In 2012, the Australian government released an innovative place-based policy called Better Futures, Local Solutions aimed at helping families and individuals in 10 communities boost their work skills, find jobs and provide opportunities for their children. While the policy was carefully designed with help from senior community members, it is light on direction and resources when it comes to implementation at a local level. The strength of this approach is that the 10 communities have freedom to design and direct how they want Better Futures, Local Solutions to be implemented. The weakness is that communities, while knowledgeable about their local context, are looking for guidance on how to collaborate and navigate complexity to achieve the intended social impact. We argue that this weakness in design outweighs the strength.
Good execution is always a challenge in any kind of program or change initiative. And Better Futures, Local Solutions is more complicated than most.
First of all, the 10 communities have been identified as experiencing entrenched disadvantage. They often have a plethora of organisations, services, programs, projects and an army of good, skilled and passionate people all contributing their bit to tackling the issues the communities face. Many programs and people have come and gone over the years and there is a weariness of new arrivals and the short-term nature of some social service provision. Each of these communities also face particular challenges, such as the large downturns of a significant industry or employer, the tyranny of distance, particular socio-economic demographics or high Indigenous populations.
Next, in order to achieve the intended impact of Better Futures, Local Solutions the 10 communities need to apply a different approach to driving social change than they are likely used to. The short term, project or program based approach that has prevailed over the past 15 – 20 years, won’t achieve significant and lasting change in communities experiencing complex, entrenched disadvantage. The approach that is needed is long term – over 10 to 20 years. It requires an ability to work with the whole system in a community – government, business, nonprofits, philanthropy and citizens. It needs good data and good analysis of data at a local level; and it needs the skills, tools and practice knowledge of continuous quality improvement.
Everyone doing this work talks about the challenges of multiple layers of government, conflicting priorities of funders, the competitive (overt or covert) nature of survival from nonprofit service providers, and the perennial problems of insufficient data, resources and time.
In looking at this in total, it is not hard to see the risk of Better Futures, Local Solutions not achieving its intended impact, or worse, adding to the confusion.
It was Thomas Edison who once famously said: “vision without execution is hallucination.” Yet in Australia we continue to roll out program after program with vague ideas and limited resources for implementation.
Over the past 20 years or more, the private sector has developed and fine-tuned many high quality process improvement and implementation methodologies. Unfortunately, the social sector has not had anywhere near comparable investment into its implementation methodologies. Often, where learning’s have been made they have not been widely recorded or shared.
From our experience in engaging with communities across Australia grappling with complex place-based work, the Collective Impact approach has resonated because it guides implementation. Certainly, it is the reason why at least three of the Better Futures, Local Solutions communities are currently incorporating the Collective Impact approach into the way they are implementing the policy.
The Collective Impact approach is premised on the belief that no single policy, government department, organisation or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society. The approach calls for multiple organisations or entities from different sectors to abandon their own agenda in favour of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort. Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have centralised infrastructure – known as a backbone organisation – with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organisations shift from acting alone to acting in concert.
Collective Impact is showing promise in Australia, but is yet to be proved. The goodwill and passion needed to apply this approach is abundant in communities and we must match this with a serious investment in better tools, frameworks, practice knowledge and data. One such organisation doing this is the Centre for Social Impact who will soon launch a practice community on cross sector collaboration and Collective Impact.
Better Futures, Local Solutions aims to provide opportunities for community members to gain skills and training, access new work opportunities and build better life outcomes for themselves and their children. It also supports communities to develop solutions to address disadvantage in their area, strengthen community infrastructure and increase employment and work opportunities. It is an ideal initiative to track and learn from. It is imperative that we capture and disseminate the implementation learning’s so we can build our practice knowledge and improve the way we tackle complex and entrenched disadvantage in our communities.
“As we approach each of the great social challenges of our time we must acknowledge that old thinking will not provide the new solutions we need. These solutions will be uncomfortable, hard to sell and risky to execute. But the cost of not doing so is even greater.” Simon Mainwaring