There's nothing so useful as a good theory

In a recent blog post, Dr Gemma Carey of Australian National University discusses the challenges inherent in the current policy formation process – including the outsourcing of government functions to a range of non-governmental agencies, the increased complexity of ‘wicked’ social problems, and the chaotic and opportunistic policy process itself. In this follow-up article, Dr Kathy Landvogt and Susan Maury, both of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, explain how The Power to Persuade responds to this policy milieu.

Due to the complex systems at work, policy influence is a pattern of influence that can only be explained by whole-system understandings. Policy participants are therefore more usefully seen as parts of broader structure of interconnectedness rather than as individuals. That is, it is the spaces between them that is where Power to Persuade seeks to exert change.

We have used three theoretical lenses to examine what Power to Persuade is doing: ‘networks’, ‘public learning’ and ‘creativity’. These are frames to examine and learn from, but they are not the only ones and may not be the best ones. It is a work in progress, and we learn as we act.


Social network analysis¹ is an appropriate frame because it studies ‘the whole’ and adopts system thinking to consider patterns rather than individual actions. However, it is not the existence of networks per se that is notable, but its characteristics. We are seeking the characteristics of networks that have diagnostic and strategic power for thinking about Power to Persuade.

The first is centrality, or more specifically ‘closeness centrality’ – the ability of network members to access other members of the network going through the fewest possible links. It is important to note that this is not the same as ‘network density’ (everyone connected to everyone else) but is about strategic points of connection to bridge gaps in the network. Network centrality builds policy influence by enabling network members to create and exchange resources efficiently by joining up otherwise disconnected points in the system. Power to Persuade connects participants to highly connected individuals, such as invited speakers, other participants, and bloggers, for example.

Second, ‘the strength of weak ties’ – accessing new sources of information and diverse perspectives by bridging across networks – is intrinsic to the project. While strong bonds with like minds are important, these familiar networks are not enough in situations of change when new information is needed, so the ideal network has a number of loosely connected clusters. When curating the Power to Persuade symposium and blogs, we seek contributions from different points in the policy process and different perspectives on the policy landscape. Having a large number of indirect links into other sectors (academic, government, business), other service domains (health, planning), or other roles (executives, policy advocates, service managers) helps access resources, build coalitions of support and find important new ideas.

Public learning

While conditions of uncertainty and insecurity draw people back to their stronger familiar networks, that is precisely the time that contact with the ‘weak ties’ in one’s network is needed. Weak ties represent working across difference, and it is the role of public learning to create spaces where this can occur.

“Public learning occurs when people learn together and when changes of perception, understanding and action are observed by others… [This way] public actions have a widespread and collective affect” (Attwood, 2003).

Power to Persuade aims to bring people with different knowledge but shared values together in a non-competitive environment, for public learning. Recognised leaders share their knowledge from experience, and people come together to create learning and understanding in collective ‘sense-making’.


Power to Persuade also seeks to enable social creativity – the collective creativity that leads to innovation in shared environments. Innovation is the generating ideas or solutions that are both novel and appropriate. These can be ground-breaking ideas but they can also be ways of reconfiguring and adapting known ways in new contexts. In public policy, innovations are defined as non-accidental efforts to reform public policies and programs.  A successful innovation results in an elegant solution.

Power to Persuade encourages social creativity in a way that parallels sparks of insight and creativity in individual brain function. Cognitive flexibility allows an individual to successfully combine information from different knowledge centres; when successfully done, the result is a creative output or insightful solution. This flexibility creates more innovative ideas, and faster, than more traditional linear problem solving. The same processes can take place amongst the disparate knowledge centres held by individuals in a shared space.  Cognitive flexibility flourishes when conditions are not stressful, pressured or narrowly focussed, but rather expansive and underpinned by positive emotions.2

Creativity can both increase policy influence and improve policy responses. Power to Persuade is an innovation itself, and one which tries to ‘walk the talk’ by creating spaces in which collective creativity can thrive.

Adding some robustness to these ideas, we find that the concepts of networks and of creativity are themselves linked: certain network positions can maximise creativity. Innovation requires resources such as information, knowledge and advice that can be accessed through networks. Network centrality supports creativity and innovation because it endows higher status, which enables greater risk-taking. On the other hand, having a peripheral position with links into other networks or systems enables maximum creativity. This is because autonomous thinking and exposure to broader ideas are critical to creativity, and if a central position in the network becomes too important it can lead to group-think. Furthermore, trying to reconcile different perspectives and expectation, as happens in the spaces between systems of thought, creates a healthy tension for innovators.3

Like the brain, our policy information is clustered and networked. We need to get that information out of its discrete clusters and into the common realm to create innovation, so that ideas that do not usually go together can be put together to solve a problem and create an elegant solution.

In Power to Persuade we are trying to create spaces for social creativity. This requires positive, non-competitive environments where participants are not stressed by a focus on immediate task performance, organisational pressures or career survival, but instead are able to think freely and are rewarded for sharing their insights.


¹ For more information on social network analysis, we suggest Christakis, N. & Fowler, J. (2010). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape our Lives.  Little Brown: New York.

Attwood, Margaret (2003). Leading Change: A Guide to Whole Systems Working. Policy Press: Bristol.

2 For more on individual and social creativity, we suggest:

Fischer, G. Giaccardi, E., Eden, H., Sugimoto, M., and Yunwen, Y. (2005). Beyond Binary Choices: Integrating Individual and Social Creativity.  International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 63, pp. 482-512.

Hargadon, A. B. & Bechky, B. A. (2006). When Collections of Creatives Become Creative Collectives: A Field Study of Problem Solving at Work. Organization Science, 17:4, pp. 484-500.

3Perry-Smith, J. E., & Shalley, C. E. (2003).  The Social Side of Creativity: A Static and Dynamic Social Network Perspective.  Academy of Management Review, 28:1, pp. 89-106.