UCL Policy Lab


A radical humanity: how connection and care can help renew Britain with Hilary Cottam

25 March 2024

James Baggaley from the UCL Policy Lab speaks to celebrated social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam ahead of her appearance at a major conference on the relational state to be hosted by UCL, the Future Governance Forum, Citizens UK and others.

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Hilary Cottam OBE is author of Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state, social entrepreneur and Honorary Professor at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP).

This article originally appeared in the UCL Policy Lab Magazine.

What has sustained the renowned social entrepreneur and global campaigner for better public services, Hilary Cottam? What has given her the energy and hope to build alliances, reimagine the state, and battle against failing systems? When I sit down with her at Peckham Levels, a community space where she rents an office, I’m confronted with an untrampled generosity of spirit—a capacity to recognise each person’s humanity and connection to others. 

It’s a joy not always present in politics and policy, yet it seems critical to Cottam’s recipe for change. A change that today we are invited to partake in.

Cottam, whose work has inspired a generation of researchers, politicians, and thinkers from around the world, believes in the innovation that comes from human connection. This belief is born out of recognising that each and every one of us come with a history, a story that hasn’t always been linear or straightforward and must be respected and connected with if we are to flourish and grow.

In truth, I had been slightly nervous about this interview. First, because Cottam is a giant of contemporary policymaking; she has influenced governments around the world, including ministers and shadow ministers here in the UK. Sitting down to speak with her about her life and work felt like a big enough challenge. But also asking anyone to opine on the failings of the modern state last thing on a Friday night is a tough ask, Cottam having just spent the day speaking to European leaders about how they could design and deliver better public services.

Ours was to be the last job of the week, and frankly, Cottam would have been within her right to come to keep it short and transactional. And yet, nothing could be further from this. We had scheduled 90 minutes, and we ended talking for longer. Cottam’s energy and ideas for how we build a better society were infectious.

‘I’m running a big work project at the moment on labour markets and good work, and it means spending a lot of time across five different places in the UK.’ Cottam says, alerting me to a desk full of sticky notes from her travels. ‘I’m endlessly inspired by what people think and dream about. The things they are making happen against the odds.’

It is this kind of inspiration which led her to write her seminal book, Radical Help. It is no exaggeration to say it is a book that has reshaped how the world thinks about public services and how they might be reformed. In it, Cottam alerts us to the unfished promise of the welfare state, building on the legacies of her fellow reformers such as Beveridge. One memorable passage set out the unshed business of reformers:

Relationships were allowed no place in the welfare state because they were thought at best not to matter and at worst to be a hindrance to social progress. But Beveridge realised he had made a mistake, and now, when our human connections determine the social, emotional and economic outcomes of our lives, this omission matters more than ever.

Today, Cottam invites us all to lend our hand to a shared mission to put this omission right.

Part of what Cottam is calling on us to do is to tell stories, stories which allow us to wriggle free from the constraints of outdated dogma.

‘The reason we got a welfare state in the first place was because we told a very big story in a moment of transformation, a moment of economic transformation with the industrial revolution that was creating all kinds of problems in the labour. market’. It’s a point Cottam stresses when talking about today’s political moment. ‘One story could be Ordinary Hope’ (speaking to the Policy Lab and Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent collaborative project) ‘….it could be relational welfare, but it has to be a big story, giving us a direction of travel.’

Again, this is about Cottam’s core humanity. She sees the need for stories, a context in which citizens and individuals operate. She reminds us to be aware of our shared past and care for our joint future.

For Cottam, narrative and story enable us to operate simultaneously, both big and small. If it is about working with senior politicians, it is also about seeing the power and energy that comes from both big and small-scale innovation.

‘It’s really important that we support new forms of practice. This is often very small and very often those innovating at a local level feel they are fighting against the grain, struggling against the system.’

Cottam’s work is full of examples of projects that have been scaled up to a national level, transforming how we think about public services and the welfare state. From social care to employment, Cottam has designed and explored big ideas shaped by human experience, solutions which foster citizen’s capabilities.

It is care, both formal and informal, that best gets to the heart of Cottam’s work at the moment and, in many ways, captures the challenges of the modern state. As Cottam explains, everywhere, care has become more complex in nature and more frequently in demand. Yet the way in which the state values and responds to this need for care remains transactional and deaf to difference. ‘Care has to be one of the areas we focus on if we’re looking to improve things in the coming years properly,’

Cottam says. The challenge, as she sees it, goes beyond the current emergency. It’s also about recognising the worry people feel about the future, how we will nurture one another, young and old. ‘My current work looks at the instability people feel from a widespread lack of support for good care and the anxiety this creates. This is partly material, partly about services, but it’s also deeply social and about wider structures and patterns at work. We find ourselves asking who is going to take care of us?’. As discussed in an earlier edition of the UCL Policy Lab magazine, supporting good care is good for both individuals and the economy. Citizens are undervalued in the care they provide at home, which leads to exhaustion and frustration at work.

It is a recipe for economic stagnation and social ill health. And yet, Cottam is hopeful. She has been speaking to political leaders who are keen to learn. ‘Currently, the state has a narrow and outdated idea of what a human is. Yes, we do want to compete, and we do want material security. But academic research increasingly shows we are wired for social bonds. And so, we need to have a mindset and culture in government that allows people to value and express these wider motivations and humanity.’

Understanding the value of care, be it parental, elderly, or friendship, is key to these complex developed ideas.

Much of this was touched upon by the American public service reformer, Tara McGuinness, when she visited the UK as part of a tour organised with the assistance of Cottam. As head of domestic policy for the Biden-Harris Transition team in the United States, McGuinness set out to achieve a more human government. Inviting McGuinness to join policymakers of all kinds in discussions at UCL is a testament to Cottam’s belief in collaboration and innovation to generate social change.

The willingness to collaborate and share is also driven by an understanding that the challenges facing the country and its public services are much bigger than one think tank, researcher, or idea – that it does to something much larger. And that it gets to the relationships between us.

‘We saw during COVID that the Prime Minister set up a national support system. Millions of people signed up and nobody wanted to help. In the meantime, every street had a WhatsApp group helping each other. The WhatsApp groups worked because they were reciprocal: some of us needed more help but we were not labelled as ‘needy’ and we felt part of something. Fundamentally, it’s about recognising the immense power of existing relationships and supporting them. To harness our capacity for shared humanity.

Throughout our conversation, Cottam refers to crisis and challenge, aware of their magnitude but also their ability to bind us and imagine something better. More than most of us, Cottam has seen first-hand state and societal failure. Yet, she has also witnessed humanity’s capacity for love, compassion, and care. She draws on this untapped spring, which she believes our political leaders can call on as they seek to lead us from our current crises.

Returning to care, she invites us to imagine what a ‘relational’ Prime Minister might say on Day One of a new government.

‘Imagine it now. A Prime Minister on his first day in office. He comes out of Number Ten. And he says ‘we’ not ‘me’ but ‘we are going to be a nation that cares for each other. And I’m going to put every penny I’ve got, which is hardly anything, towards making that care possible. And I’m going to ask each one of you to reciprocate’. Cottam says. ‘Just remember how we cared for one another during the pandemic in our darkest time – how we served one another’.

Sitting with Cottam, I am inspired by the thought; not at the idea of a political leader giving a speech from the centre, using their own power, but at the idea that a leader might express humility and compassion in inviting us all to contribute.

It’s a kind of radical help that is about agency, love, capability and connection. It is the kind of generosity of spirit that so encapsulates Hilary Cottam.

After all, Cottam is not inviting us to be heroic citizens, swashbuckling bureaucrats, or monumental political leaders. She is inviting us to be human. She wants us to accept that in our differences and frailties, we also find the innovation and magic that might just enable us to overcome the challenges we face. And to do so, one very human step at a time.

Hilary Cottam OBE is author of Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state, social entrepreneur and Honorary Professor at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP).

This article originally appeared in the UCL Policy Lab Magazine