I’m finding it a fascinating time to be working in Local Government. Pressure on the public purse is releasing new creativity and asking fundamental questions around how to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable in society. I’ve been thinking about how these issues can be informed by my faith. What follows are some of my thoughts on how this links to relationships and, by extension, the role the church has to play in healing society.
Sir William Beveridge’s Welfare Settlement was remarkably successful at transforming society, attacking the five giant ills of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idelness.’ Yet in his third report on his developing thinking on the welfare state, Beveridge recognised that he had made a mistake in both missing and limiting the potential power of each citizen to play a part in social betterment. He felt that ‘room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance… services of a kind which often money cannot buy’ were equally critical. He feared that his original reforms were encouraging individuals to focus passively on their needs – looking to the state to provide the answers – rather than to themselves and their immediate social networks. He was recognising that his original 1942 report missed a trick in emphasising services over voluntary action in the creation of a fairer and more socially cohesive society.
… people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships.
Before the welfare state, faith communities were the major delivery arm of health in the UK, operating many of the friendly societies that provided health services to the masses before the welfare state. Into the late 1940’s and beyond, this role as a ‘social net’ had been handed over to the state, never fully to return. Beveridge recognized that the government had been left holding the whole baby of the NHS and social protection, where previously the church and other social institutions had – albeit imperfectly – undertaken this role.
I’ve been reflecting on this analysis and on two challenges that emerge from this:
Challenge 1: The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens
… it is the quality of our relationships that, more than anything else, determines our happiness, fulfilment and the sense of a life well lived.
The welfare state, as it has evolved, has continued to promote a reliance upon public services being delivered to and for people, not with them. Yet the biggest challenges to the public sector in health and social care in particular, are based not on the acute problems and illnesses that more ‘LEAN‘ and efficient processes can tackle, but in the realm of chronic issues related to dementia, diabetes, getting people to stop abusing alcohol, encouraging people to go walking more often or, in a different context, start recycling their waste. For these sorts of challenges, people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships. Broadly speaking – and I’m conscious of some successful counter-examples – people don’t change their behaviour because the state tells them to, but because they have found people they know and respect, through strong peer-to-peer networks, who have succeeded in, for example, giving up smoking.
If, in the public sector, we are to help people generate, rebuild and sustain relationships in society, rather than just deliver services to people, then we are not going to succeed alone. The church ought to be experts at this stuff!
You’re worked to death, we’re bored to death.
I also think that this recognition of a need for a shift in thinking resonates with the wider issues that the current government’s approach to the public services has spawned. We do not want to be needy, with ‘things’ being done to us, we want to contribute and participate. Nor do we want to be atomised consumers, being told that it’s our responsibility to ‘get it’. We find that people want to be socially connected and to collectively make things happen. Everyone recognizes that the most important things can’t be measured by numbers and money. In Jenni Russell’s critique of New Labour, she emphasises that we judge the quality of public services not as dispassionate observers surveying cold statistics, but upon our experience and the experiences of those we know and trust. As members of society, we live what governments do to us:
Recognising that our children are bored and uninspired by rigid school curriculums that rob them of the joy of learning affects us far more profoundly than hearing that exam results are on the rise.
Whether the nurse “treats us with tenderness and a doctor with kindness and concern” (Jenni Russell, p. 82) matters far more to us than whether we lie in a hospital bed that is brand new. We aren’t automatons; we are human beings who want to be treated with respect and dignity.
The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens
Challenge 2: The Church needs rediscover its role in society
A couple of years ago I heard Steve Chalke sum up the challenge like this:
I think he’s spot on here. “You’re worked to death we’re bored to death.” The task of the church is to bring spiritual, social, physical, and emotional health to people. It’s the task of the church. What we need is a ‘health’ service, not a ‘making people better’ service and if we as a society have any chance of seeing that happen, it won’t only be because of re-imagined government. We have to stop looking to the state, who as Chalke puts it, are “worked to death” whilst the church has been “bored to death singing the same old songs” but not fully walking in its mission to bring God’s shalom to a world that needs it so badly.
We need a public sector that develops meaningful relationships with its citizens based on mutual accountability and trust.
We need a church that grapples with, and takes ownership of, issues of dysfunctionality in the community that it serves.
We need relationships that heal society.