powerful and sometime surprising examples of where kindness and everyday relationships can affect change and support the wellbeing of individuals and communities. It also runs alongside a number of current Trust-funded and other projects that aim to develop ideas and practical action to explore and encourage kindness in communities and workplaces.

We have found that talking about kindness in this context is profoundly uncomfortable and potentially highly disruptive. Having said that the report is strengthened by a clear consideration of the “strong arguments against kindness.” That balance is important. If we are asking others to be open to new and different ideas we must be equally aware of the counter arguments and the benefits we have gained from public policy and public services based on “the clean, hard lines of a contract.”

There have been very good reasons for keeping kindness separate from public policy, which are wellarticulated in this report. Reasons such as fairness, openness and safety, which can become clouded by the more personal and discretionary expression of human relationships. But it is our view that the great public policy challenges of our time – rebuilding public trust and confidence, encouraging behaviour change – demand an approach that is far more centred on relationships and human connection.

The report is not “stuffed full with policy recommendations, tool kits or calls for ‘compassionate impact assessments’.” But it does contain some powerful and challenging messages for policymakers. Our hope is to build on Julia’s extraordinary and very accessible reflections on this ‘blind spot’ of public policy. There are clear risks to engaging in a discussion on re-designing public policy to better respond to our need for kindness, emotions and human relationships. However, the clear message from this report is that the risks of not engaging are far higher in terms of reducing trust and failure to deliver effective and responsive services. As Julia concludes, if there is no creative response to the challenge to allow space for kindness in public policy discussions “the results would be disastrous for us all.”