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Christian Bason

Empathy is the new black

By January 23rd 2013

This article previously appeared in Monday Morning Blog.

In her televised New Year’s speech, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt made it clear that the public sector must become more efficient. Yes, but how? In my experience, an important prerequisite is that we grow the ability to put ourselves in other people’s place. We must base the creation of better and more productive welfare on empathy.

In fact, the professional ability to put oneself in the citizen’s place is a central component in several recent successful efforts to modernise the Danish public sector.

In late 2012, the Selsmose School in Høje Taastrup won the Local Government Denmark prize for innovation. The school, where about 95% of pupils are of non-Danish ethnic origin, has achieved impressive educational results, and currently ranks significantly above the national average in a number of subjects.

The key to the school’s success lies in the recognition that pupils’ well-being and happiness come before their scholastic learning, and that it is necessary to involve a broad community of actors in the local area – housing associations, businesses, parents and relatives – to foster support, enthusiasm and energy around and in the school.

Selsmose School’s transformation was thus rooted in a deep empathy for the children’s world and its larger context. Next, the results were supported by a significant administrative effort to involve both personnel and the local community in creating positive change for the pupils.

In the area of employment we see a similar tendency toward thinking far more in terms of empowering the individual citizen, for example in Copenhagen Municipality’s Borgeren ved roret (Citizen at the helm) programme.

After a decade of control and coercion, authorities are beginning to adapt a holistic view of what it takes to bring the individual unemployed person closer to the job market. The new measures make new (and cheaper) digital tools available to the public, so they themselves can tailor the services to their needs. Simultaneously, public employment services can be more personalised to the most vulnerable individuals, i.e., more focused on individual needs and challenges.

This way of working is an expression of the notion that public service – “welfare” – is based on real insight into what is important for the individual person. In the Copenhagen Municipality project there is a clear expectation that an effort will have a greater effect when it is “people-centred”.

Putting oneself in others’ place

What the two cases have in common is that – consciously or unconsciously – they involve empathy, as perhaps best described in American novelist Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960, during the Civil Rights Movement), when lawyer Atticus Finch tells his six-year-old daughter Scout that: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.

In present day Great Britain, renowned thinker and RSA think-tank director Matthew Taylor says that we in the 21st century need a new Enlightenment, noting that empathy will be a core competence for future citizens.

Can we create a humanistic think tank?

In recent years, economists have been good at telling us about the terrible economic situation, and one economic think tank after another has been founded to provide ever more “hardcore” analyses of what it will take to increase public sector productivity. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is not from economists that we should expect to find the key to getting “more from the same” in the public sector, as the Prime Minister requested in her New Year’s speech.

Empathy and insight into people’s actual experience, motivation, behaviour and needs – which could drive new and more productive public sector business models – requires entirely other kinds of skills. We must become much better at using the knowledge produced by behavioural psychologists, sociologists, ethnographers, cultural analysts and other humanists.

The object of humanistic studies is indeed the same as that of welfare efforts, namely people. So why not start a new humanistic think tank, focused on public sector renewal and productivity, and on how we could create an even better welfare system with the individual person as the defining element.

The time is ripe. For the “soft” is on its way to becoming the “hard”. Empathy will be the next big thing in the welfare debate of 2013.

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