Victoria’s Family Violence reforms: many ingredients build a better future

By Victoria Draudins

Wednesday August 30, 2017

Victorian Cabinet Minister Fiona Richardson achieved much in her battle to counter family violence. She illustrated how a Minister can spearhead change and help to unite a community. Following her untimely passing last Wednesday, it’s good to reflect on how much has been accomplished so far and the prospects of success in future, now that we have lost a key advocate for the cause.

The past – catalysing change

As anyone who has examined family violence will know, this is a pervasive, insidious, intergenerational issue that affects all of society – from those facing extreme disadvantage to the son of Western Australia’s [then] Police Commissioner. Victim survivors and perpetrators show up in many parts of the system from police, corrections and the legal system, to child protection agencies, schools, medical services and family violence support services.

This creates both extreme challenges and opportunities – as people frequently show up in different parts of government systems, this creates many opportunities to identify and support them. The flipside of this though is that it requires very well thought out coordination and controls so that people get the right help and aren’t lost trying to navigate their way through government.

The present – a lot of upfront planning

When the findings from the Royal Commission into Family Violence were handed down in March 2016, the Victorian government swiftly agreed to adopt all 227 recommendations to address a system that ‘failed to work with victim survivors to keep them safe’. The 2082 page report emphasised clear, outcome-oriented recommendations. While some in The Department of Premier & Cabinet note that it “doesn’t provide all the answers”, it does give a firm platform for the government to act upon.

In order to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the government has enacted a 10-year plan, with three year rolling actions plans to keep check of the more immediate priorities. The 2017-2020 Rolling Action Plan (RAP) articulates the first phase of implementation of $1.91 billion initiatives. There are far too many to mention here, but sufficed to say they cover a wide range of areas such more training for police or medical staff, increasing funding for social housing, making perpetrators more visible in the legal system, and improving data collection.

The government’s response to the Royal Commission has been Victoria’s biggest response to date although the state has a long history of trying to address this issue. This includes establishing a Statewide Steering Committees to Reduce Family Violence in back in 2002, to the introduction of the Family Violence Protection Act in 2008.

Central agency incubation maximising stakeholder engagement

Another interesting part of this response is to look at how the implementation is structured. This work is being spearheaded by purpose-build family violence service delivery arm within the Department of Premier & Cabinet. The unit has a mandate “to lead and coordinate the whole-of-government state response to the Royal Commission into Family Violence”.  However, upon reaching a more mature stage, new agencies are being established and spun out:

  • For example, Family Safety Victoria was established to create a state-wide network of hubs to allow victims a visible access-point. They include access skilled workers plugged into the wider justice and social service systems and will facilitate cross-agency information-sharing to conduct more comprehensive risk assessments for families.
  • Recently, the government launched the Primary Prevention Strategy to tackle the gendered social norms and practices that lead to violence. Ultimately, the government plans to establish a separate Prevention Agency.

While other states like NSW also use DPC to help set initiatives up for success in the early stage, it’s still quite unusual for a central agency to participate so actively. Those in DPC note though that these reforms needed to be prioritised and incubated in the agency to ensure the government is placed to tackle this mammoth challenge.

Another clue may also come from examining DPC’s strength in co-ordination and their awareness (and assumed prioritisation) of co-design. In a speech made by Chris Eccles last year, the DPC Secretary talked about “the evolution of public sector policy design towards co-design” and that “the 10-year Victorian Family Violence Plan … will be the biggest co-design exercise in Victoria’s history.”

Stakeholder engagement with victim survivors and other agencies is key to program design and implementation, which has been formalised through the government’s ‘Engagement and Partnership Approach. Under the approach, key bodies include the Family Violence Steering Committee as well as the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (led by Rosie Batty) provide formal input into reforms.

Another reason for housing the service delivery unit in DPC may come from the government’s commitment “to approaching the implementation of recommendations from a strong evidence-base” After all, evaluating evidence is generally regarded as a strongpoint of central agencies.

The future – will this stand the test of time?

Some simple questions people may ask is what will we achieve at the end of the 10 year timeline. Will this still be a priority for government or will funding have dried up? Will costs come down over time as prevention methods take effect or will this act like vaccinations – where people think the problem is fixed?

While this is impossible to answer at this stage, work by the Centre for Public Impact may help evaluate the longevity and indicators of success of the Family Violence reforms. As Executive Director of the CPI Adrian Brown explains from London, ‘In a nutshell, any government effort needs three things: a well-designed policy, a proper action mechanism to translate that policy into real world effect, and sufficient legitimacy … Our work has shown that the better an initiative performs on each of the elements, the higher the chances of its successfully achieving public impact.’

When I asked how the fundamentals could be applied to a long term project like Family Violence, Brown noted that “if a policy is a 10-year plan, our analysis will focus on how this policy is positioned to deliver its ambition over the 10-year period. Therefore, despite the challenge, one has to judge with the best knowledge available each of the Fundamentals with 10-year lenses?”

So, with this starting point, we can at least form an initial assessment.

In my opinion, the government should get a gold star on the Legitimacy front. One striking feature is how this issue has united the community and even silenced the usual inter-party bickering. With the shocking and heart-breaking death of Luke Batty, family violence was catapulted into the nation’s attention anew. And in Fiona Richardson, the Premier and the wider state government, the political impetus required from leadership was present to help drive change in Victoria. The partnership model also helps ingrains stakeholder engagement from the outset.

However, a risk is whether enormous goodwill from the public and politics will continue over the next 10 years, particularly if a new government comes to power and wants to make their own mark. The ability to measure progress (outlined in the next two Fundamentals), may mean the community stays committed if they can see changes working over time.

On Policy, the initial work of the Royal Commission to present outcome-oriented objectives and the clear 10-year plan emphasising a strong evidence base and pragmatic approach tick the boxes. The Family Violence Outcomes Framework has been embedded in each aspect of the reform program and was updated to include indicators focused on outcomes. However, more thinking still needs to be done on the evidence front. As the 2017-20 RAP states, more work is required to identity “more specific measures to track progress against each indicator”. Some of the broader indicators focus on measuring community-held beliefs, experiences and feelings of equality. So they actually try to track the underlying causes of family violence, but may be harder to measure than the frequency of violent incidents or number of trained professionals for example.

Regarding feasibility, which requires an absence of “significant technical, legal or operational challenges to policy”, this is another issue that cannot be underestimated. Work to improve areas such as police and the legal system have been prioritised at an early stage, but the political and cultural sensitives involved in these types of projects can be acute and may be difficult to execute over the long term.

While early indications look good, the Action element is also an unknown quantity in my mind, which has been a stumbling block for addressing family violence in the past. This demands “analysis, feedback, evaluation, calibration and adjustment” from managers who appropriately fit tasks to skillsets, establish effective ways of measuring implementation, and align interests and create a sense of shared mission.

No doubt, initiatives like improved data collection practises and changes to how police can record and present evidence of crimes should help.  And an online tracker, which lists the implementation status of each of the 227 recommendations, provides a transparent measurement of progress to date, and which will probably serve as a useful accountability and management mechanism for government.

However, in complex problems with multiple bodies, a range of interests must all be represented and aligned accordingly by DPC and its spin-off agencies. And of course, there must be a continual flow of funding, which would be hard to guarantee in the absence of measurable improvements.

So while early indications are good, this is a marathon-effort, not a sprint. In addressing a wicked problem like this, the devil will be in the detail. But we were fortunate to have someone like Fiona Richardson fighting for this cause. As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said:

“Under her watch, a dark and silent tragedy was brought into the harsh and unforgiving light of a Royal Commission … Victorians have a different system now. Our state will never be the same. Lives have been saved. And I know who to thank.”

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