18. The relational capability framework: putting the heart back in public services
Shame, pity and guilt in public policy
Relationships are a fundamental part of being human, for in relationship to others we address a profound need to give and receive love and care, security, support, and advice. Our connectedness makes us feel valued and competent, creating networks of shared values and interests.
For 40 years and more OnePlusOne has been trying to figure out how best to enable people to build relationships in the private and public realm. One result of that work is what is referred to as relational capability framework. It draws on the Capability Approach of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, which Hilary Cottam has talked about, as it has been further developed by the philosopher and ethicist Martha Nussbaum. They argue that societies and governments should promote the capabilities of individuals to live a life they value. According to Nussbaum, engaging in a relationship is one such capability. From our perspective that resonates deeply with the extensive body of research around why and how relationships matter.
The building blocks of relational capability are laid down in infancy and early childhood.
At OnePlusOne we have focused on an individual’s capacity to initiate and maintain relationships, and, the opportunity to utilise that capacity. So, our concept of relational capability differentiates between internal relational capability (the skills for making and maintaining relationships) and relational opportunity (the conditions that enable individuals to use those skills).
The building blocks of relational capability are laid down in infancy and early childhood. This is when the child develops social and cognitive capacities, such as emotional understanding, perspective taking and emotional regulation. These form the basis of internal relational capability. With these foundations in place, children are able to create the relationships that see them engage successfully, first, with those closest to them, then with others they encounter in education, the workplace and an ever-widening social world. Capability begets capability.
Relationships also sit at the heart of good public services. They underpin a meaningful and respectful engagement between client and practitioner. In this way they facilitate good outcomes. As others in this conversation have alluded, there is a growing concern that the drive for efficient, contractual models of service delivery has emphasised the transactional and undermined the quality and importance of human relationships, rendering services less able to meet the goals for which they were established.
OnePlusOne has worked with an English local authority, Essex, to address this threat. The relational capability framework sits at the heart of the collaboration. We trialled a new observational tool with a small group of practitioners, to identify opportunities for relational skill development in interactions with clients. Essentially we showed them what they did well and highlighted skills for development. Individual coaching and group workshops reinforced the learning. At the same time our partners in the Innovation Unit worked with parents, practitioners and leaders to identify and address system level barriers to relational working.
Feedback from practitioners suggests the approach is promising. They observed positive changes in their practice which, in their eyes, translated into better outcomes for parents. Time will tell if these modest results build and sustain.
There is much more to be done. Essex, like most public systems, is dealing with huge fiscal constraint and an ever-changing national policy environment that too often stands in the way of relational practice. At OnePlusOne we continue to refine our approach, including the observation tool, subjecting it to increasingly rigorous evaluation with other willing partners.
Penny Mansfield, Jenny Reynolds and Jan Mitcheson work at OnePlusOne, a charity bringing evidence about relationships to bear on policy and practice