The 2019 Power to Persuade symposium: examining systems thinking and big data in social policy

Power to Persuade is hosting a one-day symposium in Melbourne on Thursday 10 October 2019. Featuring a keynote address by Julian Corner, CEO of Lankelly Chase in the UK, and three panels of experts drawn from universties, government and the not-for-profit sector, the symposium will examine the evolving use and understanding of evidence in social policy. Our co-director Dr Sue Olney from the Public Service Research Group at UNSW Canberra sets the scene and invites you to join the discussion.

Power to Persuade started with a simple idea: that the best way to start breaking down barriers between various groups interested in social policy - designing it, delivering it, evaluating it or affected by it - was to bring them into the same space. Exploring topical, complex issues facing communities, the community sector, public servants and academics, and offering a diverse range of perspectives, the Power to Persuade symposiums and blog encourage and promote frank and open dialogue about current and emerging challenges and opportunities in social policy.  

Since its inception in 2012 Power to Persuade has hosted six successful symposiums related to the design and delivery of social policy - four in Melbourne and two in Canberra – and built a powerful community of interest. This year to date our website has attracted over 35,000 unique visitors - primarily from Australia but with a growing international audience - and our blog averages 2000 readers a week. The blog is managed and moderated by a volunteer team of experts on a weekly revolving roster.

Power to Persuade is hosting a one-day symposium in Melbourne on Thursday 10 October 2019, focused on the use of evidence in social policy.

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The Australian Government has said that sharing and combining public sector data - through initiatives like the Data Integration Partnership for Australia (DIPA) and Data Sharing and Release legislative reform - will provide “new insights into important and complex policy questions” and lead to “better informed government programs and policies” and “more efficient and effective government services for citizens”. Alongside that, priorities for change identified in the recent independent review of the Australian Public Service include developing stronger internal and external partnerships and flexible operating models to draw multi-agency teams together to address complex policy problems. The Chairman of the review, David Thorley, envisages new, interlocking “rules, systems, structures and ways of working” that will “make collaboration the norm, not the exception” in policy design and implementation.

Much of this will sound familiar to those who have worked on place-based initiatives in government or the not-for-profit sector. The literature and practice suggest that coordinating information, effort and resources across policy boundaries leads to better outcomes for citizens with complex needs. Lingering questions are firstly, what gets in the way of governments and their agents working this way, and secondly why, when they do, does disadvantage persist and sometimes grow in the face of it? Will systems thinking and new datasets reveal something governments don’t already know? Integrating data from different sources and turning it into policy evidence is not a straightforward process. There are vast amounts of data now being collected by government and external service providers; algorithms and statistical methods are evolving to analyse new types of data from new sources; a greater number of actors with competing aims are generating competing interpretations of data; and there is a digital divide excluding some citizens from having their voices heard in this arena. There are widespread concerns about privacy, the risk of bias in algorithms, how data is managed, analysed and used within and outside government, and the power imbalance when the political value of policies trumps evidence of what works to achieve meaningful change.

Our 2019 symposium offers insights into systems thinking and big data in social policy from experts involved in research, policymaking and service delivery working in universities, government and the not-for-profit sector. The program will encourage and promote constructive debate about who is setting the rules and boundaries in relation to the collection and use of evidence in social policy; who decides what data should be drawn together, and what to do with the findings; and who can drive change across jurisdictions where there are competing interests and priorities. 

Symposium Program

Some answers to questions raised above lie in work the Lankelly Chase Foundation in the UK is doing to change systems that perpetuate disadvantage. The CEO of Lankelly Chase, Julian Corner, is the keynote speaker at this year’s symposium, discussing the use and abuse of evidence and shifting and sharing power to address to complex and enduring policy problems.

The program also includes three panel discussions involving experts drawn from government, service providers and the research community around Australia:

Panel 1: Systems reform, stewardship and future capability of the public sector workforce

This panel will discuss bridging boundaries between policy jurisdictions, navigating shifting rules and relationships, challenges in translating policy into practice (including measuring impact across systems, stretching scarce resources, accountability and managing unintended consequences of reform), and opportunities presented by new ways of working in government.

  • Moderator: Professor Helen Dickinson (UNSW Canberra)

  • Professor Janine O’Flynn (ANZSOG)

  • Ms Aurora Milroy (ANZSOG)

  • Professor Peter Gahan (University of Melbourne)

  • Mr David Clements (Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions) 

Panel 2: The future of advocacy in social services

This panel will discuss why some evidence of ‘what works’ is trumped by politics in policy development; the landscape of competing priorities and competing interpretations of evidence; the digital divide excluding some citizens from having their voices heard; and ideas to gain traction in social policy debates.

  • Moderator: Associate Professor Gemma Carey (Centre for Social Impact, UNSW)

  • Ms Sarah Davies (Philanthropy Australia)

  • Professor Paul Smyth (University of Melbourne)

  • Professor Shelley Mallett (Brotherhood of St Laurence & University of Melbourne)

  • Ms Stella Avramopoulos (Good Shepherd) 

Panel 3: The use of evidence through a gender lens 

This panel will discuss the intersection of policy, evidence and gender

  •  Moderator: Dr Sarah Squire (Good Shepherd)

  • Dr Katherine Curchin, (Australian National University)

  • Ms Laura Vidal (Monash University & Good Shepherd)

  • Ms Leah Van Poppel (Women with Disabilities Victoria)

  • Professor Nareen Young (University of Technology Sydney)

We hope you can join us in Melbourne. Register here.