Finding love in a local place: the case for compassionate public services
Becca Dove and Tim Fisher - Camden Council , 14 February, 2020

Camden Council relationship day

On 14 February, Camden Council is celebrating Valentine’s Day in a rather disruptive way. 130 people from across the country and from a range of organisations are coming together in our borough to talk about love in public services. “Relationships Making a Difference: Love Shows Up” seeks to challenge the idea that love and public service are incompatible. Liberation, love and action, inclusion and connection are all on the eclectic menu. The event is facilitated by local residents, parent activists and public service workers. A huge banner emblazoned with the words ‘to love is to act’ will hang proudly from the wall. Such was the appetite for the event that it sold out in five days.

The word love has hardly been synonymous with public services in recent times. The years of new public management, where cold, transactional processes and numbers trumped warm relationships and people, gave public services a soulless reputation. The sector’s image largely became one of automatons churning out services or issuing contracts, with ‘computer says no’ playing on repeat. But local public services up and down the UK are quietly rebelling against that label and are writing new narratives with love as a central protagonist.

Scotland’s Care Review, published to huge acclaim on 5 February, is a prime example of where love is introducing itself into the public service lexicon. The word love appears no less than 104 times in the review’s Promise to Scotland’s children. Whilst this level of commitment to love in public strategy is unprecedented, relational practice – the importance of relationships to create the conditions for change – is already helping a range of public services to explore love.

Relational practice is undoubtedly on the rise, with green shoots in social care, family support, housing, education and health to name but a few. And from relational practice naturally follows an inquiry into the role of love in how we help people.

Take the Blackmore Vale GP Practice in North Dorset. Committed to building community, this wonderful practice has cuppa-and-cake drop in sessions for its residents (no appointment needed), has plans to turn its waiting room into a community cafe, supports people experiencing homelessness to use the practice as an address, and took the time to send 10 handwritten Valentine’s cards to mums at the Magpie Project, an East London organisation supporting families at risk of homelessness. Love, relationships and connection sit at the heart of Blackmore’s ethos, where a medicalised world is completely re-orientated to “a community centre who happen to also practice medicine”.

As campaigns like More In Common and Compassion in Politics push for a more relational, civil discourse in our national political space, many local public services are already walking the walk, working alongside civil society and residents to locate love into the heart, and the art, of helping. There is growing support emerging too, from the Carnegie Trust’s work on kindness in public services to the Kings Fund compassionate leadership agenda to value-setting blogs from Directors of Childrens Services. Love, however it is understood, is a central tenet underpinning their important messages.

Love gets a bad press in public services because we haven’t known what to do with it. We couldn’t get past the idea that it meant romance and that it was unsightly, weird even, to talk in such terms about our relationship with the public. But to feel great affection for the residents we serve, especially in a chaotic climate of financial difficulty, political turbulence and rising social pressures, is the least a citizen should expect of its public servants.

Being moved by that affection to take action, in a way that helps not harms, also feels critical to the purpose of 21st century public service. Love and compassion are justice-seeking tools for local public servants who want the best for people and for the place they call home.

Soppy? Unrealistic? Leeds, Wigan, Camden, East Ayrshire and many others would say otherwise. Perhaps the question is whether we want public services willing to embrace love, and all the motivations to do the right thing that come with it, or sterile public services that hit the target but miss the point. Or worse yet, miss the target and the point altogether.

What’s love got to do with public service? Quite a lot as it turns out.

Becca Dove is a family worker and Head of Service for Family Early Help. Tim Fisher is a social worker and Service Manager for Family Group Conference and Restorative Practice. Both work for the London Borough of Camden.

For more inspiration on love and public services, watch this series of short films.