16 November 2015

Decision Making - Does Anyone Care?

What Works Scotland Research Fellow Rosemary Anderson reflects on the relationship between decision-making and caring in public policy work.

Collaboration, participation, empowerment; call it what you will, the idea that public servants and the general public should work together to make policy decisions shows no sign of fading away. The Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) is arguably the latest in a trend towards bringing people directly affected by an issue together with specialists or “experts” of one description or another in the belief that this will result in better policy, however you define that.

Not coincidentally I’ve spent the last four years of my life talking to people about their feelings. Some people do this sort of talking in hospitals, or schools, or day-care centres – obviously “caring” places - some people do this in the privacy of their therapist’s office. I didn’t. I did this in an NGO, with people who work on the “wicked problems” that contribute to chronic poverty, in the run-up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. I spoke with politicians, activists, civil servants, charity workers: not your typical touchy-feely types.

It was a voyage into the unknown for me and the people I worked with for that fifteen months, ending with some conclusions which surprised me. Chief of these was that there were effectively two scripts being run at the same time in the policy work in which I participated. In one of these scripts policy decisions were legitimate because they were based on data, evidence and analysis: they enabled “what works”. In the other script, policy decisions were driven by concern and care for the human condition and took account of personal experience: they enabled “what matters”. Both were considered to be desirable and necessary in making morally “good” policy.

Problematically, these two ways of relating to decision-making were seen as incompatible, leading to different groups taking different roles about knowledge in policy making. “Activists” and “grassroots” participant were there to provide the emotional knowledge, “professionals” were expected to be “rational” and evidence-driven, and there were strict rules around behaviour and speech to ensure these roles were kept to.

I recently wrote a Working Paper for What Works Scotland summarising some of my findings which relate to civil servants in particular. They described a very complex set of rules and expectations about emotion and emotional display in the context of their policy work. Learning how to become a competent civil servant included learning how to behave, talk and to some degree think like a dispassionate, unemotional functionary about morally complex issues that may have had deep personal resonance for the individuals concerned. Successful face-to-face policy encounters would leave other participants in no doubt that these civil servants were not allowing their private feelings to influence their professional life.

I would like to make a radical proposition: what if we were to start to think about the things we label “emotional” not as problems in policy making, but as valuable and important sources of a very special type of information about complex problems? And what if we were to start regarding the use and management of emotions as an intrinsic part of being a competent policy professional?

I am a hunter turned gamekeeper; I worked in policy, politics and journalism for several years before returning to university to do a PhD. So believe me: I know how this sounds. But that is precisely why I wanted to do this piece of research. The civil servants I spoke with throughout my fieldwork reported this aspect of their working lives as often being stressful and barely acknowledged. As participatory and collaborative governance becomes more and more entrenched in policy making in Scotland and these sorts of encounters become more common, how do we ensure public servants are supported and developed as emotional workers?

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