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Kindness is all around us – but what part should it play in policy making?

Kindness is a word we use in many forms – “X is such a kind person” or “Y is not very kind.” If we are kind, our lives and the lives of others are seen to change for the better. While kindness has a part to play in our everyday lives, when we think about public policy (not just what the strategic direction is, but how we implement it) where does kindness feature? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Back in 1931 an American judge called Oliver Wendell Holmes described how the interpretation of constitutional principles must not be too literal in reminding us how “the machinery of Government would not work if it were not allowed a little play in its joints.” People’s views on public policy can oscillate between ‘harshness’ with policy makers seen as treating people worse than they deserve, or ‘generosity’ where policy makers are seen as treating people better than they deserve. Nowhere are such debates more prevalent than around social welfare policy where issues such as ‘need’, ‘entitlement’, who is or should ‘deserve’ benefits or how the system should ‘incentivise people to help themselves’ are prevalent. This can lead to trade-offs being made in how eligibility criteria is set and welfare support administered. In a rural context, debates persist over the funding formulas used to decide ‘what’ and ‘how’ public services are provided [are we distributing resources in a fair and equitable way for rural residents?] With ever-increasing demands being placed on public services, amid fewer resources and the rising expectations of some service users, can or should kindness help us navigate some of these debates and issues?

What is kindness?

Kindness is an elusive concept – we recognise it in our everyday lives and yet find it difficult to define.

The term derives from the Middle English word ‘kindenes’ meaning ‘noble deeds’ or ‘courtesy’. Its philosophy can be traced back to Aristotle and Book II of Rhetoric in which he defines kindness as "helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.” Nietzsche considered kindness to be ‘curative herbs and agents.’ In religion, Buddhists view kindness as the act of ‘doing things for another person, without substantial motivation’. The Christian apostle Paul lists kindness as one of the nine traits considered to be the "fruit of the Spirit". Judaism teaches that ‘the world is built on kindness.’ In literature, Mark Twain considered kindness as a “language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see." While Charles Darwin’s work on evolution might at first suggest survival of the fittest required selfishness, he actually believed humans to be social beings seeking good. 

In academic circles, researchers have been carrying out studies into the psychology and biology of kindness. Psychologists at the University of Sussex, for example, published a study about the ‘warm glow’ of kindness – with their findings based upon brain scans from some 1,000 people looking at what happens in the brain when they act out of genuine altruism and when there’s nothing in it for them.

A study by the Universities of Exeter and Oxford found that taking part in self-compassion exercises calms the heart rate and switches off the body's threat response. 135 Exeter students were divided into five groups, and members of each group heard a different set of audio instructions. The two groups whose instructions encouraged them to be kind not only reported feeling more self-compassion and connection with others, but also showed a bodily response consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety.

Back in 2015 geographer Danny Dorling drew upon multiple sources of evidence to try to understand the reasons why the UK had become one of the most unequal countries when ranked alongside 25 other countries. He discussed how behind every unequal policy there is a lack of empathy, and that only kindness and respect will enable us to see each other as if we really are “all in this together”.

In the United States last year UCLA established the Bedari Kindness Institute. The Institute takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of kindness – looking at the evolutionary, psychological, economic, sociological, and other factors that facilitate kind actions toward others. In developing its research programme the Institute aims to translate its work into real-world practices and engage with the public.

In everyday life kindness has come to the fore in the UK and around the world recently - with acts of kindness and solidarity burgeoning amid Coronavirus (COVID-19): from a postcard that you can drop off with neighbours who are self-isolating, offering your help with shopping or a friendly phone call; to supermarkets designating certain hours for vulnerable shoppers or NHS staff and frontline workers; the clap for our carers, the 750,000 volunteers signing up to support the 1.5 million people asked to shield themselves for three-months and the countless rainbows we see displayed in windows. Of course, much of it has also been going on behind the closed doors of hospitals and homes, anonymously and unsung.

Where does kindness fit in public policy?

Back in 2017 The Carnegie UK Trust invited Julia Unwin to explore kindness in public policy through holding a series of roundtables discussions, polling 5,000 people, and speaking at events and writing. In her report, published in November 2018, Unwin argued that kindness, emotions and human relationships are a blind spot in public policy. She argued that kindness matters and makes a huge difference: for without acts of kindness the ‘state’ and the ‘market’ would be incapable of functioning. Three drivers in public policy – (i) the technological power to manage information, (ii) the digital power to manage communication, and (iii) the economic force of austerity – have made it increasingly important to look at the role of emotions, and kindness in public policy. While policy makers are always engaging with emotional responses, feelings and relationships; kindness itself tends not to feature in public policy. Unwin’s work on kindness suggests it matters for those developing, managing and accessing services: “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”.

Unwin’s work has stimulated further debate in this area. In September 2019 Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie from the University of Edinburgh queried if kindness was a concept belonging in, or having much to say to, the realm of public policy – as part of discussions around how to enable and sustain what they called an ‘infrastructure of kindness’. Their report unpacks the conversations within policy and research circles in Scotland about how and why kindness has emerged as a focus for policy. Anderson and Brownlie describe how the National Performance Framework (NPF) has an internal focus in creating the conditions in which acts and relationships of kindness can flourish within organisations; and an external focus in creating the conditions in which acts and relationships of kindness can flourish between individuals in community settings. The NPF already signals a new approach being taken by civil servants and politicians – the national outcomes for children and young people, for example, sets out a challenge to not only ensure that young people grow up with equal opportunities, but also that they ‘feel loved, safe, and respected’.

In Wales, the Well-being of Future Generations Act requires public bodies to consider the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change. The art of the possible programme is intended to make the Act ‘real’ by challenging ‘business as usual’ to create public services that meet the needs of current and future generations. A Healthier Wales, for example, describes ‘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’ – it further describes a need to ‘support people to act with compassion.’

Outside the UK, in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018 New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called for kindness and collectivism as an alternative to isolationism, protectionism and racism. Since then the New Zealand Government has implemented a family tax package aimed at reducing the number of children living in poverty by 41% by 2021 and introduced a Child Poverty Reduction Act which contains further child poverty reduction measures. In his 2018 Christmas message the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about “spreading kindness and light to each other”.

Back in the UK, on the 31 March 2020 the think tank Compass held an online event on ‘the ethics and emotions of the Coronavirus emergency.’ This looked at how the pandemic is forcing us to think and behave differently: how do we relate to each other socially and politically now? What are the right emotions and tone to adopt?

Many of these policy research discussions and dialogues have emerged as a result of seeing limits to the welfare state (be it a crisis in health care or child poverty); or global issues such as COVID-19, climate change or migration; and/or in response to populist political leaders. All of this is leading to reflections on if and where kindness, empathy and compassion fit into public policy.

Where does kindness fit into policy interventions?

The civil service competency framework sets out 10 competencies grouped into three areas (setting direction, engaging people, and achieving results) to indicate how civil servants are expected to work. From a HR perspective the framework is intended to be used for recruitment, performance management and staff development discussions and progression. Similarly, the capabilities plan for the civil service identified four priority areas for future development: (i) leading and managing change, (ii) commercial skills and behaviour, (iii) delivering successful projects and programmes, and (iv) redesigning services and delivering them digitally. Holders of public office should act in accordance with the 7 principals of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. While it is important that civil servants adhere to these frameworks and codes, does kindness require a behavioural shift that is not explicit in these existing documents? A shift that would lead towards more open and collaborative working – including a long term commitment from national and local policy and decision makers to understand, support, reflect and invest in organisations and communities? 

Kindness could bring civil servants closer to communities – by being accessible and listening to what people are saying, including the voices of people who are not traditionally heard. Research has looked at repeated efforts to rationalise policy through processes, qualities, structures and politics. This can lead policy to be seen as responding to problems rather than identifying issues before they become problems in need of intervention. In business, for example, there is often a quality control process whereby any new products are trialled and stress-tested before they reach the marketplace. Policy makers can find it difficult to adapt to local and changing circumstances (i.e., they often focus on making things happen systematically). We also need a greater awareness of, and be able to measure, the intended and unintended effects of the implementation of policy (i.e., will the intervention disadvantage some rural communities?). 

Kindness could open up a new dialogue about where, how and why policy makers should invest. At a macro level some of us spend time looking at the production, distribution, consumption and trade of goods and services and yet less time understanding the role rural residents and community organisations play in reducing isolation, loneliness and demand on acute health services and social care.  Can we measure what we value – such as the value of befriending, improved mental health or savings from joint working? The Scottish Household Survey (SHS), for example, contains questions asking respondents about people who are kind and trusted in their neighbourhoods; other public bodies are using social value tools to measure the wider benefits and outcomes of their interventions.

Understandably, some commentators query if kindness should inform policy and decision making at all. They cite the need to ensure fairness, openness, clarity and transparency. Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, describes our natural tendency to empathise more with our friends and relatives than with strangers – and he suggests that no amount of training can erase this difference. Similarly, we can focus on the ‘warm glow’ we get from being kind rather than thinking through whether it will deliver positive results (i.e., what are the upstream and downstream consequences? Does being kind lead us to focus on ‘us feeling good’ rather than implementing initiatives that actually ‘make people’s lives better?’?) Some commentators question how kindness fits into evidence based policy (EBP) in wanting to apply scientific standards of proof? 

Nowhere is this discussion more illuminated than in health. NHS England’s Evidence Based Intervention Programme examined how to avoid variations in clinical interventions. And yet in ‘the Language of Kindness,’ former nurse Christie Watson explains how when she started her career some 20-years ago  she thought of nursing as a combination of chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology and anatomy, but gradually realised it to be much more about philosophy, psychology, art, ethics and politics. Similarly, the mum test developed by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) seeks to personalise the inspection regime – by asking if the service is ‘caring’ the CQC explores whether staff ‘involve and treat everyone with compassion, kindness, dignity and respect.’ Here the balance between scientific–technical and psychosocial elements of patient care [a biomedical model of medicine] and the humanisation of medical care [having empathy, compassion and being kind and sympathetic] come to the fore.  In the United States, for example, physician-scientists Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli have highlighted what they refer to as the systemic inhumanity within “patient-based” medicine. Referring to a “compassion crisis” in US health care; they argue that treating patients more kindly would improve health outcomes, reduce doctor burnout and reduce costs. 

What makes a (rural) community kinder?   

The Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have compiled evidence and undertaken action research with communities on kindness. They view kindness as important in both reducing social isolation, tackling loneliness and improving wellbeing; and in providing the building blocks for community empowerment through positive relationships and values. They have highlighted three factors that contribute to kinder communities: (1) welcoming places – by this they mean places that are free to use, have warm hospitality and are free from any agendas. (2) Informal opportunities – creating opportunities to connect and act in kindness. (3) Values of kindness – being kind to you, trusting people and celebrating kindness. Linked to these themes they suggest three actions lead to kinder communities: (i) thinking and talking about kindness to encourage us all to be kinder, (ii) leaders empowering people to act in kindness (particularly leaders of organisations that provide services), and (iii) Government removing barriers to kindness.

In July 2019 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) set out its vision for stronger local communities – what they look like and what Government and local partners can do to support them. The vision focuses on four areas: (i) trust, connectedness and local pride; (ii) active citizenship and local control; (iii) shared community spaces; and (iv) shared prosperity. Building on activity taking place across departments, Government intends to hold conversations with communities across the country, establish Civic Deal pilots and publish a Communities White Paper. According to MHCLG stronger communities are built on people, place and pride and lead to improvements in health and wellbeing, local services, economic growth, decision making and the environment. The vision cites the Ennerdale Hub in Cumbria as an example of a strong community. Here residents came together to form a cooperative to develop and run ‘The Gather’, a community centre, shop, café, exhibition and event space in the heart of the village. The Hub developed this facility for the local community in response to the reduction and withdrawal of services in the area.

Between 2010 and 2015 the RSA worked with the University of Central Lancashire and London School of Economics to carry out research in seven neighbourhoods across England on connected communities. This longitudinal project focused on how communities can support themselves [where people are embedded within networks of social support in which people experience reduced social isolation and greater wellbeing] in ways that reduce pressure on public services. They argued that by investing in interventions that build and strengthen networks 4 types of divided will be shared by people in the community: a wellbeing dividend, a citizenship dividend, a capacity dividend and an economic dividend.

Whether it’s a non-profit organisation, national charity or Government department, what does all of this work mean for rural communities? I offer three points. 

  1. People: rural residents do things intuitively every day for others in their local community that are either taken for granted or that we rarely take the time to reflect upon (e.g. dropping a prescription off, providing a lift to get somewhere or checking in on a vulnerable resident).  Existing work on kindness, connectedness and strength tends to focus upon individuals or community organisations (looking upwards or downwards) rather than at a whole community level (within). Who is doing what, when and why – and how might we encourage more people [living in rural and urban areas] to adapt some of these practices?
  2. Place: RSN readers are well-rehearsed in the innovative ways that rural communities seek to overcome access to services difficulties – we are used to getting by with less in rural areas compared to our urban counterparts. In being kind to each other in rural communities do we reduce demand on public services? (E.g. we may notice when a vulnerable person we visit is deteriorating and support them to access help sooner so they do not present in crisis; we pick up the prescription to help a neighbour get and stay well). This opens up an important dialogue about ensuring policy makers do not leave rural communities to ‘get on with it’ [i.e., where services might be reduced or withdrawn] or that they seek to absorb what we do into their system with its strategies and processes. We need the relationship between rural communities and policy makers to be ‘bilingual’, can kindness build and strengthen links between rural communities and policymakers? 
  3. Outcomes: there are clearly societal benefits that come from acts of kindness (e.g. reduction in isolation and loneliness, improved health and wellbeing etc.) but we often find it difficult to identify, describe, quantify and measure these. In many instances we have not collated data or used it as part of an evidence base to make the case for investing in rural communities. 

For me kindness is not grand, rather it is found in small everyday acts, something that you do for another unselfishly but from which your personal gain can also be unavoidable. While talking about kindness in a professional context has not always sat comfortably with many of us, amid COVID-19 it has brought it to the fore and for many of us offered warmth and support at a time of great need. How can we ensure the kindness displayed amid this tragic global pandemic continues and informs whatever our ‘new normal’ ways of working will be? How can we continue to talk about kindness in our work, in our lives and in our rural communities?

Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes helping public sector bodies to measure social value; evaluating an employability programme; and working with 8 farming organisations across England on a Defra funded project on farmer resilience. She is also a senior research fellow at The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC).

She can be contacted by email, Telephone 01522 521211, Website - /, Blog -, Twitter - @RoseRegen


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