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Article Article May 16th, 2019

Government’s struggle to improve our sense of belonging is making us all feel lonely

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Feeling we don't belong can affect our wellbeing and mental health, our desire to collaborate with government, and its #legitimacy.

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Are governments doing enough to address our basic need to belong? @NadineMCSmith explores... #FindingLegitimacy

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As the UK focuses on #mentalhealth awareness this week, what role does government play in helping us belong? #FindingLegitimacy

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It is vital that governments understand the connection between belonging and legitimacy. Policies have the capacity to help people feel they belong to something or somewhere and -- when done well -- can increase their willingness to engage with government. However, when belonging is not well understood in government, even good policy intentions can fall short, engagement can feel meaningless and the consequences can be serious.

Recent images of Jacinda Ardern hugging the families of the victims of the Christchurch atrocities showed the world what empathy looks like for a government. She helped the victims and all those living in New Zealand feel like they belong, that there is a strong community of support that cannot be torn apart. In our work at CPI to understand legitimacy, we continue to hear citizens say that seeing empathy from our leaders matters because it enhances our sense of belonging. Feeling that we do not belong can affect our wellbeing and mental health, our desire to collaborate with government, and therefore its legitimacy too.

Despite being the most ethnically diverse city in the UK, London is one of the loneliest cities in the world -- not helped by rising house prices, the above-inflation cost of living, and inaccessible high paid jobs, to name just a few issues. In Tokyo, they have even installed hugging cafés, such is the loneliness problem there. We all need to feel we belong: marketing gurus, religious leaders and psychologists alike understand that basic human need. Indeed, Maslow's hierarchy of needs places belonging and love as central to our ability to thrive and even survive.

The challenge for government in addressing belonging

This week is mental health awareness week here in the UK, and government can do much more to help people feel they belong. Despite many data sets and studies on the issue, thinking and talking about the impact of policy on our sense of belonging is often tackled at the sidelines of government or group by group, such as ageing populations, youth, racial integration and social exclusion. Talking about belonging as a concept we all need to feel means venturing into religion, culture, class and any other no-go topic you care to think of. And while government policies have the capacity to help us feel we belong, some can also unintentionally reduce our sense of belonging; so the consequences of all policies and their impact on belonging must be better understood.

Take the UK's Sure Start initiative, for example, which involved opening community centres for the most deprived. They were buzzing with people from the local area, of all income levels. The government then as much said that the middle classes should stop using Sure Start. It caused much anger about what and whom community centres are for and fed resentment between social groups. This meant no one felt they belonged there. But the services were vital and were creating cross-community cohesion.

And while government policies have the capacity to help us feel we belong, some can also unintentionally reduce our sense of belonging...

Belonging to our communities and seeing that we can all contribute to and gain from them not only enhances the legitimacy of governments, but can also increase our understanding of others. Belonging can have great mental health benefits for both young and old, giving us a sense of purpose and connection and can lessen the associated costs of loneliness too.

In 2010, psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, published groundbreaking research showing that people who had strong social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival compared to those with weaker ties. Being disconnected, she showed, was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Things that once gave us all a strong sense of identity are now less certain - living near family, affordable childcare, jobs for life, the local high street, these are just some examples among many of areas of life that government has a large role in shaping. There is now a generation grappling with the unintended consequences of online shopping, busier cities and hard economic times, all of which impact our sense of belonging, our wellbeing and a feeling of powerlessness to change it.

Governments see and worry that political engagement is generally in decline and it is harder to understand what people want and really feel. We see that people are now finding other more direct connections to alternative powers such as new political groups, new leaders and campaigns. The connection between belonging and the legitimacy of government is becoming clearer. What can governments do?

How the enablement mindset can make belonging a goal

Giving communities the power to create environments where everyone feels they belong is a good starting point. Through our work on the enablement mindset, CPI is investigating how to think more logically about where power should sit. One key component of enablement is giving the people closest to a problem the space, resources, trust and power to come up with the best solutions. These can cut cross traditional policy boundaries and people classifications and are specifically aimed at local solutions to local problems.  Adopting this mindset can enhance our feeling of belonging and identity -- crucial for mental health and strengthening our ties and the legitimacy of governments.

Wigan is a local authority of Greater Manchester with a population of over 300,000. Following the decline of heavy industry, the town has constantly featured high on deprivation lists (in 2014 almost 20% of children under 16 were living in poverty). Following the 2008 crash and the subsequent introduction of austerity by the UK government in 2010, Wigan Council saw its annual budget cut by £160m, equivalent to around £500 per capita. It was the third worst affected council of over 400 in England.

Wigan's solution was to introduce The Deal -- a place-based approach to its many problems, whereby the local authority gave power back to communities to determine how money is spent and what kind of place they wanted to live in. Before adopting this new approach, an average family would typically have over 25 interactions with public services, which resulted in little and came with a hefty price tag. Now, Wigan is the happiest place to live in Greater Manchester, it has reduced levels of poverty, outcomes are better across health, social care and the environment, and it has saved £131 million since 2010. Shifting power has helped people to feel that their views matter and that they belong to the communities they are helping to create.

Embracing the enablement mindset through place-based approaches offers hope, but expertise in how to bring people together in very divided communities remains in short supply. Deliberative forms of engagement are still in their early stages, but countries such as Estonia and Iceland are showing the way and many others are experimenting with new technology to make such conversations easier. But bigger conversations alone won't be enough to enhance belonging -- they must feel relevant and authentic and give people more than a voice, they must give people real power too.  

At CPI, we want to understand how to make the most of these and other opportunities for governments to help people feel they belong. So far, policies that can address this seem to be disjointed, and the connection between belonging to a community and our sense of personal identity is unclear. Not understanding this could have terrible consequences, as the UK's Government Office for Science advised in its Future Identities report :

“Policymakers will need to consider indirect as well as direct implications of policy for communities and people's sense of belonging. It is important to recognise that policies can interact with identities in complex and unpredictable ways.”

Certainly, policymakers will need to do more than just consider this advice. They need to create policies that enhance our sense of belonging and be aware of those that don't.  They need to do so while understanding their nation's new and often unfixed identities. They will need buckets of empathy (even just a little of Jacinda's), together with teams that can handle complexity, listen better and empower and reflect the communities they serve. There is much more to understand and do to help us feel we all belong, without it communities are at risk, our mental health is at risk and so is the legitimacy of government. It's high time we took action.

We are exploring belonging and its impact on policy and legitimacy. Let us know what you think - is your government looking into this? Is your city? Has policy contributed to your sense of belonging - or worked against it? We'd love to know.


Written by:

Nadine Smith Founder & CEO, Nadine Smith Consulting
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