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Why Loneliness Should Matter to Governments

How the public sector can use data and analytics to help knit communities back together.

Humans are pack animals. It’s bred into our genes. As John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick wrote in their 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, early humans “were more likely to survive when they stuck together” and “evolution reinforced the preference for strong human bonds.”

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

Over the centuries, but especially in the past few decades, our society has tended to ignore the need for social connection, resulting in a growing sense of loneliness and isolation. Average households have gotten smaller, the number of single-parent households has increased dramatically and from 1980 to 2010 the number of people living alone increased by 30 percent.

Loneliness may seem like a personal situation beyond the purview of government, but its growing prevalence is an important challenge to the public sector in the same way that issues such as homelessness, diabetes, obesity, smoking and unemployment are recognized as problems that require a government response.

It should matter to public leaders because loneliness powerfully impacts outcomes for their communities in three ways. First, it’s a risk factor for illness and early death. Second, the social expectations and judgments people make are generally more pessimistic when they are lonely. And finally, decreased social isolation is a required precondition for governments to successfully engage their citizens.

That final point is leavened, albeit indirectly, throughout a new book by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford. Every disengagement by a group or an individual, they write in The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, “removes part of the fabric that knits urban residents into a cohesive community. And that fabric is essential to the success of a city.” To underline that point, they cite research by the Knight Foundation showing that communities whose residents are better engaged with one another experience more economic growth.

Engagement, they write, “requires that people create and sustain a collective voice,” and the century-old model of municipal government has done much to discourage such forms of engagement, but Goldsmith and Crawford argue that “twenty-first-century digital technology will foster them.”

This idea is one that some public officials already embrace. Goldsmith and Crawford note that Mike Flowers, former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, believes that “the world works tribally.” If the juxtaposition of the words “data analytics” and “tribally” seems strange, it won’t for much longer.

Loneliness is an unrecognized management challenge. Ironically, once we do recognize that challenge, we see that the same forces of modernity that are isolating so many of the members of our human pack can give us the tools to bring us together. At the beginning of their book, Cacioppo and Patrick quote an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Goldsmith and Crawford have shown us how to use data and analytics to get started on that journey.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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