Turning Wales into a compassionate nation

Public policy needs to embrace the concept of kindness for us to be a truly healthier society, writes Dr Rachel Hughes




There is a growing recognition of the importance of kindness, compassion, human connection and relationships for both individual and societal well-being. So, if this is the case, then why isn’t a relational lexicon more commonplace in public policy?


The Carnegie Trust, Julia Unwin, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie have been stimulating debate in this area. Indeed, Julia Unwin argues that kindness, emotions and human relationships are the blind spot in public policy. Why? Because kindness is disruptive, it changes things.


As Julia Unwin says: “Action on kindness in communities must be met by a new contract… a contract that recognises that public services are always about relationships and emotions. A contract that is written in the two lexicons of public service [rational and relational] and helps us all to be more bilingual. A contract that will build trust in public services, encourage engagement and make social change possible”.


In Wales, we have the world-leading Well-being of Future Generations Act where there is a legal obligation for public bodies to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. Implicitly within this, there is an appreciation of the complexity of the ‘system’ in either enabling or disabling the improvement of well-being. With any system, of course, positive relationships and connections are important for ensuring that the system thrives.


I have been lucky enough to be part of the Future Generations Commissioner’s flagship programme, Art of the Possible, where we have been making the Act ‘real’; shining a light on the great work that is improving well-being in communities across Wales and enabling a community of citizens and doers with expertise to challenge ‘business as usual’ to create public services that meet the needs of current and future generations. A key aspect of this, has been the co-production of a suite of resources, Journeys to Well-being; practical actions and guidance for public bodies and others to help them with their journey.


One of the themes that has emerged from this is around compassion and kindness. As we have seen with the work that Julia Unwin, The Carnegie Trust and others have done, there is support for kindness to be integral to public policy.


At a recent event at the Scottish Parliament celebrating to the work of the Kindness Innovation Network, both Claudia Beamish MSP and Sarah Davidson, the CEO of The Carnegie Trust, spoke about it being time to move kindness “off the page”, to go “beyond warm words” and ensure that kindness is a value that improves societal well-being in practice. The challenge we face is understanding what practical things we can all do to make this a reality. This is where we hope the Journeys to Well-being will help.


If we look at the Healthier Wales well-being goal specifically, the definition in the legislation talks about ‘a society in which people’s physical and mental well-being is maximised and in which choices and behaviours that benefit future health are understood’. With this, we wanted to shift the narrative of what a healthy society means – one that sees how health is shaped by social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental factors, and acts on these to improve health for current and future generations. It is more holistic and not something you have or don’t have, it’s on a continuum. 


So, along with ‘an active nation, place-making and designing-in community health and well-being’, and ‘seamless, preventative organisations and services’, a key aspect for a healthier Wales is compassion. We want Wales to be a compassionate nation – to support people to act with compassion and kindness and to facilitate understanding of mental well-being.


Within the Journey to a Healthier Wales there are, therefore, a range of practical actions that people and organisations can take to make this a reality. These are supported, where possible, with examples of practice; they illustrate that this stuff can be done and provide reference points and contacts to learn more.


Compassion and kindness are, of course, not solely the domain of health, they are things that extend across all public policy. In the Journey to a Globally Responsible Wales, for example, we talk about solidarity and peace and how we can play our part to ensure that Wales is welcoming, safe and fair to all.


Becoming a place of sanctuary is one of the practical things we could do – at an organisational level, a community level or indeed at a national level. And similarly, within the Journey to Cohesive Communities, we advocate that kindness is recognised as being at the very heart of our well-being, and that public service practice and policy is informed by kindness in communities.


Whilst each of these Journeys provides practical guidance to realise each of the well-being goals, they must not be seen in isolation. Well-being is holistic, it is the collective contribution. Compassion and kindness have a value and a practice within this; they make possible other things. They help to create, maintain and strengthen relationships, and just might form part of the solution to some of our most intractable social problems.


With the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the approach that we’ve taken through Art of the Possible, we have a real opportunity to move from worthwhile debate around kindness and compassion and pockets of excellent practice to a fundamental shift in the way we conceive and deliver public policy. A new infrastructure based on both rational and relational actions, and one that enables a groundswell of demand for kindness and compassion, and a different way of being.


Kindness, compassion and relationships should be part of the lifeblood of Welsh public policy. Wales is known for being a bilingual nation, now let’s become bilingual in our public policy lexicon. 


Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dr Rachel Hughes is a Goal Convener for A Healthier Wales, Art of the Possible programme on secondment from Sport Wales.

Also within Politics and Policy