‘Stop trying to fix women — fix the system’

It’s still true that the higher you go in the public service, the fewer women there are. Progress is not happening fast enough for many, so IPAA Victoria has made the decision to advocate for change. Article by David Donaldson. 

The reasons for women’s under-representation in many senior roles across society is frequently debated, with some emphasising systemic barriers to advancement, while others argue it’s about the choices made by individuals.

After reviewing international research and speaking to stakeholders close to the ground, the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia came to some “very clear and very consistent” conclusions.

“We need to move beyond the focus on fixing women, and their possible skill deficits, and their possible lack of confidence, because the challenge is actually to fix the system, to fix the systemic barriers that still exist to women’s progression, particularly in very senior roles,” said Dr Emily Phillips, deputy secretary at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, at the final lunch for Public Sector Week on Friday.

To put its money where its mouth is, on Friday IPAA Victoria launched a new framework for advancing women in the Victorian public sector. As a professional association for public servants, IPAA naturally tends to shy away from advocacy, making this decision significant.

“It’s still the case that the further up you go the leadership ladder, the fewer women there are,” argued Phillips, who is also an IPAA Victoria board member.

“This challenge is often described as the leaky pipeline. In essence, we have plenty of talented and skilled women in middle management and early level executive positions, but we lose them. We lose them through the promotion pipeline through to our executive bands.

“If you think about leadership capacity and talents as a resource our sector needs to utilise, and utilise as well as it possibly can, then we risk wasting those resources if we continue to allow the talent pipeline to leak. There’s also a more fundamental aspect to this, around equity and fairness — and around equality of opportunity and access for women. That’s really the nub of the issue.

“We all benefit if achievement is based on leadership capacity and talent, because the best person gets the job, and we get the very best possible senior executive leadership in the public service. And as public servants we should all want that.”

While there are more women now in executive roles in the VPS following the announcement last year of a state government target, the gains have largely been in the lowest executive ranking, Phillips noted.

It’s a similar story in the Australian Public Service, said Department of Education and Training secretary Gill Callister.

“At the senior commonwealth levels, SES 1, 2 and 3, the positions still skew significantly towards men. In the APS 1 and 2 positions, progress has essentially flatlined. In the case of SES 3 positions, the top level positions in the APS, the trend last was going in the wrong direction,” she said.

Only 16% of local government CEOs are women.

“You can’t bank progress or take it for granted. It’s incumbent on us as leaders to crystallise a genuine sense of urgency for gender equality. It’s also incumbent upon us as the professional association for our sector to treat this as a significant priority and build on the work that we’ve been doing.”

Chris Eccles, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, also spoke about the value of diversity, noting that Victoria was a particularly successful case.

“This spectrum of diversity in Victoria is a source of strength for our community. We’re stronger socially, culturally and economically in our differences. Victoria’s cohesive society is built not only on the on the principle that every person has the right to live without discrimination due to their identity, experiences or ability, but on the notion that people are included and have equal access to services, programs and opportunities,” he said.

“Diversity fosters unique skills, ideas and knowledge. We also know that diversity fuels innovation, creativity and development in our economy and society. Inclusive communities are more stable, innovative and have stronger participation.”

The framework

IPAA has been mulling over what role it can play, and hopes its framework can work alongside existing initiatives, as well as being taken up by other organisations.

It will be used to guide IPAA’s own planning, and will include a measurement and evaluation of outcomes across the VPS. A suite of indicators and targets are in development.

There are four key areas it will tackle, Phillips explained.

“First, we need to continue to build the leadership capacity of women across the Victorian public sector,” she said, noting that IPAA is well placed to do this as an organisation that already delivers a lot of professional development.

“Second, we need to keep creating opportunities for women to connect and network to share ideas, to access information and to influence decision making. IPAA Victoria has had a huge response to some of our big networking events, in particular our International Women’s Day event, where we now get over 1000 men and women together. And this will continue, but we also think we can complement this with some smaller, more focused networking events. … You’ll start to see these types of events over the next 12 months.

“Third, we want to develop and support women who are already holding leadership roles in the VPS. We think this is crucial because we can’t afford to lose them. We are still exploring how to do this,” Phillips said.

“Fourth, we think there’s a role for IPAA in speaking out and advocating about systemic barriers to women’s advancement in the public sector. For example, IPAA is in a great position to help tackle some of the negative stereotypes that still exist about women in leadership.

“We can also focus on some of the very practical issues, like flexible work, like leave arrangements … part of our role is to ensure that our whole sector knows what’s going on, knows who’s doing this well, and knows where to find the information to adopt some of these practices.”

A key message, Phillips added,  is that “this is not just a focus on women”.

“I really want to stress that our intention is to involve both men and women. We all need to recognise there’s a fundamental fairness issue here, and that tackling these problems is going to require all of us as public sector leaders to champion change and to do things differently. Because it benefits all of the public sector to have the best possible talent in senior roles, and greater flexibility and leave arrangements and part time senior roles can benefit men as much as women.”

This article originally published in The Mandarin. 

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations. 

Actuarial modelling is not evidence of effective social welfare

Using actuarial modelling of future costs as the key measure of the welfare safety net’s effectiveness is a “deeply flawed” idea imported from New Zealand, according to Michael Fletcher, former public servant turned academic.

The Australian government is barking up the wrong tree in copying New Zealand’s reliance on actuarial modelling to measure the future cost of welfare and judge the success of its reforms, according to an Auckland academic who is in Canberra for a conference.

Lowering the government’s future fiscal liability for welfare does not necessarily indicate a better functioning social safety net, argues Michael Fletcher, a former public servant who spent over 20 years working on welfare and employment policy before swapping Wellington for the Auckland University of Technology, where he is now a senior researcher hoping to shortly be awarded his PhD.

“It’s simply a cost-saving approach,” he says of the NZ government’s attempts to reduce long-term welfare dependency, guided by actuarial reports, rather than more detailed evaluation that considers other indicators around employment rates or general wellbeing.

Michael Fletcher

He argues the NZ approach is “deeply flawed” because it focuses “purely” on welfare costs, which is not an adequate proxy for the kind of outcomes social assistance programs are designed to achieve.

The lifetime fiscal liability does not even include all the wider savings to other areas of the budget that would be expected from more effective social assistance, he points out.

“I just think that it is the wrong measure to use,” he told The Mandarin. “A welfare system needs to be focused on people’s welfare, people’s wellbeing, and promoting employment, not on measuring fiscal savings.”

Fletcher will sit on a panel at tomorrow’s Power to Persuade symposiumdiscussing “changing concepts of evidence” alongside Tara Oliver, the managing director of the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government, and Australian National University academic Daniel Reeders.

The discussion will follow the keynote presentation on “evidence-based policy in a post-truth environment” by former Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. This should be a good introduction, as most critics of the NZ-style investment approach to welfare see it as a form of post-truth policy.

This article was originally posted in The Mandarin. 

About Michael Fletcher:  Prior to joining AUT, Michael Fletcher held various senior policy and research roles in the New Zealand public service, including Chief Labour Market Adviser at the Department of Labour, Principal Adviser for the Ministry of Social Development and Group Manager, Policy and Research for the New Zealand Families Commission. He has also consulted for numerous government and non-government agencies, including the Treasury, Ministry of Maori Development, New Zealand Immigration Service, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Office of the Children's Commission.

His doctoral research centres on a quantitative analysis of the economic consequences of partnership dissolution for New Zealand parents with dependent children and the impacts of the Child Support system. Since 2014, Michael has held the position of New Zealand Correspondent for the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, a role which involves reporting annually on the social situation in New Zealand and developments in social laws and policies.


Research Engagement and Impact: The rhetoric, the evidence, and the practice

Research engagement and impact. Everyone’s talking about it. The United Kingdom’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework included it. As announced in the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian Government now wants to see it. Dr Pauline Zardo with the Queensland University of Technology explores the implications for practice. 

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has been charged with assessing research engagement and impact and Australian universities have clambered to produce evidence of it. The Australian Engagement and Impact Assessment pilot is complete and everyone is getting ready for it as part of ERA 2018. So, what is it?

The ARC have developed the following definitions:

·       Research impact: the contribution that research makes to the economy, society and environment, beyond the contribution to academic research.

·       Research engagement: the interaction between researchers and research end-users (including industry, government, non-governmental organisations, communities and community organisations), for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, technologies and methods, and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

The Engagement and Impact Assessment is focused on measuring engagement and assessing impact. The ARC website indicates that the pilot included engagement metrics and case studies of impact. Further details are yet to be publicly revealed.

The rhetoric, however, reveals a central assumption: increasing engagement is expected to increase impact. The premise is thus: if we increase engagement with industry, government and other decision-makers then we increase the likelihood that engagement will result in research being used in some way that contributes to economic, social, environmental and other benefits. If you take a quick look at the body of research on research translation and implementation science (fields of research specifically focused on how to get research used in policy, programs and practice) this assumption appears sound. Many factors found to affect research use are related to engagement. Collaboration, relationships with decision-makers, and improved dissemination were amongst the top five enablers identified in a 2014 systematic review of factors affecting decision-makers use of research.

The challenges inherent in this assumption become apparent when you dig a little deeper into the evidence base. The review authors have shown that the majority of existing research on factors affecting research use is based on perceptions; surveys and interviews on what decision-makers and researchers think affects research use. When examining reviews of studies that have tested assumptions about how to increase research use, the picture becomes much more complex.

A 2016 review of systematic reviews identified 16 high quality studies that specifically tested approaches to increasing decision-makers use of research. Nine of these studies failed to increase research use and seven showed an improvement in use of research. This highlights that quite often, our assumptions about what will increase decision-makers or end-users use of research are not borne out in practice.

What we do know is that a complex interplay of factors must work in alignment to drive research use. For example, there was reliable evidence that increasing access through communication strategies or repositories did increase research use, but only if the intervention simultaneously sought to increase decision-makers motivation and opportunity to use that research. The review authors concluded that ‘… the intention to use evidence, in itself, cannot be regarded as a reliable indicator...’ of research use. 

At present the evidence base points to ‘best bets’ about what might work to increase research use. Even then, this comprehensive systematic review has shown that the evidence we do have ‘tells us little about how these interventions work’ (emphasis added). This highlights that a strategic evidence-based approach to research engagement, translation and implementation is needed to support and enable and the use research that is necessary for research to have an impact.

The good news is the ARC is going to reward us for engagement even if it doesn’t lead to impact. Engagement has been coupled with impact in Australia; recognising the fact that researchers are not in direct control of whether decision-makers use the research they have funded. The risk with this approach is in incentivising activity that is not directly linked to the intended outcome. By increasing engagement without clear evidence of strategies are that effective in increasing decision-makers use of research, we risk increasing, or at least sustaining, industry and government perceptions that academics fail to understand decision-maker needs (for e.g. see Miles review of Collaborative Research Centres and a recent US study).

This is not to suggest we should not move forward with engagement and impact activity. The Engagement and Impact Assessment has provided the critical incentives needed to support investment in engagement and impact work. But unless we take our own advice and use research evidence to inform engagement and the collection, analyses and implementation of the impact data we will now collect, then we will miss a great opportunity to learn how to overcome the significant challenges faced in seeking to drive industry and government use of research.

We need to be collecting detailed data and evidence throughout the engagement to impact pathway to increase our understanding of how to achieve impact, and how this varies across different types of research projects and decision-maker and end-user contexts. This will bolster the evidence base needed to help researchers and institutions take a more strategic approach to research engagement, translation and impact planning, monitoring and evaluation. If we can use this opportunity to better understand how to increase research use, then we can significantly increase the chance of our research achieving real and lasting impacts on the world beyond academia.

Dr Pauline Zardo currently works as a Data and Post Doctoral Policy Fellow at QUT undertaking research in the area of open access and data driven impact. Dr Zardo completed a PhD focused on increasing government decision-makers use of research at Monash University in 2013. Since then she has worked in various academic and professional roles in the higher education sector, including as Research Translation Manager at Monash University and Research Impact Officer at UQ. Prior to undertaking a PhD Pauline worked as Strategic Policy and Project Officer in State Government in Victoria.


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