Chris Eccles: getting buy-in for family violence ‘moral duty’


SPEECH: There’s a “moral duty” to reform public services to tackle family violence, Victoria’s top bureaucrat says. Government needs buy-in from a range of stakeholders to co-design solutions.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time observing our system of government will tell you that it isn’t easy to bring about fundamental change. It actually took a war and the threat of invasion for the states to give up their income tax powers to the Commonwealth, and as recent events illustrate, it may take another for the states to accept them back. Yet quite fundamental change can be achieved.

Think of the creation of the NDIS. It’s a case study for successful policy development: a powerful moral case demonstrating need, muscular and effective community advocacy, independent endorsement and evaluation from the Productivity Commission, the development of coalitions of support, parliamentary bipartisanship, and legislative and administrative follow-through.

Sadly though, in the case of Victoria’s response to our family violence problem, it took the tragic killing of a young boy, Luke Batty, to shock the community into the urgent need for something to be done. The imperative to honour the memory of that young boy and other victims of family violence has, as you know, resulted in the Royal Commission into Family Violence and the handing down of 227 recommendations for change, backed by the promise of full implementation by Premier Andrews.

“It’s a moral duty.”

This is more than just a reform task for the public sector. It’s a moral duty. The people have entrusted us with it and we must not let them down.

Maximising our success is going to take some fundamental changes in the way we design policy and deliver services. As the Premier has remarked, “more of the same policies will only mean more of the same tragedies”.

Better ways have to be found to prevent family violence, to get in early before violence escalates, make perpetrators accountable and improve systemic responses by the legal system, police, corrections, child protection agencies and family violence support services.

The scale of reform will be enormous. It will require government to change the way we fund, deliver and evaluate services. It will involve not just every government department, but the active engagement of the whole community, not just in the delivery but also the design of policies and programs.

It requires us to get “buy-in” from people, and their active co-operation in implementing necessary change.

Task of governing

As many leading writers on the subject have pointed out recently, it’s becoming increasingly difficult nowadays for governments to govern effectively. The combination of the speeding up of the media cycle, the increasingly rapid turnover of governments and the rising number of independents being elected to our parliaments, have led our governments to sometimes seek answers in superficial, short-term responses.

As a result of reforms stretching back two or more decades, state and federal public sectors have lost much of their institutional memory – and many lessons about what works and what doesn’t work in public policy have been lost.

As a result of outsourcing, the public service has lost much of its direct intelligence into what is going on at the local community level. We’re not everywhere all the time, the way we used to be. Without public servants delivering services directly at the local level, we’ve lost that network of seismographs that once gave us important early warnings about the effects of gradual economic and social change. And as a result we perhaps know less than we should about the needs of some of our most battling communities.

The public’s trust in governments to solve problems has also been in decline. To cite just one statistic among many, in 1964, 75% of Americans believed they could trust their government to do the right thing most of the time — in 1995 only 15% did. It’s likely to be the same here. We’re dealing with a more sceptical, less trusting public.

Partly this is because their expectations of our politics are so focused on new initiatives, new announcements, or new plans. The issues cycle has become more compressed, with less credit being given to governments for just doing what they say they’ll do and doing it well.

But it’s also because the electorate is more educated, more discerning and more demanding than ever before when it comes to openness, transparency, accountability and involvement.

The zeitgeist has changed. Citizens are more capable and more confident. They want our democracy to be more democratic.

I say “democratic” in the full sense of the term. They don’t just want to be well governed, but increasingly they want to be self-governed. Not directly. They don’t want to replace the parliament or public service, of course. But they want more of a say. They want input. They want to shape new programs and ensure those programs reflect contemporary values and contemporary social needs more closely. This is especially so when it comes to the rights of women and children, or indigenous communities, or the future of socially disadvantaged communities suffering job loss and decline.

So I’m going to suggest today that we should welcome people’s changing attitudes towards government. A more informed, more demanding and more capable citizenry provides an opportunity for us to demonstrate that government can address people’s needs and that democracy can provide the answers to the age-old question of how we can live better lives. That, after all, is what we are ultimately here for.

History of public sector reforms

Victoria is well placed to succeed. We have in my opinion the best modern record in Australia for public sector reform. The human capital agenda that so influenced COAG over the past decade came from us. The particularly progressive sensibilities of the Victorian people, with our consistently high support for multiculturalism, reconciliation, women’s rights and social equality generally, make progressive change far easier here than elsewhere.

And it is matched by our very Victorian way of doing business, which is collegiate and conducted with a firm eye to maintaining strong levels of trust and relationships. So I think the prospects for successful public sector reform here in Victoria are strong, and that our efforts may once again provide positive directions for all levels of government across the nation.

The essence of this new reform direction, I think, lies in greater citizen engagement in the public sphere, including greater citizen participation in the bodies and programs set up to benefit them.

More precisely, it is about working with the public purpose sector in new ways to co-create public value for Victorians.

Government is always slowly evolving in the way it services and relates to the people. In the 1990s — quite spectacularly here under Premier Jeff Kennett — it was about New Public Management. Corporatisation, privatisation, output-based funding, competitive tendering and contracting — these were all introduced to bring market disciplines to the public sector. In the 2000s it was about ensuring public value through performance management tools like PPPs, triple-bottom-line reporting and project assurance gateway processes.

Through all this, members of the public were encouraged to act as consumers. Now, increasingly, the public demands to be treated as citizens. The result is two evolutionary processes going on side-by-side:

  • The evolution of the public sector into the public purpose sector comprising government, business, civil society and individual citizens; and
  • The evolution of public sector policy design towards “co-design”.

The fact is that for some time now the public service has not been the sole provider of policies, programs and services. Today the public sector typically works alongside non-state bodies to deliver public value. These bodies are very often the best repositories of information, knowledge, understanding and experience of what specific problems need to be addressed and how. They know, often better than anyone else, what will work and what won’t work.

Think, for example, of the Brotherhood of St Laurence — although many examples could be used. It is not just a service delivery organisation that derives lessons through its own practice, but a research institute, with national and global links to the universities and welfare organisations that are leading the way in developing understandings about social inequality and how to tackle it. It’s no coincidence that the director of the Brotherhood, Tony Nicholson, was asked to be a deputy commissioner of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Such organisations have much more to add than just running programs. They can help us design them and get the community to buy into them and accept them – as they have been doing for many years.

And now we are setting out to extend this idea of co-design further by getting the broader public involved in the process. Not just the third sector, but individual citizens. In much the same way that companies like LEGO get consumers to help design their products, governments can enlist citizens to improve the design of their programs to achieve effective, sustainable and citizen-focused results.

We need to get victims of crime helping design new justice programs, local employers helping us design employment programs, housing tenants helping us design neighbourhood improvement projects, and — as I’d like to expand on briefly — victims of family violence helping us build a safer community.

Family violence example

In fact, the Victorian government’s response to the royal commission offers a major opportunity for Victoria to engage in a co-design process.

The state budget has just been released, and one of the things you might have noticed is the reform approach underpinning the response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. The budget funds a half-billion dollar initial investment over the next two years to deliver the Royal Commission’s recommendations that require immediate attention.

Acknowledging the further work that is required, the Premier has committed to working closely with victims, survivors and the people and organisations that help them, to develop a comprehensive 10-year Victorian Family Violence Plan to be delivered later this year. This will be the biggest co-design exercise in Victoria’s history.

The reason for this emphasis on co-design is simple: we don’t want to be prescriptive. The royal commission has in some ways been an eye-opener. We of course had a sense of the terrible extent and dreadful dimensions of the family violence problem; what we didn’t grasp was just how inadequate and ineffective our policy responses had been in addressing the full scale and complexity of the problem, and that good ideas were out there in the community. Indeed, as Rosie Batty and the many other survivors have so eloquently demonstrated, leadership is out there too.

It would be wrong to try to pre-empt what improvements may result, but let me give you an example of the sorts of policy directions that the royal commission itself identified as possibly leading the way.

“You can understand just how fundamental this idea is.”

Recommendation 201 of the royal commission’s report stated that the government should “identify and develop safe and constructive ways to ensure the voices of victims are heard and inform policy development of service delivery”.

You can understand just how fundamental this idea is. At the heart of the tragedy of family violence is the repeated failure of authorities to understand the true and complex nature of family violence and, in many, many cases, failure to take the repeated pleas of women seriously. So this is about the public sector learning from the community.

The government has already announced that Rosie Batty will lead a new Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council, so that survivors can have a direct say into the development of a new system. And there will be a state-wide steering committee made up of government, sector and service users to provide advice and support to the Family Violence Cabinet Committee, as well as a whole series of forums and information sessions with broader stakeholder groups.

The centrepiece of new family safety services — the local Safety and Support Hubs that will provide a single area based entry point into family violence services — will be purposefully co-designed with local input in each instance. This is a direct recommendation of the royal commission.

A crucial factor in this is the need to make the reporting of family violence easier and safer. Survivors of family violence have commented that seeking protection from the justice system can be nearly as traumatic as the violence they have experienced, with forms full of “legalese” that many people find confusing and even distressing to fill out.

In response to this, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre and a Melbourne-based design firm called “Portable” have co-designed with the state government a new Family Violence Intervention Order form which can be completed and lodged online. The form takes into account the sorts of knowledge and emotional logic that is centred on the survivor’s perspective — such as the need to fill out the form in a place where you feel safe, and the need to tell a story rather than feel like you’re being interrogated. The form also uses algorithms to automatically flag to court staff and magistrates an applicant’s level of risk and the urgency needed to deal properly with the victim’s situation. And then it automatically navigates to get the data into the court’s system.

Recognising these benefits, the royal commission recommended the rollout of online applications forms across the state within the next two years, and the concept has also found support, and additional funding, from the Commonwealth.

The scale of this task of engaging the community to respond to the royal commission will be enormous. Lives will literally be at stake, so we need to get our response right. And this enormous responsibility has led me and others to think through some of the core challenges of co-design.

The culture and capability of the public service to become partners in co-design will need to be considered. So training for us will be crucial. We will need to be well prepared. We will need to have clarity of purpose so everyone can understand what we are trying to achieve. We will need to bring new skills and techniques; in design, innovation, engagement. Skills for listening to, and being open to engaging with, different perspectives. And most importantly being able to bring a range of perspectives together into a cohesive outcome.

On the other side of the fence, community organisations and individuals involved in the process will need to understand that they will be acting as partners with government, not solely as advocates for their positions or interests. Being partners will mean moving to the end of the “engagement continuum”, past networking, coordination, co-operation and collaboration, through to creating a shared responsibility and accountability for the performance and outcomes of the co-designed system. This will involve looking at things from a different angle and taking on a whole new set of responsibilities.

It therefore goes without saying that our community partners, as with government ,will need to display a high level of maturity and capability. We all need to be well-informed, be able to articulate and defend our views while taking into account the views of others, and importantly accepting shared responsibilities as partners. Co-design can also have risk. If not done right, there are risks of capture, community backlash and confused accountabilities. To ensure the best value is returned for public investment, and to make sure we keep on track along the way, formative evaluation mechanisms may need to be embedded.

We are, after all, leading and learning as we go.

In general, expectations will have to be managed. Legislative realities understood. Boundaries set. Operating principles established. Clear objectives will need to be set to: to understand assumptions, guide processes, engage with the public broadly and respectfully, recognise people’s expertise and knowledge, gather and make use of evidence in the most effective way, build a culture that rewards efforts in co-design – all without creating consultation fatigue, over-engineering the process or losing the opportunity for action and the momentum for change.

The response to the royal commission is just one area where we will be pursuing co-design. There are many other examples.

On a wider co-design front, VicHealth is using citizen juries to establish community consensus for government, industry and community action on the important issue of obesity.

And on a wider front still, we are in the process currently of setting up a single common digital platform for all of the Victorian government’s engagement activities. The idea is to replace over 40 existing sites with a central consultation hub for Victorians to register their interest in a subject and share their views on how government is operating. It will improve consultation, collaboration, the sharing of data and, of course, cut costs.

The challenge for us is clear: if our objective as a public sector is to serve our citizens in the most effective way possible, we have to be continually open to change. We have to seek out expertise, energy and goodwill wherever it lies. And we have to set aside our instinct for command and control in the way we design and run public services. We want the people to buy-in to it and sometimes even lead it.

Public sector reform is a priority project, and an ongoing one. It’s about optimising our people, engaging openly and collaboratively with the community, thinking about whether our systems are designed to achieve on outcomes and being transparent and accountable about what we do.

It is unfortunate in some ways that it has taken revelations about human tragedy to catalyse this reform, but with vulnerable people at risk, we have to succeed. And the Victorian public service is ready to do so.

This is an edited speech by Chris Eccles delivered to the McKell Institute on April 29

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