What is the place of emotion in the making of policy?

Kevin Harris

In the years I spent shuttling between local initiatives in low income neighbourhoods and oddly clean cupboard rooms in Westminster, I never really cracked the way the experience of disadvantage was absorbed or dismissed as ‘personal’ and disconnected from policy.

You see this constantly in the skirmishes of local democracy of course – a local meeting where an officer or elected member gets a thorough bashing by a resident who’s living a kind of hell that current policies don’t address. Fierce steam gets released but policy is unaffected.

Such occasions can be off-putting for the well-meaning policy maker. I think most are aware of the gravitational effect here, caused often by internal pressures of work, of the risk of gradually becoming detached from local experience.

Politicians shield themselves from occasional bombardment, and disparage the ‘personal’ as ‘emotional’ while routinely exploiting examples through the media when it suits them to do so.

Sometimes politicians try to use public events to draw the sting of citizens’ anger, and occasionally find they’ve over-estimated their own political skills. When they view confrontation with residents as political sport and not as a chance to understand and address needs, that illustrates the tension I’m talking about.

At the same time, people who have profound experience of the failure of social systems to protect them, may not have the perspective that helps anyone relate it to policy in a meaningful way. But sometimes you hear a really considered, articulate exposition of experience that takes the personal and places it in a generalised policy context. That’s rare, and risks diluting the very emotion of lived experience that gives pertinent urgency to the cause. And often intermediaries, like housing workers say, who can speak the equivocal language of policy while combining understanding of several individual examples of disadvantage, can make contributions that are valued and welcomed by both sides.

So what is the place of emotion in the making of policy? Rosie Anderson has done some work on this ‘essential but difficult territory’ and TSRC have just published a fascinating paper based on policy making around poverty in Scotland (Summary; 4-page briefing; working paper). Emotional knowledge, she says, is frequently described by her informants as ‘ambiguous, unreliable and potentially overwhelming knowledge – in contrast with “rational” knowledge, which is the prerequisite for “professionalism” in policy-making and a necessity for making policy decisions.’ This sounds a lot like what Ivan Illich described as a ‘cognitive disorder’, resting on the illusion that

‘the knowledge of the individual citizen is of less value than the “knowledge” of science. The former is the opinion of individuals. It is merely subjective and is excluded from policies. The latter is “objective” – defined by science and promulgated by expert spokesmen. This objective knowledge is viewed as a commodity which can be refined… and fed into a process, now called “decision-making.” This new mythology of governance by the manipulation of knowledge-stock inevitably erodes reliance on government by people.” (Tools for conviviality, 1973).

Anderson makes the point that policy processes are contrived to exclude subjectivity and individuality. And if people are to engage with those processes, it’s hard to see what else they are to bring to them. I have been in public meetings where a roomful of people, having collectively an enormous wealth of knowledge about the local issues under discussion, have sat in disconnected silence because the language and process disenfranchised them at the very point they were supposed to be being ‘invited’ to participate. Even the most well-meaning policy makers can flounder at this point.

Conversely, there are those meetings which seem like unstructured and unruly free-for-alls, a sequence of barely related angry rants. As Anderson says,

‘In practice this process of moving from the particular and emotional to general and impersonal, so simple-sounding on paper, is actually very difficult to get right in the eyes of policy practitioners because of emotional knowledge’s ambiguous status in policy.’

Partly, I have no doubt, this is an educational issue. As I have said often before, too many of us emerge from the education system with no idea how local democracy functions. For a long time it’s been in the interests of politicians to keep things that way, although some of them appear to be less sure nowadays (that’s a network society effect, I think). And Anderson raises the question of how we provide better support for policy workers emotionally when they engage with such lived experience.

We’ve all talked about emotional intelligence over the years. But it strikes me as curious that no-one seems to have got to grips with this topic before. This is a hugely important site of conflict and potentially fruitful understanding, and Anderson has pin-pointed the significance of ‘the negotiation and policing of the boundary between “personal” and “professional” knowledge about social change.’


Kevin Harris runs a community development consultancy, Local Level, offering expertise and advice on community engagement, community cohesion, involvement and participation, and neighbourhood development. He has 25 years’ experience in community development with a particular emphasis on how people communicate, share information, and interact at local level. Kevin has published several books, chapters and articles, online articles for the Guardian, and reports to government. He is Senior Associate Consultant to Breslin Public Policy and co-founder of Networked Neighbourhoods. He was previously a British Library Research Fellow.

This post was previously featured on the Neighbourhoods blog.

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