A crisis of compassion that is making us all feel uncomfortable

It is not easy feeling like an outsider. Looking in on all things government, policy, processes, announcements – especially when you yourself are working inside government or a public service. Last week I attended the Canadian Policy Community Conference, a two-day meeting of several hundred policy people from the federal government to talk about trust and legitimacy. My message was that meaningful power comes when you give up power and give it to those who want help and to those who know how to help them. This is how you strengthen legitimacy.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, telling so many who had made their careers in power to give it up – but it resonated. We all know that the old ways of doing things aren’t working, we get excited by new techniques to crack old policy issues, but still, we feel boxed in by a system that makes having so much power all the more difficult and hard to justify. This is not just a Canadian problem, it’s a problem for public servants all over the world at many levels.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, telling so many who had made their careers in power to give it up – but it resonated.

For people looking in on government from the outside, they see an often unlistening, closed government. They are unaware how frustrated so many inside government and on the frontline really feel. Those outside of government are busy trying to get round systems and processes that make their lives harder. And they wonder, who really cares? Why do services feel so cold and out of touch?

I told the story of a mother who called into a BBC Radio 4 programme recently who said claiming compensation for her murdered son felt like an inhuman process. The victims’ commissioner Baroness Newlove said in her review of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme that the process was so stressful it could retrigger the whole trauma. “I worry that we are treating it as a tick-box exercise, without recognising the emotional needs of those making claims,” she said.

I shared these experiences and many more like them. They shape how we feel about government as a whole and are sadly still a common complaint across many services that go beyond the transactional. Public services are there to help people at their most vulnerable time, yet the process feels out of touch at best, inhuman at worst. Not always, but too many times to say in one speech.

I call this, I said, a crisis of compassion and we are all experiencing it in some way.

The public ask, “who is thinking about us inside those fancy offices?” The frontline who are there to support people ask, “why can’t we be empowered to do what we know is best?” You in government ask, “why are we not getting our policy right?”

We are therefore, despite our best efforts, still missing the insight that can help policy deliver better outcomes for people.

We do try and consider people in policy. I worked for many years in Whitehall in the UK and we thought we really were. We have polls, individuals representing whole communities speaking for them in government all the time, there is finally more diversity at the table and consultations galore, but they are so often attended by the same few people. Many local councillors have told me sometimes barely anyone attends. We are therefore, despite our best efforts, still missing the insight that can help policy deliver better outcomes for people. Brexit is a case in point.

I couldn’t go to Canada without mentioning the B word. Brexit was, I said, a symptom of decades of governments that have not listened to or taken seriously an undercurrent of strong feelings about multiple issues that many in leadership hoped was confined and contained or were ignorant of. All those issues had one thing in common – people felt they lacked a meaningful say or control on issues we did not want to surface too loudly. This is a lesson to all of us.

National policy in both Canada, the UK and across the world is still largely made in offices at tables most cannot see or voice an opinion at. To many citizens, policy comes at them like a bolt out of the blue. To policymakers, it has been years in the crafting. Take Universal Credit as one such example – a change in welfare payments in the UK that seemed to work on paper, but felt unworkable for those who needed it.

And at those tables, another problem has arisen, because we now think that by increasing diversity, policy will be more inclusive, that we will regain trust. Sadly that is not true. We have to increase diversity because not doing so is unacceptable, but we cannot rely on a few to speak for all the communities we think they represent. For a start, it’s insulting to ask them to. We will all have to speak up together. We will need to bring the outside in and turn the process upside down. We will need to start with people, not ideas.

Canada does comparatively well on gender diversity. Like many countries, it has to do better on racial diversity, but the diversity that is needed the most is the diversity of voices who understand what is happening when policy meets people. What is needed is a mindset shift from “we know best” to “they know best”.

To be inclusive, governments must realise that decisions about people in places we never visit are not always best made within the four walls of our offices.

Neither the UK nor Canada has this mindset yet throughout all they do. We fear letting go.  We don’t educate or inform people enough, because we like to be in control and say, “we can fix this” or “it’s too complicated”. This lack of civic education on how to participate meaningfully makes referendums very hard to make fair. Canada and the UK have two of the highest trust gaps between the informed and uninformed public, according to the latest Edelman Trust survey, causing yet more divisions and a mistrust of government that policy will be unable to close.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was founded in 2008, and has been a painful and brave process to help Canada come to terms with horrors that have been inflicted on the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada. When I met with students from the First Nations University in Saskatoon over a year ago, they said they welcomed this new openness, but they are still being asked to work with government systems that they don’t fully understand. “Why should we always have to understand a government process of yours, why can’t you try to understand mine?” one young lady commented.  

As I closed the speech that, to be honest, made me feel a little like an outsider, I reminded everyone once again that inclusivity means voices that have real power, from the policy table to the streets. I gave the example of Wigan, a town in Lancashire that is empowering its population of over 300,000 to work together to solve the issues people want to solve in what it calls The Deal.

We will have to listen better, get off our seats, ditch the presentations, and remember why we are in the roles we chose, to help people.

We now need a mindset in government that makes Wigan more possible elsewhere. One that enables those who understand how to resolve complex problems that impact on people, to really be able to do this without unnecessary control from a place on high that cannot possibly understand.  It is happening, but it is sporadic and still against a rising tide of top-down thinking.

We will have to listen better, get off our seats, ditch the presentations, and remember why we are in the roles we chose, to help people. This mindset shift is really just going back to the real purpose of government. I am so encouraged by what I see is happening in New Zealand. ‘The Spirit of Service’ recognises that people will need to be ‘at the front and centre of how we in the Public Service think, organise ourselves, and operate. That is at the heart of a transformational programme that is underway and is as significant as any in the history of the Public Service.’

We all feel like outsiders in one way or another right now, we are dancing to the tune of processes that are out of step with today’s rich chorus of voices. No one at the Canada conference disagreed that their real purpose is often forgotten or hard to grasp day-to-day. One Team Gov Global were there with their wonderful T-shirts of solidarity for public servants braving change. The movement is growing.

Tomorrow, I said, ask yourselves, “How can we help? Do we need to get out of the way?”  It might be messy but at CPI we say, “embrace the mess”.

You’re powerful when you give up control. And with that, I left to return to Brexit Britain. Three days out, what have I missed?


The closing speech on legitimacy and trust to the Policy Community Forum of Canada is part of CPI’s work on the future of government. You can watch the full speech here.