Empathy and the future of policy making

The Fourth Group
May 14, 2018 · 8 min read

Contributed by Kit Collingwood-Richardson, Deputy Director Universal Credit, Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). Co-founder, One Team Government movement.

The public sector must respond more effectively to societal change

The way humans think, behave and connect to each other is increasingly underpinned and driven by technology. For the public sector this presents new and complex challenges: swiftly evolving tech like AI will change how we work; the rise of politics through social media shifts our context daily; and the increase in citizen activism online means we’re increasingly open to scrutiny and new perspectives.

These are times unlike any faced by public servants before. In order to fulfil our core function — to help politicians serve the people who elected them — we must respond decisively. This challenge is particularly relevant for policymaking, for two reasons:

- it is the part of the public sector which is closest to ministers — the pivot point of macro-level decision making in government departments, and;

- given its tie to legislative and political cycles, its heavy scrutiny and its complexity, it remains one of the slowest-moving areas of our work at a time when we need to be speeding up.

We need the skills to cope with these challenges

In order for policymaking to thrive in this era of swift development, we must take a fundamental look at our skills.

Given the complex and specialist nature of new technology, it is tempting to focus on learning how technology works. But the main problem facing how we make policy and services isn’t intrinsically about technology: it’s about how technology has affected humans’ ways of connecting to each other. From the ability to make a revolution on Facebook, watch Donald Trump create policy on the fly on Twitter, or embed our own bias into machine learning. it’s about the impact of technology on human behaviour. This is where the opportunity lies for policymakers to focus their development.

Getting better at human connection

Making good policy has always required the ability to accurately predict how people will react when government makes a change to their life — we need to understand behavioural incentives and trade-offs when advising ministers how to create societal change through government intervention. When we don’t do this we make expensive, bad, failed policy — I discuss one example in the era of prohibition here, but the poll tax in the UK is another. Policy that looks absolutely fine on paper can be an absolute disaster when implemented if we don’t understand the humans we’re designing for.

In other words, we need to develop our empathy, both individually and at organisational levels. Higher-empathy policymaking practice leads to better policy, which leads to better services, which leads to efficiency and cost savings, as well as happier people out there in the real world. But how do we create high-empathy culture in the public sector?

A playbook for more connected policy making

There are some simple ways that policymakers can get closer to human experience, and I’ve listed a few here. None of the ideas below are hugely original — many policy innovation labs and individual teams are already doing some of them — but putting them together as a series of practices, codifying them and making them mainstream, would fundamentally change policymaking in central government for the better.

1) Do user research

Policymaking, given its required analytical skill set and need to have ideas that work at scale, tends to prefer quantitative data over qualitative, which is often dismissed as subjective or — worse — ‘anecdotal’ (as if people’s stories about their experience of government is somehow irrelevant to government). But large data sets, although informative, miss a huge trick — they don’t tell us why our policy is good or bad, or how to make it better. User research, or any direct qualitative and themed views from those impacted by our policies, hugely enrich our view of our work. Crucially, this research must be done by policy makers themselves — it’s important that we look people in the eyes when we’re taking feedback about our ideas, because arm’s length or ‘commissioned’ research makes it too easy to ignore complex or negative comments.

2) Take impact assessment seriously

At their best, impact assessments accurately reflect what implementing a policy will do for the country at large, both good and bad. At their worst, they’re a box ticking exercise

There are easy ways to improve how we impact assess policy. Three such ways are:

- Work harder to assess the impacts on a more granular level: by geographic area, for example.

- Look at intersectional impacts. I’ve been inspired by the Canadian Government’s work on Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), which seeks to look at how policy impacts people who fall into more than one minority or disadvantaged group.

- Don’t do it once. Because of the pace of change, what was true 6 months ago may not be true now.

3) Never make policy without service design

On the end of almost every policy is either the creation of a new service, or a change to an existing one. People who run those services — either online teams, call centres or front line staff — have got masses of wisdom about how the policy that drives the service could be improved. Policy makers need a direct line to that feedback, either by working in or with service teams directly, in order to have the richest and most realistic feedback to their work.

4) Be greedy, and creative, with data

It would be hard to have too much data with which to make good policy. Technology has massively increased the data available to policy makers. It has given us the ability to know more about the people we’re working for, but creatively widening our data sources isn’t yet normal for policy teams. Data could and should come from everywhere: social media analysis, interviews, overseas experience and perspectives, academic research, open data sets and many more, as well as aggregations of all of these which can tell us more again. Behavioural science counts too. Places like Policy Lab are already doing excellent work in this field, and I’d hope we could extend and mainstream this.

5) Empathy is a team sport

You can train teams to have greater empathy. Firstly you need a baseline — there are several measurement tools online. Harvard Business Review has made a good attempt at describing and quantifying organisational empathy here.

Then you can attempt to improve it. There are courses on active listening, on correcting biases, on understanding intersectional impacts of your work, and many others. The more normal we make this kind of training — as normal as health and safety or security training — the better we’ll all get.

6) Better consultation — directly, plainly and with the most vulnerable

Consultation exercises are huge opportunities to take a wide variety of views on what we do and better connect with human experience. Publishing UK government consultation exercises has hugely improved recently by putting them on GOV.UK and making them searchable. But they’re still largely a passive exercise — and a lot of active, face to face consultation is done with representative groups and not the (often vulnerable and disenfranchised) people they represent. Policy makers should work to have direct contact with the least empowered groups impacted by their work, seeking them out if necessary and working hard to get their views.

And we should increase the integrity of consultation further by using plain English to ask questions, using content experts to make the language accessible to the widest range of people possible.

7) Co-create policy with those impacted in the room

‘Nothing for us without us’ was a phrase I picked up recently on a visit to another team, as a statement of intent for co-creation of services with users of that service. It really hit home with me, that citizens having a direct stake and influence on the policy that is impacting their lives, would bring a large dose of humility to the way we develop ideas.

This way of working would be total anathema to most policy teams; we’re used to delivering policy to the public when it’s done or near done, so another way of working is quite scary. But that’s sort of the point — the more scared we are of exposing our ideas early and shaping them in a realistic way, the more likely it is that we’ll make bad decisions.

8) Don’t make policy (just) in Whitehall

When we make policy in central government, we’re in the business of making ideas that can realistically be implemented. The best way of doing that is to go to the places where those ideas will come to life — often local authorities, hospitals, schools or even people’s homes. I was inspired recently when I sat on a panel with someone from Hackney Council talking about policy innovation. She stated quite simply ‘but of course policy is best made outside Whitehall’ — to her it was obvious.

The future of policy making is place-based and appreciates the physical context of those impacted. Given that the ministers we advise largely sit in Whitehall we can’t entirely disperse, but we can form strong partnerships with local authorities and nearby operational centres, co-locating there as frequently as possible. The friction and diversity of view that this will create can only improve the integrity of our advice.

9) Don’t sit policymakers with policymakers

The best policy, like the best anything, is made in cross-functional teams. Diversity of experience, diversity of skill set, and the desired friction that comes from mature disagreement with each other, means every idea gets challenged as it’s being created, ultimately making what we do better. Policymakers should sit with operational experts, service designers, lawyers, commercial experts and digital/tech/data people as a bare minimum.

The successful future of the public sector, and of policymaking as a core function within it, depends on our ability to better connect with and understand people. Though there will always remain barriers to this — political will and mandate, time pressures, cultural friction to name but three — the payoff in the quality of our ideas and our ability to implement them will be worth it every time.

Kit works on data at the Department for Work and Pensions. She is passionate about radically improved public services, about open and empathetic leadership, and about joining up policy making with service delivery. Kit co-founded the One Team Government movement in 2017, which is a cross-sector reform community which aims to improve the way the public sector operates by breaking down boundaries and changing the way we lead.

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