In this context, I tell new employees that working in public services is an alchemy of head and heart, of business efficiency delivered with a large dose of human empathy. This is met with respectful wariness, but I sense there is a growing recognition of the skills needed to meld the two elements, so that ‘quality services’ means being both cost-effective and achieving a caring outcome.
I have become slightly evangelical about ensuring that Elmbridge is a compassionate council. We deliver essential services to many vulnerable people in our community – but does this make Elmbridge a compassionate organisation?
“We need to be a community resource and not just the council tax collectors
To answer my question, I spoke to colleagues, partner organisations and some of our customers. Not through a survey, but by going to a Citizens Advice centre’s debt-counselling session, to local food banks and to the B&B accommodation in which we place homeless households.
I heard of the amazing efforts of some of our people to help those in quite desperate circumstances. One person told me that the empathy shown by a council colleague had “saved her life”. Another colleague took someone’s dog home for a week so that the household could take up an offer of temporary accommodation. All true, heartwarming examples that make a positive human difference at critical times in people’s lives.
On the other hand, I was disappointed to hear from some who felt that we didn’t always show compassion. Sometimes we don’t ‘own problems’; our processes kick in and sensitivity is lost. As one person said to me: “If I don’t have the funds, I can’t pay the bill, however many times and different ways you ask me.”
From this, I knew we needed a more compassionate approach.
But how does compassion exist alongside increasing service demands and reduced budgets? The simple answer is that it must. We must find a way to be faithful to our residents; to support them and protect them. We need to be a community resource and not just the council tax collectors. In uncertain times, this counts more than ever.
Some of our residents just want us to perform our statutory duties; some benefit from healthy walks or socialisation at our centres. Then there are the people whose lives are shaped by what we can or cannot do for them – those who rely on financial support, shelter or a meal, and who need protection.
Our compassion should extend to all our residents. It should emanate from every interaction we have with them. They should know that, at a minimum, we ‘have their backs’.
To help our employees show their compassion, we will revise or even remove the key performance indicators in our contact centre, for example, to allow our advisers to speak for longer to the lonely person on the phone. We will review our service planning processes to prioritise compassion over commerciality, and we will support all instances where we can inject compassion into the services we deliver and the approaches that we take.
I am determined the alchemy of head and heart will exist at Elmbridge.