Kindness, emotions and friendship – public policy’s blind spot

Julia Unwin reflects on our reluctance to embed human values in our approach to public policy.


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. Over the last year, through a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust, I have looked into the use of these exact tricky, dangerous words and written a provocation summing up my research.  In doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

This work is being considered by a group of experts in Wales this week.  And I am particularly interested in the Welsh viewpoint; Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner has a unique role to play in influencing policy.  Embedding kindness into policy making that affects future generations could be a disruptive game-changer.

Changing the public discourse is not just desirable, it’s essential.  We face an apparent epidemic of mental illness, particularly affecting young people.  We now know that loneliness is a scourge damaging the lives of many. We know that some communities are resilient to inevitable shocks, while others are not.  All this we know, yet public policy still speaks in a different language.

From our own experience, as well as from deep academic research, we know 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 interaction, 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 interaction. 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.

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.

For more information on the Kindness project, or to learn more about Julia’s work, please contact [email protected]


Julia Unwin was the Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust from 2007 until the end of 2016. She has researched and written extensively on issues relating to philanthropy, the voluntary sector, and its relationship with government and has written several books, the most recent of which is entitled “Why Fight Poverty?” which was published in November 2013. She has a Fellowship with Carnegie UK and chairs the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society.

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