• Research team

Social infrastructure for the Church of England

Updated: Apr 1

The the world needs more love-and-care going around. We probably can all agree on that.

Faith-organisations are very good at saying that, but not so good at doing anything to help bring it about.

My view here is: start doing more to help bring it about. And the best way to do that is through Social Infrastructure.

The Church of England is one of the most powerful and influential organisations in the UK. Only 1 in 20 of us to its services every week; but its schools teach a million children every day; it has a presence in every rural area (12,000 parishes); and (whether your like it or not) it's part of our legislature and national mythology.

This is most of a letter I've written to some of the top-brass at the Church of England, to pitch the case for them make more Social Infrastructure.

1. Fix on one over-arching outcome: more loving-our-neighbour

Jesus told us to “love thy neighbour as thyself” and told a great story to show a practical example of love and to emphasise the width and universality of whom we should think of as our neighbour.

Let’s be singular and focus entirely on that instruction. That instruction was given to an individual. But how should the Church, as an institution, react to it? My view is that the Church should do more than merely promote and endorse that instruction. It can do far more than that: it can create the conditions that enable people, and societies, to deliver on it: to bring about more love-for-neighbours, more care between people.

2. The Church should commit to outcomes, not just intentions

This is about the Church focusing on outcomes: i.e. how the world changes as a result of what we do. Jesus was about outcomes with “judge it by its fruit”. Effective organisations that want to effect change are focused on measurable outcomes. This is a utilitarian approach – seeking to maximise aggregated outcomes, and believing in the compound effect of small incremental improvements.

What do we think when we read or hear Luke 10 and Jesus telling us to “love thy neighbour”. Are we happy to agree with it and want to do it, and hope to do it? Does the Church actually seek the outcome (ie more love and neighbourliness in the world), or is it content just to talk about it and to stay comfortably secure in the realm of “should”. I’m assuming Jesus wanted action. His critique of the passers-by on the road to Jericho wasn’t about their mindset or their intentions, it was about their inaction.

Perhaps an easier way to think of this is framed by the double-negative. The sum-total of neighbour-love will be increased enormously by making it harder not to be loving. In terms of the story of the Good Samaritan: to make it more difficult, or less desirable, or less socially-acceptable to walk on past.

3. Provide actual effective help for people to “love their neighbour”.

People need help to do this. This care-giving is a very difficult thing to do without tools and support! In all other areas of life, people require support to do things that are difficult.

Analogy: Public health and exercise

The NHS and the government wants people to exercise more (and with good reason). Telling people “exercise more!” is part of that. But what really works is the infrastructure around that of default-setting, behaviour-steering and incentives-modifying. Like ensuring access to free-to-use exercise facilities, inviting role-models into schools, guidelines on food-labelling, promoting use of tech-monitoring technologies, Parkruns, tax-breaks for cyclists etc.

So: the C of E needs to take the same 360-degree approach to promoting neighbourliness as NHS does to promoting physical exercise. If the NHS did only what the church does (telling people to do things and hoping they will), millions more people today would be obese or dying early.

4. The most effective type of help focuses on behaviours rather than beliefs

Behaviours make much more difference towards achieving outcomes than beliefs do.

Beliefs are important of course. In terms of religious experience and perhaps salvation, belief is everything. But when it comes to achieving actual outcomes in the world, I’m arguing that it’s important to focus more on behaviours than on beliefs.

Three reasons why better for the C of E to focus on behaviours rather than beliefs:

1. Behaviour-change can reach everybody, whereas the Church’s belief-influence will only reach the loyal 5%. Making things that change behaviour can have 100% wide-reach; saying things to influence belief has 5% reach.

2. That 5% who do pay attention to the Church are already (more or less) maxed out. They’ve already been told everything you can tell them. Additional effort focused on belief-influence will start to have diminishing marginal-returns.

3. Generally: behaviour easier to change than beliefs. Beliefs are deeply wired in and defended, whereas behaviour adapts to conditions and social norms.

5. The best way to influence behaviour is through “social infrastructure”

Social infrastructure is the places and protocols and organizations that shape our interactions. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters all kinds of social interactions, helps build relationships, and turns “community” from a vague concept into a lived experience. When social infrastructure is degraded and neglected, it makes it far more likely that we will grow isolated or lonely, mistrust our neighbours, and be less welcoming towards outsiders.

Examples of social-infrastructure are: town-squares, children’s playgrounds, annual festivals, social-media sites, public libraries etc.

Planning and configuring social-infrastructure often draws on behavioural innovation, because it creates things and pathways which change how people connect and behave. Often this means designing interventions and policies that recognise that human behaviour and decision-making is shaped by a range of factors, not all rational. For example: people seek ease, social-validation, gratification, affirmation, etc. Two well-known examples:

· Organ donation default switching. In spring 2020, the default presumption for organ-donation is switching. This default will make an enormous difference in shaping people’s willingness to donate organs when they die. Because peoples behaviour (lazily accepting default-settings) is far more powerful than whatever views they believe about organ-donation. It’s been shown in other countries to make a huge difference, thanks to inertia. And it will have a tangible and immediate outcome (in 2018, 408 Britons died while waiting for a transplant).

· Layout of school cafeterias. The way that choices are presented makes a huge difference to decisions. Eg in this study, school-children were 2.5 times more likely to eat healthy-meals if that choice was made more easy and more obvious.

NB: in these examples, people’s attitudes don’t change, but their behaviour does change. And a scale, and at low-cost, and delivering important health-related outcomes.

6. Examples of the type of help this could be

Here are a few examples.

· Public spaces in every neighbourhood for teenagers to safely meet and mix

· Team up with KFC to offer lunchtime talks by communities

· Organised link-ups between schools in different parts of the UK, or different countries

· “Parents in Classrooms”, getting HMRC to offer tax-breaks for parents to spend a day/month in primary schools so they mix and participate

· An event on Saturday mornings where people turn up and together do some useful local work (eg litter-picking).. and old and young are incentivised to work together. Like a local inter-generational Parkrun-meets-Goodgym.

These are just starter-examples.. much better ideas will come along when the Church starts to seriously consider what it could do and take inspiration from what’s already working.

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