Last week Treasury hosted a ‘social lab’ which used decks of cards to explore ideas around wellbeing. Danyl Mclauchlan went along
Fiona Ross is a thought leader in the public service; an articulate and engaging public speaker. She stands at the front of the room: a seminar space on the third floor of Treasury. The 30 people in the audience fall silent. She begins. “We all know we live in a DEVUCA world.”
Everyone nods thoughtfully. Except me. I raise my hand. “We live in a what?”
Ross looks at me and blinks. “DEVUCA.”
I try to imitate the sound, unsuccessfully. Someone at my table explains the acronym in a low voice. “It stands for diverse, ambiguous, volatile, uncertain …”
“I think complexity is in there,” another person suggests. There is some disagreement. No one is quite sure exactly what kind of diverse complex ambiguous world we occupy.
“Google it,” Ross advises.
“I will. How do you spell …?”
“And in a DEVUCA world we all need to be more empathic and inclusive. That’s why Heartwork is so exciting.”
Ross is the Treasury’s chief operating officer and deputy secretary for strategy, performance and engagement. She’s here tonight, in a brightly lit room with light snacks and powerpoint slides and views out over Wellington harbour, to tell us about Heartwork.
Heartwork is a company: the founders stand at the side of the room beaming at Ross, who tells us how she encountered their ideas at a function they hosted called “Let’s Talk About Work Baby”, and decided to bring them into Treasury as part of the organisation’s broader wellbeing programme. And Heartwork is also a game, developed by Heartwork, in which you learn to talk about your feelings and emotional needs, and this aims to solve the problems of the DEVUCA world by building empathy and psychological safety creating organisational win-win-wins through people-centered product, service and policy design via system leadership. When Ross is finished, Peter Jacobson, the co-founder of Heartwork and co-developer of Heartwork steps forward, still beaming, and announces, “Now we’d like to play a game with you.”
Treasury looks deceptively normal, like an ordinary government department. It is not. Treasury is the most powerful organisation in the public service. In parliament the seats in the House occupied by government MPs are known as “the Treasury benches”. To control Treasury is to control the country.
Treasury is located at the bottom of the Terrace, opposite the Beehive. The building is handsome, spacious, filled with air and light. But in the minds of progressive intellectuals and left-wing activists Treasury casts a black and terrible shadow over the history of modern New Zealand.
Because Treasury is where the neoliberalism came from. It started in the late 1970s and early 80s: a bacillus, cultivated in the darkness of the bureaucracy: faceless men in gray suits reading Hazlitt and Friedman’s Price Theory, studying Austrian macroeconomics in the basement, crafting crude idols of Thatcher from the mud and leaves swept in by the wind. From there it infected the research and policy units of the Labour Party, and then it captured a troika of the party’s senior MPs. Richard Prebble. David Caygill. Roger Douglas. When they came to power in 1984 they unleashed their ideas on an unsuspecting country, drowning it in their heartless ideology.
That was all a long time ago, and today’s Treasury is working hard to return New Zealand to a pre-neoliberal, prelapsarian state. Next month the government will release its first “Wellbeing Budget”’ It uses the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, a world leading concept which, Ross informs us, the department has been working on for 18 years. Instead of focusing purely on economic capital the public service, led by Treasury, will seek to grow the country’s human, social and environmental capital. But also still the financial capital. “We’re definitely not saying economics and finance isn’t important.” After the session is over I ask Ross, “How does any of that connect to this game? Are there any metrics to show Heartwork leads to those outcomes?”
“We’re still building the evidence base for that.”
The Heartwork game is separate from the Wellbeing budget but related to the concept of wellbeing, the company’s other co-founder, Clare Rousseau, a former Treasury analyst tells me. Heartwork incorporates the ideas of Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist and conflict negotiator who advocated non-violent communication, and combines his teachings with Te Whare Tapa Whā, the “four cornerstone” model of Māori mental health, along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; the Stanford Social Review’s model of the Dawn of System Leadership; Mindfulness; Gamification and “Theory of U”, a change-management theory from the 1970s filled with Heideggerian jargon about presencing and co-sensing.
There is a disturbance in the psychological safe space of the Heartwork learning journey, and it is mostly the fault of Eric Crampton, chief economist at the New Zealand Initiative, a champion of the neoliberal reforms and a critic of the new wellbeing focused Treasury. The experiment with Heartwork came to Crampton’s attention last week. He blogged about it, and this led to a Newshub story in which National leader Simon Bridges attacked the card game as “bizarre and actually wrong”, while Jacinda Ardern quickly explained that Heartwork was “nothing she or any of her ministers had anything to do with”. It’s the reason we’re warned at the beginning of the session not to take photographs or any recordings or share any of the personal stories that emerge during the event.
But I can tell you how to play Heartwork. You take a deck of Heartwork cards: these are thin, circular, like coasters in mid-range wine bars, only instead of inspirational quotes or vineyard logos they’re printed with sun feelings, moon feelings and needs. You think about a confrontation you’ve had, or a meeting you’re doing to have, and you pick three cards to represent your needs. If I pick three at random I get Peace, Rest and Succinctness, which actually sums up my emotional needs in almost any encounter quite nicely.
Next you pick three cards to represent the needs of the other person. There are 50 to choose from. They might want (random shuffle): Stability, or Understanding, or Sense-of-team, or Clarity. Now that you’ve defined everyone’s needs – “all human behaviour is a strategy to meet our needs,” Rousseau explains – you simply envision a win-win-win scenario in which everyone’s needs are met.
Here is another way to play. Think of a work or personal situation in which your needs were not met. Now pick a Moon Card – a list of negative feelings: Uncomfortable, Torn, Disconnected, Restless, and a Need Card to illustrate what need was not met. Now pick a Sun Card: Yearning, Resonance, In-flow, and then a Need Card. Now envision a win-win-win scenario in which your need is met in a way that delivers your Sun feeling.
“It’s not really … a game,” I say, sorting through my Moon feelings. You don’t seem to play it with anyone. “You can,” someone at the table insists and they shuffle through their own deck. Apparently there were action cards in a previous prototype but not in this iteration. “What about zero sum scenarios?” I wonder out loud. “What about low equilibrium games in which the logical outcome is negative sum?” Slightly uncomfortable silence. I feel – as I often do – that I am not meeting the emotional needs of the people around me.
Everyone else at the event seems thrilled by Heartwork. Another senior Treasury staffer testifies to the transformational nature of the experiment on his team. “Thinking without feeling is bland,” he declares. “But feeling without thinking is blind. You have to have both.” But he does admit that his team doesn’t actually use the cards any more. “They’re training wheels.” Each set costs $113.85.
I take them home and show them to my wife, who is less cynical than I am, and I explain the concepts behind them as best I can.
“Yeah, they teach you to anticipate and articulate needs on negotiation training courses,” she tells me, shuffling through the deck. “It’s good stuff. If you’ve never heard the idea before it can be very empowering. Maybe these cards are a good way to teach that? Maybe –“ She pauses, mid-shuffle. “What’s this?”
I lean over. “That’s the Monkey Emoji Moon Feeling Card. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” She gives me back the deck.