What is the Power to Persuade?

In late 2014 Dr Gemma Carey from Australian National University, along with Dr Kathy Landvogt and Susan Maury, both of Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand, examined the challenges posed by the increasing complexity of social policy development and outlined how Power to Persuade is an attempt to respond to these challenges by trying to create spaces for social creativity.

We’re republishing these two companion posts as one in the lead up to the Power To Persuade Symposium as they offer an insight into the intent and purpose of  the symposium and this blog.


The push to collaborate has increased the complexity of the policy-making and policy-implementation processes. To collaborate effectively, the right supports and platforms are necessary.  In this post, Dr Gemma Carey from Australian National University reflects on this problem, and what she and others are doing to remedy it.

Recently, Kathy Landvogt and I gave a workshop at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the Australian National University on the conceptual underpinnings of Power to Persuade.

For those who are unfamiliar, Power to Persuade (PTP) aims to develop communities of practice within new and emerging policy networks, arming them with the skills and knowledge to work more effectively together. We do this by providing new spaces (both virtual and in person) for individuals to come together and ‘meet differently’ – in a way that considers the functioning of the ‘whole’, not just specific organisations or services.

In this blog post I focus on the theory of the problem that PTP is addressing. Kathy will provide a follow up post with the solution PTP is providing.

What’s missing in the new era of devolved government and network governance?

Since the 1990s, ‘joined-up government’, ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘horizontal governance’ approaches have emerged in many industrialised countries as an attempt to grapple with ‘wicked’ public and social policy issues which implicate multiple government departments and different actors. Wicked problems are those that cannot be solved by one actor alone (even if that actor is government).

This has resulted in the devolution of government functions to diverse and extensive policy networks. You now hear the term ‘governance’ used a lot, rather than government, which reflects this shift. Broadly, the idea is that the hierarchical government bureaucracy of the 20th Century is no longer an appropriate vehicle for the delivery and development of public and social policy, or securing good outcomes for citizens.

These changes have occurred as part of cost shifting measures, alongside more genuine beliefs (on both sides of politics) that those closest to communities are best positioned to provide effective and efficient public services. Governments now use a range of ‘outsourcing’ techniques, from formal market arrangements (as promoted by new public management), through to more collaborative initiatives. Public policy scholars believe are moving towards a new era of unprecedented collaboration and partnership between sectors.

What has been created by these shifts is a complex system of networked actors designing, implementing and influencing policy. This includes different parts of government, the community sector, philanthropy, corporates and academics.

Arguably, networked approaches to policy may solve some problems. They minimise the risks and costs to government by spreading out responsibility and they mean that programs and decisions are made closer to community groups – which hopefully means they are better. But, as with all paradigm shifts, new problems have emerged.

We now have many different actors working in policy: in its design (such as government), in its implementation (for example, through community service organisations) and/or in influencing it (for example, lobbying). This is happening both informally, through research and advocacy efforts; and formally, through government consultations, submissions on policy proposals or when government contracts an organisation to deliver government services. As a result, large numbers of actors are involved in the policy process, who are rarely clear on what role they are playing, let alone how they relate to others in this new space.

The problem from a community organisation perspective is that we are invited into various parts of the policy ‘implementation – influence – design’ process without clear knowledge of the invitation’s purpose. We are all seeking better outcomes, but if co-creation of policy is seen as a way to achieve that, then the processes undermine this just as much as they support it. For example: in the current Victorian service sector reform, government wants innovation on the one hand but pushes providers to be larger and more institutionalised to meet their funding and accountability requirements on the other hand. Further, government invites co-creation through policy submissions and a joint governance councils, but that rational process has been interrupted by major changes in related service areas (mental health, and alcohol and drug services) that the council has stepped in to address. The processes are not linear but densely networked, and they are not so much technical problem-solving as political trouble-shooting.

This example also illustrates another factor: the growing turbulence and ‘noise’ in the policy space, which encourages actors to be very reactionary. In the midst of this, there is an organisational imperative to keep one’s head and remain committed to the processes that seem riskier, being slower and more process-driven, but have both intellectual and moral integrity.

Skill and knowledge deficiencies

With the profound shifts in how governments operate over the last two to three decades, we have seen new communities of practice emerging, who are interested in shaping policy in different ways. With this, skill and knowledge gaps have emerged; operating in this very complex environment requires a new set of skills.

To date, there has been a focus on the development of technical skills as opposed to the development of skills to work within a complex system. This has meant ensuring more qualified practitioners are working with more sophisticated reporting mechanisms – but it is really about the interface between services and citizens.

There is also a lack of knowledge concerning the functioning of the system as a ‘whole', and no investment in the capacity of policy actors to understand and navigate the whole system (not just how individual services, organisations or parts of government function). This means that there has not been sufficient investment in the skills and knowledge of those outside of government to work in complex networks.

Efforts to enhance the relationships between government and policy networks have largely been attached to political agendas and program delivery imperatives. Arguably, it isn’t really the role of government to invest in the functioning of the system as a whole, or to build the skills and knowledge of different parts of the system to contribute to policy in an abstract sense. The role of government is to pass political agendas and achieve service delivery and policy outcomes. So naturally, they are only going to invest in skill development that relates directly to these objectives. This means there is a serious gap which isn’t being addressed for the very reasons that the gap exists – it isn’t the responsibility of any one actor to address the functioning of the system as a whole.

Here in lies to the role of Power to Persuade.



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 aboutPower 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.