Kindness in Public Services

Community is Kindness

This blog was originally posted on the Future Generations Commissioner Wales website on 5/8/20.

by Jack Sargeant MS and Charlotte Waite

Kindness at the core of public services

Recently the Future Generations Commissioner called for the Welsh Government to instil the value of “kindness” at every level of government and public policy in order to meet the requirements of the Well-being and Future Generations Act.

We completely agree, this change has been needed for some time and we must have a frank conversation about the need for kindness at the centre of Public or Human Services.

Services have too often acted unkindly and become punitive, seeking to punish poor behaviour as they are mistrustful of service users. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has systems that force staff to take a judgemental approach, often to the detriment of service users. Another example is local housing departments. When people seek housing support they are in desperate circumstances, often in temporary bedsit accommodation and suffering the impact of a lifetime of trauma. In these circumstances they are often offered one shot at a housing solution that may not suit them.  If they react badly to this the offer may even be withdrawn. None of this is the making of frontline staff and often goes against their own humanity and how they would normally respond but rather is a result of the system within which they work. 

Such unkind responses are detrimental to those that need help.  They can alienate and create conflict, which is especially harmful when services are trying to assist people with complex problems. Through no fault of their own, many of these service users will have previous experienced trauma, leading them to react negatively.

Kindness is about removing barriers

This approach is not only counterproductive but also more expensive to the taxpayer. It is well established that the earlier you help someone, the more affective that intervention is.  The response to Coronavirus has demonstrated the ability of services to act differently with some remarkable results. For instance, those on the streets have been found accommodation in order to keep them safe from the virus and the vulnerable have received weekly care packages – these must be recognised as strong steps forward, we cannot return to how things were once the pandemic subsides.

It’s obvious that well supported people, where barriers to opportunity are removed, will go on to live more fulfilling and productive lives.  Kindness is about removing those barriers.

Human services in Wales, meaning those public services set up by the state to help the people of Wales live more prosperous, safe and healthy lives, have unfortunately become less, well, human.

As the work of the Carnegie Trust has highlighted, the answer is not as simple as asking people to be kind. There is merit of course in being more kind in our work, even if our work could be perceived as punitive and when communicating difficult information e.g. affording a family being evicted the dignity and respect they deserve. Being more human (or kind) in these scenarios sugars the pill to some extent and at least communicates dignity, respect, empathy and compassion from one human to another, even where the power imbalance is stark. But a kinder application of the status quo is not the point here, it doesn’t question the motives and purpose of the public service, whereas a broader test of kindness would help us re-evaluate the values and purpose of the system we have created to help the most vulnerable.

Why work in public services?

If you talk to most people who work in public services, they are there for valiant reasons such as wanting to help make a difference or being a ‘people person’. They have often received training as to how to relate well to people and recognise relationships as the best tool in their armour in helping people effectively. So why have apparently ‘unkind’ practices emerged? This is not the fault of individuals working in services but a systemic shift away from kindness in public policy and practice. To apply a kindness test, we must grapple with the context within which services operate:

We have a landscape of services where accountability is prioritised over learning in measuring outcomes. The current system offers an overly simplistic way of assessing the work of people who implement public policy by performance-measuring them against quantitative targets. Naturally, wanting to do well, people are driven to hit their targets. And so begins a dance between service and commissioner, where each knows the data is painting a picture more about justifying the existence of the service than making the difference it was intended to make when it was designed.

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor” (Campbell’s Law 1976, ‘Addressing the impact of planned social change)

Concentrating on hitting targets means public servants are less able to be relational and kind. Time and again workers tell me the “soft outcomes” are those they value the most but are “not what we’re supposed to be doing”. Many workers go above and beyond, doing it the kind way because it feels more human. But there is only so long you can keep this up. If you are not noticed, valued and supported to do your work kindly you get worn down and jaded. Compassion fatigue sets in and in the end your view of kindness is that it gets in the way of getting the job done.

Coupled with the pressing awareness of the need to ration services due to a lack of resources, there develops an ‘us’ who have the resources, measured against how well we use them and a ‘them’, the people we need to hit our targets or assess out of the service because they don’t meet the threshold.  Delivering services like this doesn’t feel kind to those on the receiving end and to those delivering, much like Milgrams students, the dial has turned and we have a new normal where meeting targets has nothing to do with kindness.

How can we begin to be more kind in public services?

So, applying kindness goes beyond needing to change workers attitudes, it means applying the test to the whole system. Asking questions such as:

  • How and why thresholds for services are determined?
  • What is driving practice, outcome measures or real change?
  • How can we support relational ways of working?
  • How can we bridge the gulf between service provider and passive recipient?

We are grateful to the Future Generations Commissioner for putting kindness on the agenda and we recognise that this is exactly the sort of bold thinking that the act enables. A systemic shift is required to put kindness at the heart of every level of government and we hope the roundtable hosted earlier this year has been the start of that shift. If we can begin to implement ‘kindness tests’ such as the one mentioned above, we can make strides towards more human public services for all.