Keeping it civil - difference, tradition and morality in policy conversations

One of the tasks we set ourselves at PTP was articulating the value each of us sees, from our own sectoral vantage points, of creating a space to talk about policy processes. Today, Dr Kathy Landvogt shares her views on working on process (not just issue or topic) and how PTP has extended the work of her team, while strengthening their original mandate.

How we choose to do policy work from the platforms offered by our community organisations is a pressing question, especially when progressive policies are being swept away faster than we can count them. This is not the equally important question about which policies we argue for as a sector, although of course we must passionately explore and debate these. It is the question of our role in the policy process itself.

The stance we take in policy advocacy is important to the success of efforts to influence policy decisions, but there is something even more important than policy success, and that is the integrity with which we conduct that activity, and therefore the trust the community is encouraged and entitled to place in us. It may seem that this is a self-interested view: surely for those with and for whom we act, the people to whose needs and circumstances we give voice, the only thing that matters is that a policy effectively enables them to live a fuller life. This may be true for short term results, but civil society ultimately needs trusted institutions to mend the tears in the social fabric. Trust is the precious quality that governments and businesses strive for and so often fail to win. Trust is earned through being consistently genuine, honest and believable, by walking the talk, by what we say publically ringing true with what we do privately. We know we sometimes fail to walk the talk and our organisations are not always worthy of that trust. This makes the explicit striving for integrity all the more important.

The Power to Persuade symposium and blog demonstrate, in part at least, Good Shepherd’s way of doing policy work. It is a fresh initiative, and not like any of our other research and policy activities, yet at heart it embodies the essence of our role in civil society as a justice-seeking, faith-based community welfare organisation. This essence, as I see it, lies in its moral purpose, its continuity with traditions, and its aspiration to create conversations across difference.

Moral purpose

Why we seek to influence policy is important. It is for justice. Whether faith-based or secular, our organisations advocate for policies that uphold the inalienable human state as one of dignity and equality. In this fundamentally moral position we stand apart from many of the public voices that use the language of economics: efficiency, productivity, return on investment.

Human dignity cannot be reduced to the economic function of a person any more than markets can provide all the answers to human need. Markets themselves depend on trust and fairness being the norm: trust and fairness that can only be produced by embedding the markets in wider social institutions[i]. In our increasingly market-dominated society we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with those who come through our doors as individuals with full humanity, not as economic units or indeed as objects of any other projection.


We draw strength from the histories and legacies of those who have gone before. There are lessons in history that, in our breakneck speed to embrace a new future or even to just keep up with ever-rising present demands, are readily overlooked. Our heritage gives guidance about when and what to compromise, about how to hold strong to a position when our resolve is threatened by demoralisation. In turn the stands we take and the compromises we make today will define the legacy we leave in our organisations. Missions will be strengthened or weakened.

That heritage comes from many places – community activists, neighbourhood organisers, radical theologians, the foundations of our professions. As an organisation of the Good Shepherd sisters, we draw on the Catholic social teachings which place the dignity of the person, the common good, equality, solidarity, and subsidiarity at the core of our work[ii]. As an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls, we also draw on feminism. An unlikely amalgam perhaps, yet both traditions provide guidance about how community organisations can act with integrity and moral weight in policy conversations.

Conversations across difference

Power to Persuade aspires to be a series of conversations, spoken and written, about making better policy. Conversation at all levels creates social order by developing language resources for the public articulation of ideas. Feminism taught us the power of naming experience publically, and that we are often blind to truths that we have not heard the names for. It also taught us that public conversations are sites for power to be claimed and contested.

I have a vision of policy development based on communicative democracy. Iris Marion Young argued that policy should cover all interactions that relate to social and economic justice[iii]. If this is the policy scope, what is to be the process that enables it? Because traditional debate and decision-making marginalise those with less power, she proposes a different kind of discussion: ‘communicative democracy’ in which rational argument is complemented and challenged by stories, emotion-imbued rhetoric and public protest. The question of how readily we accommodate this within civil (in both senses of the word) policy debate was raised by the furore about students protesting on the ABC television ‘QandA’ episode several months ago. Some saw this as the essence of democracy and others as its anathema. Cool analysis is the major policy tool, yet emotions and passionate argument surely have a place when the defining purpose is a moral one.

The answer may lie in Frank Brennan’s appeal to “practice charity and justice in all we do and with whom we deal”[iv]. Truly respecting the knowledge that comes from others’ unique experience is a difficult and some would say spiritual practice.

The principle of subsidiarity requires that policies have input from the people affected, or at least from those whom they ask to speak for them. Power to Persuade, like Good Shepherd itself, is an intermediary organisation that gives people a platform to collectively build understanding and agreement not only about public policy itself, but about the way such policy should be developed. As Anne Manning, Province Leader of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, has reminded us, “what we do in our work matters greatly, but how we do it is even more important”.


[i] Matt Grist ‘Changing the subject: how new ways of thinking about human behaviour might change politics, policy and practice’ Accessed 5 June 2014

[ii] For an excellent account of how Catholic social teachings are reflected in community service work: Julie Edwards ‘Mission in Focus’ episode Accessed 5 June 2014

[iii] Iris Marion Young ‘Inclusion and Democracy’, New York, Oxford university Press, 2001

[iv] Frank Brennan ‘The role of the faith based organisation’ 26 May 2014, Eureka Street Accessed 5 June 2014

Kathy manages the Social Policy Research Unit of Good Shepherd in Melbourne, undertaking primary research, policy research, system advocacy and program evaluations with a particular focus on increasing the economic security of women and their families. Kathy is a social worker with experience in service delivery, management and consultancy in both government and community-based organisations. She has been an educator in tertiary, vocational and community settings.

Posted by Gemma Carey