When policy limits self-efficacy

Susan is a cartoon head.png

Positive psychology is the emerging field that examines what allows people to thrive.  In this blog post, Policy Whisperer Susan Maury of Good Shepherd AustraliaNew Zealand makes a case for considering self-efficacy when designing or evaluating government policy. 

Please note that some links embedded in this blog post contain photos of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who may be deceased. 

Government policy is assessed using a range of lenses.  How do voters feel about it?  What are the budget implications? Is it addressing a need?  Of course these are important questions to consider.  However, the most critical question is often never raised:  Will this policy make a positive, lasting difference?  This ought to be the first question – always.  Other filters can then be applied as the policy is refined. 

One consideration for positive lasting change is the concept of self-efficacy.  This refers to an individual’s (and, I would argue, a community’s) belief in their ability to effect a positive life change.  Efficacy is linked to the locus of control: an internal locus of control is the belief that an individual controls their own life course and results in high self-efficacy, while an external locus of control is the belief that the life course is directed from outside (e.g., fate, or ‘the system’) and results in low self-efficacy.   

Self-efficacy may sound like academic jargon but it is actually a critically important distinction when considering government policy.  Individuals who have lower self-efficacy also tend to have lower educational attainment, compromised health, lower career status and even a shortened life span.  Conversely, high self-efficacy counteracts the many negative effects of low socio-economic status.  These include compromised socio-emotional development (see studies here and here); health and mortality; and cognitive development and academic achievement (see reviews here and here).  This is quite remarkable.  It makes sense from both a socio-political and a financial perspective to encourage self-efficacy when the social rewards are so high.  Even from a socially conservative perspective there is great economic benefit when people are both more able and welcomed as active participants in the economy, thereby reducing reliance on support and health services.  

Government policy seems specifically designed to impede progress for people who are most reliant on it.  Photo credit: Pexels .

Government policy seems specifically designed to impede progress for people who are most reliant on it. Photo credit: Pexels.

If we think about self-efficacy in terms of policy development, interesting things come to light.  It is clear that the government’s policy on asylum seekers is deliberately designed to cripple self-efficacy and thereby exacerbate poor mental health – through, for example, indefinite detention, forced repatriation, insufficient access to basic human services including education and health, and an inability to share their experiences with the Australian public.  Left highly vulnerable by the government stance, asylum seekers are experiencing high levels of insecurity, resulting in physical and sexual violence, harassment and extreme bullying – including horrific acts aimed particularly at women and children.  As a result, people who have fled trauma seeking asylum are experiencing high levels of mental illness -  including for children, who are prone to self-harm and are likely to carry the effects with them for a lifetime.  The Australian Medical Association states unequivocally:  “Prolonged, indeterminate detention of asylum seekers in immigration detention centres violates basic human rights and contributes adversely to their health. The longer a person is in detention, the higher their risk of mental illness.”  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has also identified self-efficacy as important for successful resettlement.  It is heartening to see a shift in public perception of asylum seekers despite the government’s narrative of victim-blaming

The asylum seeker experience is a chilling example of how removing self-efficacy from people – individually and as a community – is dangerous to health and wellbeing, so much so that it is considered a violation of human rights.  However, government policy can reduce self-efficacy in less overt but insidious ways.  I have written before about this pertaining to policies and motivation, and, with Tanya Corrie, helping young people into work.  Perhaps the most striking example is policy specifically directed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

The long history of Aboriginal policy extends back to the arrival of the first fleet, in which the entire Continent was considered Terra Nullius, or land belonging to nobody.  This erroneous stance formed the justification for dispossession and codified land laws (read a history here), and marked the beginning of a troubling history between colonists arriving in Australia and the Indigenous population.  The Australian Human Rights Commission has assembled a comprehensive timeline of events which details many of these interactions, with a focus on the institution of policies for forcibly breaking apart families and removing children from their parents and extended family networks – a policy which has inflicted deep and lasting psycho-social damage

This history matters.  The violent destruction of deep ties to land, nation, and family is a tragedy that is seldom adequately acknowledged by the people who are formulating current policy.   This results in explaining social ills as personal failings and deficits rather than as a legacy of 228 years of colonial oppression and deliberate exclusion from mainstream government services, which live on in both government policy and public attitudes.  At the heart of this sits a long history of actively limiting self-efficacy, for both individuals and communities.  While there have been some positive moves towards reconciliation, such as Sorry Day and a normalisation of Welcome to Country/Acknowledgement of County at official events, it’s difficult to find policies that increase self-efficacy beyond the Native Title Act of 1993. Often, it moves in the contrary direction

The Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention (“the Intervention”) is the most pronounced recent example.  This controversial package of legislation severely limits both individual and community self-efficacy in ways that did not directly address the findings and suggestions of the report to which it was allegedly responding, raising serious human rights concerns.  While evaluations have failed to identify any of the anticipated behaviour changes  (see also this interactive report by the Castan Centre), the Intervention has been not only extended, but expanded.  Aboriginal leaders declared a day of mourning following the government announcement. It is worth pointing out that, where a thoughtful, informed, and inclusive response warranted an extended period of consultation and collaboration with Indigenous communities, the Intervention legislation was announced a scant 6 days after the report was received, and its extension was approved by the Senate despite complaints that there was lack of consultation.

Principles which enhance self-efficacy are not unknown in policy circles.  There is an evidence base for creating effective policy , including evidence collected by the Australian Government, to support Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities, and it reflects high levels of engagement, empowerment and self-efficacy.  The Empowered Communities: Empowered People report (2015) creates a framework for effective policy development – again highlighting the importance of self-efficacy (although this framework can be improved). 

Aboriginal people have been saying and continue to say that they want to take control of their destiny.  However, it may be that there is an unacknowledged but powerful “norm” of limiting the self-efficacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities which counteracts both the evidence base and good will.  It has been argued that Australian policy regarding both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and asylum seekers are deliberately crafted to be detrimental.  

The Productivity Commission rightly states that specific policies can have an extraordinary role in reducing disadvantage; however, policies must embed best practice and show evidence of positive change.  There needs to be a deliberate and decisive change in strategy to actively create supportive, inclusive policy that increases self-efficacy.  The Australian experience with asylum seekers and Indigenous peoples indicates that any other course of action results in catastrophic ill effects, and is morally and ethically questionable.  

Many thanks to Jon Altman for reviewing this article to ensure accuracy regarding Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander policy.