Putting feeling into policy making
17 July 2020 by Clare Moriarty
When we closed the Department for Exiting the EU, one of my team ceremonially presented me with the question that she had heard most often from me: how does it feel? I’m an advocate of leadership by paying attention to how people feel, for the simple reason that it’s the best route to successful, high performing organisations. I’m equally keen to see feelings built into policy-making, not least because they are usually at the heart of why things don’t turn out the way we expect.
Behavioural approaches, increasingly adopted as an element of policy-making, go some way towards meeting this need, with nudge techniques based on an understanding of observed rather than assumed behaviour. But while they helpfully move beyond a world ruled by economic rationality, they are at heart substituting one analytical approach for another and seem to work most effectively at a granular level. Challenge on the scale of Covid-19 feels to me to need something more holistic and more organic.
The pandemic has changed so much for so many, creating divides between the too-busy and the not-busy, the have-to-go-out-to-work and the can’t-go-out-to-work, the clinically vulnerable and the economically vulnerable. At every turn it has stirred up emotions that are still, I suspect, largely suppressed by the enormity of what we are facing. At some point we will need to address head-on this emotional legacy, or risk it becoming a source of continuing societal tension. In the short term, as the economic drama of the pandemic plays out centre stage, I argue that feelings must be honoured in the development and implementation of policy responses.
That starts with recognising just how complex, and how varied, people’s emotional responses to events have been, depending on their circumstances and their temperament. The forced narrowing of focus brought about by lockdown felt like a prison sentence to some, while for others it brought unexpected benefits: paying attention as never before to our immediate surroundings, seeing detail we’d previously overlooked, appreciating the small daily changes of springtime.
Working practices have been upended by the pandemic. One of the great revelations was just how easily most office work could be done remotely. The technology was there already; the barriers were behavioural and emotional. With the searing necessity of Covid-19 providing the impetus for change, those barriers have fallen. People and organisations remained productive, and long-sought flexibility has been achieved. Presenteeism is, if not dead, surely at least seriously dented.
But in a world where, in many organisations, everyone has been working remotely all the time, there is a new set of ‘how does it feel’ questions to be answered. The different responses of introverts and extroverts. The experience of those who have started jobs in new organisations and had to build relationships without ever meeting their colleagues. The draining effect of receiving all interactions through one medium. The loss of nuance, social connection and the opportunity to spot and fix emerging problems with a quick chat. All these will need attention from leaders as organisations shift back to a ‘new normal’.
That ‘new normal’, and how people feel about it, will influence what happens to recovery policies. Non-essential shops have reopened but the small pleasures of shopping have disappeared, if not for good then certainly for now. Queues, hand sanitiser, one-way systems, masks, visors and the prevailing sense of anxiety among shoppers and retailers make for an experience with very little allure. Policies that don’t recognise that feeling are unlikely to have the impact intended.
It will be interesting to see whether the combination of good slogan and good offer in ‘eat out to help out’ will shift the dial in hospitality. The leisure sector, in its broadest sense, has evolved gradually over more than 150 years as discretionary income grew and pastimes traditionally reserved to the rich were democratised. Shut down for months, and reopened in a world where fewer people have money in their pocket, it may not snap back quickly. How people feel about the experience of dining out will be a determining factor.
In truth, none of this is new. But the scale of the pandemic drama, and the economic sequel by which we are now gripped, brings emotion centre stage. As in other areas of public life, Covid-19 provides both the impetus and the opportunity to challenge received wisdom. It’s hard to build emotion into policy-making because it’s individual, messy and resists conversion into a common currency. But policies for society, as well as practice within organisations, will be richer if they have emotion at their core.
Clare Moriarty was a civil servant for 35 years, latterly as Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2015 to 2019, and of the Department for Exiting the EU until its closure in January 2020. She held senior roles in the Department for Transport, including as Director General for Rail, and in the Ministry of Justice as Constitution Director.