A patient in pain already feels better with the gentle touch of a doctor and a few kind and reassuring words. The poor villager feels heard and happy when the agriculture officer spares time during his district tour to listen to the villager’s story of hardship with a genuine intention to help. The young officers feel valued and motivated when the supervisor sincerely invites their views in their very first official meeting without prejudice. If each one of us in the public service can be as empathic as the doctor, agriculture officer, or supervisor mentioned above, the public will have so much to gain from our service.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” (Cambridge Dictionary). Or as Dr. Roman Krznaric puts it, “it’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions (Greater Good Magazine, November 2012). 

Public service must be amongst the noblest of professions because it offers unlimited opportunities to serve and to literally touch countless lives and bring positive change, directly or indirectly. In any case, to be good and do good unto others is a natural human tendency. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins (Roman Krznaric, Greater Good Magazine, November 2012). And being in public service expands the scope for us to serve and spread goodness. 

As someone had said, above the clouds every day is a clear day. So long as one can comprehend, public service provides that purpose to rise above the clouds and be in the service of a higher calling, a larger-than-life mandate. It’s a world of opportunity to make a positive difference. At the same time, when public servants fail to behave and conduct like public servants, we become the hindrance or the very cause of suffering for the public we are entrusted to serve. And more often than not, what makes the difference between the two is empathy (or the lack of it).

Everyday issues and grievances, be it with government policies or public services, can be addressed to a large extent if public servants, particularly civil servants, behind these policies or services practise a little more empathy. For public policies to work in the manner expected to fulfil the intended objectives, policymakers need to walk a mile in the shoes of the public. Bhutan’s policy to ban the sale and use of plastic carry bags, for example, could have yielded better results if we have envisaged the possible challenges businesses and citizens would face without them, or without suitable alternatives. 

Kit Collingwood-Richardson, a UK civil servant, in her article “Why civil servants should become experts in empathy” describes how a 1920 ban on alcohol in the United States led to a huge loss in tax dollars, a massive upsurge in organised crime with only a modest downturn in alcohol consumption. “What they failed to understand was that many people quite like a drink, and that if government removed the opportunity they would be quite creative in filling the gap”. The ban was finally repealed in 1933. Some of our own policies such as the “dry day” policy prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Tuesdays or the removal of cut-off point for Class 10 students come to mind. “The ability to understand people’s motivations and feelings when they interact with the state should be considered a core skill in our sector. Civil servants should become experts in the practice of empathy”, notes Collingwood-Richardson (Civil Service World, November 2017).

In a country like Bhutan, where policymakers in Thimphu are geographically distant from the people in the villages, and the realities on the ground, the application of empathy should be a requirement in the policy formulation process. Policymakers should challenge their own assumptions, and each other’s, through an intense questioning mechanism, and through imagining or simulating all possible experiences the public will likely go through when the policy actually comes into effect. Policies formulated in bubbles or with policymakers detached from the reality are bound to fail. 

The other aspect of public service where empathy is literally begged is public service delivery. We have all been at the receiving end at one point in time, so we know what it means. “Goedra Bey Yi: Office Sketch”, a satirical video developed by OTT platform Samuh depicting how an ordinary citizen is made to go through the miserable experience of bureaucratic indifference and red-tapism has been viewed over 591,000 times on its Facebook page, perhaps because people could relate to it. Citizens having to run from pillar to post, wait for days or weeks, or at times bear the wrath of an apathetic public servant for want of a service or information is commonplace in our public service system. Ironically, we sometimes leave citizens waiting at our office door so that we can go and attend a sermon by the high lama on how to be a good human being. Much of it has got to do with the lack of empathy than anything else. 

The civil service is being reformed as per Royal Decree and the expectation is for it to be an intelligent, efficient and effective machinery in delivering its public mandates. This calls for, among others, leaders and civil servants to realise and accept, that we have an empathy deficit in our system, whether it is in the formulation of public policies or their implementation in the form of public services. We need to cultivate empathy, exhibit empathy-inspired behaviors, and make empathy a part of our culture and daily lives in public service. This is important for us to be able to serve the public fairly in the most inclusive, efficient and compassionate manner. 

The good news though is that empathy is a cultivable attribute. Just like any other skill, we can learn how to be empathic. And more than anyone else, public servants need to learn how to be empathic because our behaviors and conduct impact the entire citizenry. Dr. Roman Krznaric, in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People” describes six ways to develop empathy, and they are i) cultivate curiosity about strangers, ii) challenge prejudices and discover commonalities, iii) try another person’s life, iv) listen hard and open up, v) inspire mass action and social change, and vi) develop an ambitious imagination. 

There are plenty of similar free resources on the internet on how to develop empathy and it is useful to read them because empathy doesn’t only make us good, it is good for us too. According to Professor Jennifer Lerner, a psychological scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, people with empathy will feel more united with others, be able to resolve conflicts faster and achieve greater satisfaction at work. Experts also say that a mindset focused on others’ needs can lower stress hormones (CNN, June 2020). Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership (Roman Krznaric, Greater Good Magazine, November 2012).

It’s all too good to have public servants who are competent and coolheaded, but that is not enough. In a profession where our thoughts and actions affect the emotions and lives of so many other people, we need to be warmhearted, too. Empathy indeed should form the bedrock of public service and measures must be adopted to foster empathy through training or even testing empathy levels of candidates during the selection and recruitment process.  

Contributed by

Chewang Rinzin

The writer is the director of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies and views expressed in this article are his own unless otherwise cited.