Empathy, resilience and recovery

By Annabel Brown

January 25, 2022

A diverse range of people standing in front of a brick wall
A precondition for empathy at a systems level is diverse leadership whose experiences are representative of the people they serve. (rawpixel.com/Adobe)

As Australia navigates the pandemic and pursues an inclusive recovery, the place of empathy in public policy has never been more important. But it remains ill-understood and under-utilised.

Of course policymakers must recognise the subjective realities and lived experiences of others and make informed decisions about the human impact of public policy.

Empathy goes one important step further, seeing the world through others’ eyes and feeling what another feels. Australians experienced a full range of feelings during the pandemic, from frustration and fear to deep trauma and devastation. Empathy is a critical first step in our collective response and recovery.

A series of scandals in recent years that resulted in public officials being prescribed corrective empathy training reinforced the prevailing view that empathy is a personal quality, and a lack of it a personal failing.

This view is profoundly limiting. It prevents us from seeing empathy as a series of actions extending far beyond individuals to inhabit organisations, processes and structures. It can be taught and learned, operationalised at scale, and if it is not present at this systemic level, no amount of personal empathy can bridge the gap, at least sustainably.

A precondition for empathy at a systems level is diverse leadership whose experiences are representative of the people they serve. Chief executive women president and CPD deputy chair Sam Mostyn characterised representative leadership in her recent National Press Club address as “a powerful driver of performance, innovation and effectiveness in every sector of society.”

This is as important locally as it is nationally. Place- and people-centred public policy lets those delivering and experiencing policy locally design and evaluate programs according to their own community’s picture of success. Because it prioritises the needs of people and communities over government agencies and policymakers, it is inherently empathetic.

This approach has been successful in pilots and trials. One recent example can be found in the local government area of Wyndham, Victoria, where, since mid-2019, a coalition of policymakers, local government, NGOs, service providers, community advocates and local employers has convened to design and implement employment supports for people of refugee background.

Settlement, language, education and employment services coordinate locally so their actions, and those of their partners, respond directly to the holistic needs of the people they serve.

Refugee jobseekers are getting jobs more quickly than under centrally controlled policy and programming, and keeping them for longer. They benefit from bi-cultural caseworkers, wraparound coordination of services, and support programs to help them find and maintain meaningful employment.

Employers receive a facilitated service to engage with jobseekers who can fill local skills shortages, and with training organisations to ensure that skills delivered matched those sought. Government benefits from welfare savings, decreased duplication, and stronger community cohesion through increased economic participation.

These benefits have been sustained through the disruptions of the pandemic and the collaboration continues to support new refugees, including more than 110 Afghans who have moved to Wyndham since the Taliban took power last year.

As we support Australians most affected by the pandemic in our national recovery, we must ask ourselves where empathy lives in our policy design, implementation and evaluation processes. Do we have the foundation to pursue recovery, and build the necessary resilience in our families, communities and institutions to withstand the inevitable shocks of the future?

This is a question Resilience NSW head Shane Fitzsimmons addressed in a recent discussion convened by the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

“The best-led anything is that which is locally led,” he said. “Whether it’s local planning, local operations, local response, or local recovery, you can’t achieve anything if you don’t understand and hear what the local voice is, what the local priority is, what the local need is.”  

The pandemic has exposed the inequality between our communities. Embedding empathy in the recovery means building policy design, delivery and evaluation processes that take account of, and solve for, the stated needs of the most affected communities.

The benefits of this kind of empathetic policy compound over time. The greater the role community advocates, leaders and service providers have in determining and pursuing a locally tailored picture of success, the more empowered these stakeholders are to advocate and work for their evolving collective interests.

So why has empathetic, people- and place-centred policy not become the norm? Though trials and pilots repeatedly report success, attempts to scale empathetic public policy to a whole-of-government level encounter new obstacles.

The place- and community-specific nature of their design makes it more difficult for funders and central agencies to produce like-for-like comparisons. However, the alternative — centrally designed policy that does not address the needs of people and communities — is actively anti-empathetic, and often ineffective and wasteful.

Successful pilots frequently work around or outside of large service systems in order to meet the needs of the people and places they serve. State and federal governments have shown interest in designing systems with more flexibility, empathy and localisation in areas like employment and settlement services. As we pursue an inclusive recovery this people- and place-centred approach to empathy in policy is a critical plank of rebuilding in Australian communities.

To ‘build back better’ we must make a more explicit and sustained link, and feedback loop, between policy and implementation. Public sector teams should build active partnerships with the communities they serve, and work with them to course-correct as programs and their contexts evolve. For those one or more steps away from implementation, it is about designing governance and accountability arrangements that set collective goals, allow local coalitions to deliver services in a flexible, responsive way, and facilitate rigorous measurement of outcomes rather than activities.

Embedding empathetic policy in the machinery of government will deliver sustained benefits for Australia. It will build strength and resilience in communities and in the organisations that serve them, better address challenges they face, and deliver public policy that truly supports wellbeing.


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War on empathy; war on confidence; war on context

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