Time for relationship-centred government? How about it, Mr Johnson? by David Robinson

David Robinson

David Robinson

Relationships are better than transactions” runs the Better Way principle because “deep value is generated through relationships between people and the commitments people make to each other”. A simple mantra but a useful one for a new government in cash strapped and divided times.

 I realize that in the avalanche of coverage in recent days you may have turned to this blog in the hope of reading something that isn’t about Boris Johnson.  I am sorry to disappoint but please bear with me. Here’s something really interesting,  from Johnson’s first major speech as PM..

 “Second thing - connections. That means great broadband everywhere, and it means transport. Inspiration and innovation, cross fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete collaborate invent and innovate…. We need to literally and spiritually unite Britain”

Of course the literal part of this is about transport and physical infrastructure projects. At first glance, this might seem to be a long way from the kinds of issues that are usually discussed here but, if you’re confined to home by disability or illness or caring responsibilities, broadband might be a godsend and, if you live in a small community, youth groups and carer circles and all kinds of “bumping places” may be off limits without the buses or the trains to get you there.

Sometimes working for social progress isn’t about waiting for all the stars to align, it’s about pushing forward by the light that we have and there is more than a glimmer here.

And then there is the reference to “spiritually” uniting Britain. What are we to make of that?  I don’t know and I doubt whether anyone in government has a much better understanding but sheets of No10 notepaper, blank except for a bold promise, represent a special and particularly enticing kind of opportunity.

We know that, deal or no deal, public funding is likely to be in short supply in the coming term. Focusing on connections or relationships needn’t cost more and certainly wouldn’t be an alternative to the top priorities of this new administration. Evidence shows that it could be the making of them: Improving social connection in Frome, for instance, has correlated with a 17% reduction in hospital admissions at a time when they were increasing elsewhere by 29% (1). Stronger communities are safer (2) , healthier (3) and more economically effective (4) . All this is lost when relationships are neglected or undervalued.

So suppose the new team began to think about spending priorities, public services, domestic and international statecraft, everything, from  the perspective of relationships – relationship-centred hospitals, schools, towns; a relationship-centred economy, democracy, government – what might change?

First, politicians would need to recognize the primacy of relationships between people as the central organising principle in a successful society rather than relationships between people and the state or people and the market. They would enable and support meaningful connection in every context, and would model the relational approach in their own behavior. Even the toughest decisions would be made by connecting across the divides as the Irish Citizens Assembly did so effectively in its work on abortion

Local authorities would adopt the characteristics of what the New Local Government Network calls the ‘Community Paradigm’ – a democratic relationship between the government and citizens based on participatory decision making, co-production and co-delivery, devolution and community collaboration.

Power would be devolved not only to cities and regions, that’s just a beginning, but to the smallest viable unit of delivery. Here conditions and protocols would prioritise staff discretion and autonomy, emphasising the consistency and stability of the client/provider relationships, and, as the Carnegie Foundation and Julia Unwin have been arguing, making time for kindness. Often, indeed, in this relationship-centred future, services for public good won’t be services as we know them today but the kind of nexus of relationships, meeting need together, envisaged by Hilary Cottam.

£3.6bn has already been committed to the Stronger Towns fund.  Focusing this money on the design and development of relationship-centred communities would be a wise investment and an influential signal to the rest of government: People change lives, relationships matter. The mantra of a property owning democracy propelled a previous government.  2019  is the year of  relationship-centred government.

A national relationship-centred economy would similarly thrive on collaboration and respect. Community businesses, rooted for generations in strong relationships, would be actively supported. Other alternatives to the market-based paradigm like housing associations, co-ops and community assets would be similarly encouraged.

And if all that sounds frighteningly radical to the new PM he would do well to check it out with Andy Street, now the successful Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, but previously Managing Director at the venerable  John Lewis . His company’s constitution set out its ultimate purpose as “the happiness of all its members through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.” Imagine a version of that mantra set out on page one of the Treasury’s Green book  – “our ultimate purpose is the happiness of all citizens through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful economy.”  That’s what a relational economy would look like in a relationship-centred democracy.

Perhaps this is all rather more than the Prime Minister had in mind when he spoke at the weekend about   “literally and spiritually uniting Britain”.   Or perhaps, in these enormously challenging times, there is the essence here of the answers that he needs. Making relationships the central operating principle on which to build an effective government , a favourable and equitable economy,  successful services and happy, healthy communities is no garden bridge.  We can do this, we are doing it now. We need to do it more.

David.Robinson@Shiftdesign.org is a co-founder of the Better Way and leads the Relationships Project

Notes

(1)     Monbiot,G: The town that’s found a potent cure for loneliness. The Guardian 21/2/18

(2)     Sampson,R: When disaster strikes, its survival of the sociable . New Scientist 2916 (2013)

(3)     Gilbert, Quinn, Goodman, Butler and Wallace:  A meta analysis of social capital and health. Journal of health psychology 18(11) 1395 – 99

(4)     Brook, K. Labour market participation: The influence of social capital. ONS: Labour market trends