Ben Thurman is Policy and Development Office Carnegie UK Trust
We recently asked a group of young people what kindness means to them. In the discussion that followed, Laura* reflecting on multiple interactions with public services asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if people started by telling you their name?’
It is a question that at once highlights both the importance of trust and relationships in young people’s interactions with public services and the sheer simplicity of kindness. And that, despite the significant efforts of campaigns like #hellomynameis, too often public services don’t provide the space for people to authentically connect.
We all want to be kind, and no-one would seriously disagree with the Scottish Government’s ambition for a society that treats everyone with kindness, dignity and compassion.
But our work has found that there are very real and very important barriers that inhibit professionals’ ability to act in kindness. Over the past 30 years, attitudes towards risk and regulation and the drive for efficiency, combined with the more recent impact of reductions in public expenditure, have minimised the opportunities for relationships and human connections in our public services.
For very good reasons, we have created systems with clear rules and boundaries; and our focus on performance management has enabled us to radically improve our public (and commercial) services. But in minimising risk and maximising efficiency, we have crowded out the flexibility that enables people to respond to human needs. And, at times, this can lead to some increasingly transactional and impersonal experiences for people like Laura.
Our work has led us to the conclusion that we need to do more to encourage and enable kindness; and that, crucially, we need to place greater trust in our teachers, nurses and social workers to be instinctive and responsive to human needs. But it is here that kindness becomes far more complex than it first appears. How do we do this in a way that delivers equality and accountability; that offers value for money and doesn’t depend on already-stretched staff ‘going the extra mile’?
Responding to this challenge is of critical importance for all of us – but particularly for those, like Laura, who have multiple interactions with a range of services.
These debates also map onto other important discussions about children growing up in care. The Carnegie UK Trust is privileged to be part of the Independent Care Review’s Journey group on Love. Like kindness, everyone understands the simple yet fundamental importance of love. We can all recognise that every child – including those who grow up in care – needs to feel safe and that they belong, that they are cared for and listened to.
And yet, embedding love in ‘the care system’ appears to stand in opposition to important frameworks that ensure safety and fairness for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children and young people. How does love fit alongside professional codes that are designed to minimise risk by maintaining appropriate boundaries and distance? How can we ensure that every child has someone who loves them? Just like kindness, conversations about love show it to be far from simple. But if we are to create a Scotland where every young person knows what it means to love and be loved – and a Scotland that recognises the importance of relationships in public services – we need to embrace that complexity.
* Laura’s name has been changed to protect their anonymity