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05 July 2024

Changing the tone of government will cost nothing but could make a big difference

Michael Sanders

The new administration can change the mood music for the country

The exterior of 10 Downing Street.

"Always try to be nice, and never fail to be kind."

Four years ago I wrote a blog about kindness in public policy. That piece was written focused on the interpersonal processes of policymaking internal to government. It was in part a response to Dominic Cummings, who had called for "weirdos" to join him in government, built a reputation for, shall we say, unkindness, and then parted ways with Boris Johnson, prior to contributing to the downfall of the prime minister he had until recently served.

I want to return to that theme today, as a new government takes power under less than auspicious circumstances. The new administration is unlikely to be able to "splash the cash" in a way that immediately transforms our public services. Nonetheless, there are a range of things that government can do cheaply (or which might even save money), by changing the tone of what they do, and by choosing kindness.

Government makes hundreds or thousands of decisions every day as part of the normal running of things. Many of these decisions have financial consequences that are small or non-existent – but which change the mood music for the country and what it feels like to live in it.

This matters in big ways – in our relationships with our allies, and in shaping our position in the world. For example, the decision of Liz Truss when Prime Minister to equivocate over whether or not President Macron of France is a friend or a foe – showing disrespect and no small amount of lunacy towards one of our closest allies. Or the decision by now Foreign Secretary David Lammy to make clear that were someone subject to an international arrest warrant to come to the UK, they would be arrested, signals to the wider world that Britain respects its obligations under international law – something that could not be taken for granted for much of the last several years.

This also matters at a more micro level. Refugees from some countries have a close to 100% chance of having their asylum claims accepted, and yet still have to wait months or years for a decision. Tolerating a small false positive rate – and accepting all or most of those people immediately, or at the very least much more quickly – would signal that Britain is a kind and welcoming place, clear the backlog of cases and save the taxpayer money.

In the criminal justice system, we continue to imprison people for crimes of economic desperation – such as non-payment of council tax or even failure to pay for a TV licence. Of course, people should pay their taxes – but sending them to prison because they cannot find £165 is cruel and unusual, incredibly expensive, and produces bad outcomes including repeated (expensive) further incarceration. Requiring people who commit these types of offences to take part in community service would surely be both kinder and cheaper.

Nowhere is this truer than in the benefits system. The government has said that they will not roll back the two-child benefit cap, despite considering it barbaric, but there are other things that they can do.

Under the coalition government, we conducted two experiments with the Department for Work and Pensions. One focused on adding a more personal, less institutional, approach to encouraging jobseekers to apply for jobs – and saw a more than doubling of their engagement with job fairs.

A second, larger study worked with tens of thousands of jobseekers to refocus their experience of JobCentre Plus – making it more forward looking, more supportive, and yes, kinder. Qualitatively, people appreciated the new process as treating them more like human beings, and focusing less on the use of sanctions. Quantitatively, these changes also led to a significant increase in the rate at which people actually got jobs and stopped claiming benefits. Once again, the kinder approach was also the smarter, more cost-effective approach.

I am sure there are dozens of other areas where the government has a choice whether to be kind in its tone or its actions, in a way that helps to lift the country up, and make it feel a nicer, more positive place to live for everyone. As we’ve seen before, these needn’t cost money or encourage bad behaviour. What’s not to love?

Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, Kings College London. 

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Michael Sanders

Professor of Public Policy

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