Why civil servants should become experts in empathy

This blogpost is based on the talk I gave at TEDxWhitehallWomen

I’ve been obsessed with empathy for as long as I can remember:​ ​the ability​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​someone​ ​else’s​ ​experience​ ​of​ ​humanity and​ ​use​ ​that​ ​understanding​ ​to​ ​guide​ ​our​ ​actions.

I’m also a civil servant, and very proud to work in the sector I do.

Empathy and the civil service are two things not often mentioned in the same breath, but I’m passionate about both. I believe that, far from being mutually exclusive, we should consider empathy to be a core skill for civil servants.

Empathy and the civil service

The civil service exists to help politicians get things done: our stated aim is to ‘help the government of the day develop and implement its policies’.

A policy is government’s​ ​approach​ ​to​ meeting ​a​ ​societal need:​ ​what​ ​should​ ​our​ ​healthcare​ ​system​ ​look​ ​like?​ ​How should we treat people in our prisons or educate our children?

Many of these policies become services. Every time you interact with the state — to tax your car, register to vote or get medical treatment — there are hundreds of civil and wider public servants behind the ideas and decisions that define that experience.

In order to do our jobs well, the policies we develop must have certain attributes. They must be affordable; operationally viable; and politically & societally acceptable.

They must be something else above all this, though. To be effective, our policies and services must create specific and measurable behavioural change.

Making people do different things

Most policy and service design aims to make us behave or experience something differently. If we want you to pay your taxes on time we might give you a tax break; if we want the population to lose weight, we might build more bike lanes or tax sugary drinks. Ultimately, we want something to change out there in society.

To do this well, we must be able to understand and accurately predict how policy will affect people’s behaviour. We must be able to understand other humans’ motivation to change, to walk in their shoes, and that’s where empathy comes in.

Why making policy with empathy matters

Back in 1920 a group of largely white, affluent, teetotal, Christian policymakers in the US decided they wanted people to stop drinking alcohol. They could have taxed it, or turned people against it via a publicity campaign, but they decided to ban it.

What they failed to understand, unlike the great philosopher Homer Simpson, was that many people quite like a drink, and that if government removed the opportunity they would be quite creative in filling the gap. Cue a huge loss of tax dollars, a massive upsurge in organised crime — and a modest downturn in alcohol consumption.

So empathy — or lack of it — can make or break how good a policy is. If we don’t predict the effects of our ideas accurately our policies and services will fail to do what we intended: we’ll waste time and money, and let people down.

For this reason, the ability to understand people’s motivations and feelings when they interact with the state should be considered a core skill in our sector. Civil servants should become experts in the practice of empathy.

How to create a high-empathy civil service

If we can make a case for empathy to be considered a core civil service skill, how do we create more empathy in our industry? Here are 3​ ​simple​ ​steps which will get us on the right track.

Firstly: we need to talk directly and regularly to the people most affected by our work, particular the most vulnerable who are least likely to respond to public consultation.

It should be an​ ​obligation for all civil servants, particularly in rarefied Whitehall, ​to​ ​have direct contact with policy and service users​​ ​as early and frequently​ ​as​ ​possible​. And not just to talk: we need to listen, hard. To take their concerns seriously and have the humility to change our ideas and our advice to ministers based on what we’ve learned.

​​We should also​ ​be confident​ ​in​ ​using​ ​qualitative​ ​evidence​, such as user research, to​ ​back​ ​our​ ​ideas​.​

Secondly: we need to make sure we’re ​ ​representative​ ​of the​ ​people​ ​we serve.​ ​We’re​ doing really well with diversity and inclusion, which is great,​ ​but​ ​we​ ​need​ ​to focus more on recruiting​ ​from​ ​a wide variety of socioeconomic groups.​ ​This​ ​will​ ​bring​ ​a​ ​type​ ​of​ ​diversity​ ​that​ ​we​ ​seldom​ ​talk about​ ​and​ ​which​ ​is​ ​vital but very​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​measure​: diversity​ ​of viewpoint.​ ​We​ ​need​ ​people​ ​with​ ​a​ ​breadth of​ ​life​ ​experience​; heterogeneity of ideas will give us built-in,​ ​collective empathy and make us better as a sector.

Thirdly,​ ​we​ ​need​ ​to​ ​role​ ​model​ ​and​ ​reward​ ​empathetic behaviour.​ ​Our​ ​reward​ ​structures​ ​cater​ ​well​ ​for​ ​hard​ ​skills​ ​- financial​ ​savvy,​ ​problem​ ​solving,​ ​the​ ​ability​ ​to​ ​motivate​ ​a​ ​team. These​ ​are​ ​great​ ​and​ ​necessary,​ ​but​ ​not​ ​sufficient.​ ​To​ ​get​ ​more empathetic​ ​as​ ​a​ ​whole,​ ​we​ ​need​ ​people​ ​to​ ​recognise​ ​how important​ ​empathy is,​ ​and​ ​for​ ​others​ ​to​ ​celebrate​ ​that.

We can do this by:

  • amplifying the wealth of high-empathy policy and service design work already happening in the public sector
  • normalising the use of more human and emotive language. The state deals in base human emotion: think of something as simple as registering a birth or death and what that means in your heart. It’s important that we are confident to reflect people’s feelings in our daily work.
  • creating spaces for people who share these views to come together and collaborate across existing hierarchies and departmental boundaries. This will start to galvanise good high-empathy approaches right across the civil service.

One Team Gov

I and some friends founded the One Team Government movement back in summer to make that last point a reality. We set up the movement to help bring different people together to make our sector better — creating empathy between professions and communities to help bring us closer to citizens.

​We’re guided by seven principles and within them are these words:

We​ ​will​ ​be​ ​distinguished​ ​by​ ​our​ ​empathy — for​ ​users​ ​and for​ ​each​ ​other.​ ​

I hope the One Team Gov movement can help make conversations about empathy go mainstream, both in the UK and in the governments abroad who are interested in our work.

In summary

Empathy is a vital skill for the public sector. Seeing our work through a lens of empathy makes us better at our jobs and helps us fulfill our purpose.

Civil servants must be cool-headed, but we must be warm-hearted too.


If you’re interested in these ideas, have a think about how you can apply the ideas above in your own job: get closer to citizens, build more inclusive teams, and reward or role model high-empathy behaviour.

If you want to talk, you can get in touch @kitterati or @OneTeamGov on Twitter.

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