Op-Ed: Can Governments really Heal Nations?
by Nadine Smith
On 13 December 2019, the newly elected UK prime minister stood outside 10 Downing Street and said: “it’s time to let the healing begin”. We were, he said, to have a new, “one nation government” to “level up” and unite the country.
But can governments really heal a whole nation?
To understand why we need healing at all, I thought back to my life, struggles of my own family and my career inside and outside of government and came up with five things I feel have helped me understand this need for healing and what we can all do about it. This is a personal story that says we can all do just our little bit if we are to heal.
Getting to know the ‘survivors’ of government systems, they’re all around us
Throughout my first two careers, as a journalist and then as civil servant, I tried to work closely with those who were directly impacted by governments and public services. My mum was one of them. She is a British citizen who arrived in the 1960s from a Commonwealth country and who quickly became a successful senior nurse in the NHS, then a business woman, and a mother of three but who suddenly became a single mother, worrying about keeping her kids fed and nurtured, always having to fight the system — especially the welfare and employment services.
This is how trauma happens, quickly and unexpectedly and we found ourselves needing more support than we ever wanted. Mum could navigate her way through almost any challenge, but her meetings with the job centre left her numb. Just when she needed guidance and encouragement, she felt more demoralised. Her need for the job centre was only meant to be temporary but soon spiralled into months of visits because one meeting would send her over the edge, one bad interaction would knock her off track. There was not the support system, just the system, she would say. How wasteful I would think as a child, she is such a talent and now feels useless.
There are many more “survivors of the system”.
The people I met in my careers always reminded me of how fragile life is. Such as when I worked on three major public inquiries which marked me for life: the BSE crisis and the government’s handling of it, the 1989 sinking of ‘The Marchioness’ on the River Thames and how victims were treated in the aftermath, and the Bichard or Soham Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the murder of two young girls that demonstrated disconnects between the police and social services.
Those inquiries opened up the workings of government like never before and taught me that while government is hard working and wonderful at many things (directing policy, negotiating with world leaders, keeping the country secure, running a whole health system) it was less prepared or able, it seemed to me, to handle complex human problems, especially in the face of personal crisis in towns and cities far away. It was an important lesson for me as a young civil servant.
Recognising I might be part of the problem
That lesson continued to be taught. In my latter years as a civil servant, I was therefore delighted to be coordinating cross-government policy on social exclusion and social mobility. One day, I was out on the road with a very wonderful minister. We met a group of teenage mothers, who were keen to feel that they and their children still mattered. One asked us: “what is there for me now? I want to be a role model for my child, but I can’t fight a whole system.”
And those words struck home. How was it I was still hearing these stories, despite our hard work, huge investment, and success hitting tough targets? And I realised I was maybe part of the problem, because I was not pursuing my moral purpose — to help those help those who need it. I was chasing my tail to prove we were doing our best but these complex people problems I was seeing required more than being busy.
There I was working the hardest ever but I didn’t see how central governments could do everything for everyone. People wanted more from governments, national and local, and public sector leaders and frontline staff wanted to give more too. We were figuring it out as best we could, putting more resources in and showing we did care. Times were changing though and the public wanted to see results for their money quickly and would scrutinise heavily to see it. This was the start of transparency in government. Doing my job was helping in the short term but was masking the fact that this was not going to help those who needed something more.
Realising I cannot solve complex human problems from a far away place
As taxpayers, we all value cost-efficiency and value for money. Phone call after phone call from the media asking for stats, facts and evidence things were working kept me awake at night, literally. We had big promises to keep and we had developed a mentality of learning from business. This meant we talked more about the ‘customer journey’. This got us through some tough transformations and questions and removed some of the pain of government bureaucracy for citizens too. Government became digital, creating paperless services, such as online renewal of passports and driving licences. Waiting times for NHS services came down too.
But these new ideas and methods couldn’t help people like mum, those with complex problems requiring face-to-face bespoke help from services far away form the eyes of Ministers. Many of those customers didn’t even want to be customers and didn’t feel in control of what was going to happen to them.
Times have moved rapidly in the last thirty years and so too have the problems we see today. Challenges became more more global; displaced people, climate change, homelessness, obesity and ageing populations for example. We needed an alternative mindset, another set of tools if you like for these complex problems. We needed relationships, trust and a way to help people feel they and their voices still mattered. A government, a single public service, a single public servant, I realised, cannot solve everything.
We were going to need to work together.
Today the government in the UK is working to understand complexity and what that means for leadership. The leadership qualities now and in the future look to be less about being the hero CEO but more about being connected, outward looking with a higher understanding of the importance of relationships to influence outcomes across many services and environments and a shared purpose everyone can get behind.
The New Zealand Civil Service is figuring this out too and introduced “The Spirit of Service”, focusing on civil servants’ role in making good things happen. The most senior civil servant, Peter Hughes, explained the rationale: “Sitting behind the 1990s reforms was a very utilitarian view of the public service. It saw public service as the delivery arm of government… but what we lost was a sense of being part of something bigger, with a higher purpose, with a moral purpose. In many ways, I think, we lost our heart.”
The heart of the civil service and public service is of course its staff and its citizens. Governments worldwide need the cooperation of both. I realised that strengthening legitimacy was key to embracing this whole new world of complexity and to form those all-important relationships.
Understanding that legitimacy can help with complexity
Five years ago I became part of a small team that set up the Centre for Public Impact and we found, through our extensive analysis of over 400 policies from all over the world, that legitimacy was a missing and very hard to find piece of the policy jigsaw. So we asked the public: “what is legitimacy today to you?”
The answer was partly about feeling valued for having ideas, like my mum wanted. Hundreds of people responded to our call, from Mexico to Singapore, Brixton to Saskatchewan. It was there in Canada that I met a group of First Nations University students. They and their ancestors had suffered much pain and were still experiencing the trauma of it. But these students showed that when we talk with a shared belief in one another’s stories and values, we can solve problems together. They had devised a plan for moving from truth towards reconciliation — which included having their people’s history taught in all Canadian schools. I realised people can decide what to do when encouraged and motivated to do so. When they trust and feel they have equal power.
People want a voice and a seat at the table, their tables, and many have found that voice today, enabled by governments rethinking power structures and control. In Wigan in Greater Manchester, they tore up the rules and said: “you decide the spending priorities of the community”. This gave the town an enormous sense of ownership and pride, and Wigan Council is now an example to governments worldwide. And Gloucestershire Constabulary is leading the way for police forces — by training its officers in community engagement to help them build those all-important relationships with the people they serve.
We need a new culture of listening to go with these new times and challenges ahead and methods to do so fairly and inclusively and that time is here. As in Estonia, where digital portals and citizens’ assemblies hosted conversations about democratic processes. In Reykjavik, they crowdsourced education policy; in Ireland, they debated the law on abortion. And the UK’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change has just taken place in Birmingham.
The legitimacy work CPI did found that new values and leadership behaviours will replace the old ones in these complex systems, such as building authentic connections, bringing empathy into government, listening to voices and responding to them, handing people the ability to scrutinise decisions and co-creating visions together. It is the latter that I am most excited about for its potential to heal a nation.
To heal a nation, we need to co-create shared beliefs, values and principles
Taking all we have learned, the CPI has written a “manifesto for effective and legitimate government”. it is not a prescription but acts as a way to inspire you, whatever your job to revisit your purpose in government, find your moral purpose and way of helping heal your nation, community or city. We believe that all nations can, using some of the methods we and other countries have experimented with to bring people together, co-create a manifesto of shared values, principles and beliefs that will guide the actions of governments and those who need to cooperate with them.
We say for example that the quality of human relationships matters a great deal. In facing complex problems, we need to promote the values of empathy, humility and diversity. We must think systemically but act locally, and champion the voices of those least heard. These are just some of our ideas. What would be yours?
Governments everywhere should be creating the right conditions for people to flourish, never feel as bad as my mother did over 30 years ago (who is fine now by the way!). We have to listen, learn and adapt to a new era when governments cannot possibly know all the answers. So let’s stop thinking government can heal the nation for us. Let’s help them do it. To level up, it is time we all stepped up.
Nadine Smith is the Director at the Centre for Public Impact. Leading a worldwide project to help governments strengthen legitimacy and embrace diversity