Reflecting on their thirty years of supporting children and families, charity 4Children has published a fantastic series of essays, “Families @30” with contributions from Richard Reeves, David Lammy MP, and Cherie Blair. This is an excerpt from David Robinson’s contribution, in which he explores how we could better design children’s services to be more relational and less fractured. What he has to say applies much more widely to our public services as a whole.
Personalisation has been a policy objective for several years, but governments have confused ‘customising’ services with ‘humanising’ them – both are worthwhile goals, but they are quite different. Big polyclinics, even call centres, may offer a service that will meet individual needs more quickly, efficiently and flexibly than the solitary GP working on their own, but the service will be less personal. The polyclinic suits the busy commuter seeking holiday jabs (customised); the small-practice GP may be preferred by the parent of a chronically sick child visiting the surgery every week (humanised).
A huge body of evidence supports the proposition that consistent, high-quality relationships change lives and that better results are achieved where, in design and delivery, primacy is given to the quality and consistency of the individual interaction – that is, where the service is humanised.  Yet services are increasingly structured to, for instance, support the most troubled families with a dozen or more caseworkers, each of whom manages to maintain only superficial contact with the family.
Over and over again, child abuse inquiries have revealed not that there was no professional interest but that professionals were falling over one another. ‘Deep value’ relationships should replace transactions as the organising principle at the heart of all our public services, because they have a material and well-evidenced impact on the outcomes, on our physical health and economic performance and on long-term costs.
We need a cross-government commitment to this approach and to the transformation of ‘every’ service through the systematic prioritisation of relationships. But, a word of warning: Ministers should not – in the words of TS Eliot – dream of a system so perfect that no one will have to be good’.  Systems alone are not enough. We also need to have the maturity and the good sense to speak about love, what Barbara Fredrickson has called ‘that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another human being’.  We need to understand the place of trust and kindness in the public realm and, above all, to consistently and deliberately design it into service reform, rather than design it out.
–David Robinson, Co-founder and Senior Adviser of Community Links
Find out more about 4Children.
1. Bell K and Smerdon M (2011) Deep Value: a literature review of the role of effective relationships in public services. London: Community Links.
2. Elliot T S (1939) Choruses from the Rock
3. Fredrickson B (2013) Micro Moments of Love