Place-based approaches: an agenda for an incoming government

Despite more than two decades of economic success in Australia, there are communities across the country where families still feel excluded, isolated and disempowered. The entrenched and complex disadvantage they face is typically a result of intergenerational poverty.

Many organisations, groups and individuals have made substantial investments and well-meaning efforts to tackle these issues, but outcomes have remained largely unchanged. Despite social services spending of c. 5% above the OECD average, around 65,000 children in Australia are identified as developmentally vulnerable every year. A new approach is needed.

Our workshop on place-based approaches

On 8 April 2019, the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) convened a collaborative workshop in Sydney addressing the challenges in delivering place-based solutions, with a particular focus on the early childhood agenda. Attendees included senior representatives from the New South Wales, Victorian, and Queensland governments, as well as the Commonwealth government and non-government organisations.

The workshop built on extensive work undertaken by Commonwealth and state governments, as well as the ChangeFest Network and the CPI on place-based approaches to the early years.

Prior to the workshop, CPI interviewed attendees on the challenges of applying a place-based approach and, at the session, presented a discussion paper based on their responses. This paper reflects the resulting discussion.

What constitutes a place-based approach?

Crucially, a place-based approach addresses a set of problems that are specific to a location or community. It empowers the local community itself to develop holistic answers to these problems by giving them a degree of control and accountability. The level of localisation could vary from bringing the community voice into the government prioritisation process through to local coordination of centrally funded programmes and, ideally, to local control over the expenditure of pooled funds.

The aims of place-based solutions generally include:

  • driving cross-sector collaboration to integrate service delivery in pursuit of long-term outcomes;
  • devolving accountability, decision-making, funding and service delivery to the local level to facilitate strategically targeted solutions tailored to community needs;
  • building community capacity and social infrastructure; and
  • promoting community engagement and participation for citizens.

A particularly successful and well-known example of a place-based approach is The Deal, a UK initiative run by the local council in Wigan, Greater Manchester. The Deal involved the council effectively drawing up a new social contract between itself and local residents, whereby significant amounts of funding and responsibility for services were devolved from the Council to small-scale community groups.

Place-based approaches show promise in tackling entrenched disadvantage in Australia

Several communities in Australia are currently partnering with state and Commonwealth governments to trial place-based approaches to tackling the cycle of disadvantage. Bourke in New South Wales and Logan in Queensland are two examples. Representatives from both projects attended the workshop.

Bourke is a remote town that has long-standing problems with Aboriginal families experiencing severe social disadvantage and with rising crime levels, despite significant amounts of government money being channelled into the town. The Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project focuses on creating better support for vulnerable families by empowering the community to coordinate the right mix and timing of services through an Aboriginal community-owned and led multidisciplinary team working in partnership with government and non-government agencies. A recent KPMG impact assessment found a 23% reduction in domestic violence, 31% increase in student retention rates and a 38% reduction in charges in the top five juvenile offence categories since this work began. KPMG estimated the overall economic impact of the project at $3.1 million.

Logan is running a 10-year campaign, Logan Together, which consists of more than 100 community organisations working together to improve the life chances of children aged 0–8. It focuses on coordinating social investment and designing integrated services around the needs of families and communities. The campaign is also exploring devolved decision-making models that involve local people in a meaningful way. While working towards its goals of improved outcomes for children, Logan Together has improved housing access and established a team of embedded health workers to address addiction in the community. It was also behind a rapid response to the city’s flooding crisis in 2017.

Place-based approaches are producing positive results in Australia and globally, including greater uptake of services within communities and improved use of community assets and infrastructure, which leads to better outcomes for families and economic benefits for the community, state and nation.

The overwhelming view of our workshop attendees was that these positive but disparate efforts need greater support, focus and investment to overcome the institutional barriers that prevent them from expanding and reaching their full potential.

Government commitment is needed to realise the potential of place-based approaches

The next Australian government has a significant opportunity to partner with the states and territories, and Australia’s communities, to put place-based approaches at the centre of social policy reform over the next 10 years. Attendees at the workshop believed that government needs to be bold and visionary, and act in the national interest, in order to achieve a more equitable society for all Australians. This will need to be a national endeavour – across political parties, at all levels of government, and with the philanthropic and private sectors – to invest in the capabilities, leadership, and support for Australia’s communities.

To start, political leaders from state/territory and Commonwealth governments can work together to make place-based approaches a common focus, with an agreement to establish non-partisan political and APS commitment at senior levels of Commonwealth and state and territory governments.

How to take this forward

The CPI envisions several possible avenues for seeking formal agreement to commit to a place-based approach. These include agreement at senior official meetings, formal consultation through the Council of Australian Governments or the establishment of a place-based council. Whichever avenue is chosen, it needs to be fast, focused and responsive to the communities it supports.

The initial focus of the agreement will need to be on partnering with communities and non-government organisations to take the next steps towards implementing place-based approaches to social policy. The workshop attendees identified three priority actions:

  1. Align on a common framework and language for place-based reform
  2. Agree to long-term investment to build community capacity
  3. Agree to provide discretionary funding to communities when they are ready

We explore these suggested next steps, and how to bring them to life, in more detail below.

Enabling the future of Australia’s communities through place-based system reform

Align on a common framework and language for place-based reform

Tailoring place-based solutions to the unique strengths and needs of each community is a core principle of the approach, but setting up a shared understanding of the core features of place-based policy has many benefits. A common framework and language will make it easier to share information and insights across initiatives and to evaluate outcomes, set up clear expectations for all parties involved and give governments a clearer understanding of their roles and responsibilities in supporting communities.

Existing place-based approaches often are underpinned by similar fundamental principles, for example: devolution of power and control to communities and shared goals and decision-making. There is a general alignment of these principles amongst different communities, but this should be formalised in a framework supported by all stakeholders. While it will take time to reach agreement on a common framework and language, this work will bring long-term benefits for social policy reform and communities around Australia.

Agree to long-term investment to build community capacity

Capacity at the community level is essential for active community engagement in place-based approaches and for communities to take on greater leadership and accountability over time. However, current funding at all levels of government for capacity building is limited and disjointed. For place-based approaches to work, they need to be complemented with a long-term coherent plan for capacity building. Such a plan could include training and leadership programmes around governance, community engagement and program management.

Within the government, there is also a need for further investment in leadership capability for planning and running place-based initiatives. Fast and effective ways to achieve this include training, allocating dedicated officials to specific place-based initiatives and creating a community of practice for place-based policy.

Agree to provide discretionary funding to communities that feel ready to take this approach

A place-based approach requires a different approach to funding. Centralised decision making about siloed, short-term (usually two-to-four year) program-based funding will not provide place-based approaches with the ongoing tailored, integrated, cross-sector support that is vital.

Place-based programs need to allow greater discretion over funding so they can ensure funds focus on a community’s greatest strengths and/or needs. This could include permission to “break the rules” where necessary to integrate or re-direct funding to where it’s most needed most in a community. Place-based funding approaches also need to consolidate all program funding streams allocated to a specific place.

Once a community is willing and able to take on greater responsibility and accountability for its place-based solutions, it needs to be given greater discretion over funding decisions. In the longer term, combined Commonwealth/state discretionary funds could be allocated directly to a community, with an overarching commissioning body or process to manage integrated investments.

Real change is happening in communities where place-based trials are underway. Their leaders and supporters are now looking to governments to respond with coherent and committed support for this social policy reform, which has the potential to tackle disadvantage and disempowerment in Australia.

Larry Kamener, Chair of the Centre for Public Impact; Bailey Hand, Principal, Boston Consulting Group; Monica Das, Senior Program Associate, Centre for Public Impact.

CPI wishes to acknowledge the contributions of participants from State and Commonwealth Governments, and the non-government sector at the workshop held in Sydney on 8 April  2019.

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