How catalytic advocacy can speed up system change
Patrick Flynn explains how organisations can use proven initiatives as catalysts for change in government policies and service systems.
When people ask ‘how do we tackle disadvantage?’ they instinctively reach for services to help those affected. But when disadvantage is a result of, or perpetuated by, a broken system, or inadequate services, then the challenge is to change the system itself.
… even very well run and resourced campaigns are not guaranteed to succeed in a volatile environment.
This is the traditional domain of advocacy – speaking on behalf of people experiencing disadvantage in an attempt to change the systems that supposedly serve them.
Advocacy has the allure that by shifting the system not just a handful of people may be assisted, hundreds or thousands of lives may be changed so the social impact can be profound. By improving the system – for example, through public health measures like vaccines – we can also have the added benefit of preventing disadvantage before it occurs.
The ‘catch’ is that changing a system can be very hard. Effective advocacy models rely on a series of interlocking parts, all of which are resource intensive, and even very well run and resourced campaigns are not guaranteed to succeed in a volatile environment.
The SVA Quarterly article, Seven steps to effective advocacy describes a seven step model to help develop a strategy to advocate for change.
As outlined, the starting point for any advocacy is to have a solid understanding of the political and system environment in which you’re operating. You need to know what the problem is and how to fix it. You have to ensure you have an evidence base for that solution to provide credibility and then build relationships with decision-makers to have the opportunities to make your case.
Changing the system often means changing entrenched mindsets – including of politicians.
…many social purpose organisations with good solutions don’t have access to the resources required to run a campaign on that scale.
That can mean mounting public pressure on elected officials through paid and earned media, campaigning in local electorates to influence Members of Parliament (particularly those on narrow voting margins) and gathering coalitions and communities of like-minded people who help build the case for change through the sheer weight of numbers.
Large scale social issues campaigns can and do work. The Every Australian Counts campaign for the National Disability Insurance Scheme is a textbook case of lining up all of these elements, many of them simultaneously.
The problem was clearly identified, a Productivity Commission review provided a model and evidence base, and an organised coalition and a well-orchestrated campaign took an issue that was seen as only relevant to a few individuals and made it about all Australians.
Initiatives which provide data-based evidence of a better way of doing things… can be the catalyst you need.
But many social purpose organisations with good solutions don’t have access to the resources required to run a campaign on that scale.
However, it is possible to add a catalyst to the system, to speed up the ‘chemical reaction’ without having all those different ingredients.
A model for catalytic change
Catalysts for change exist. Initiatives which provide data-based evidence of a better way of doing things whether they are to be replicated or subsumed into an existing system can be the catalyst you need. These initiatives and their demonstrated impact are an important part of your broader advocacy plan.
Catalytic advocacy has common features that include:
Know what ‘big impact’ looks like – If catalytic advocacy is about a focussed effort to achieve a big systemic change, then it is very important to know and quantify the impact you’re trying to achieve. If you can’t define what success looks like, it’s very hard to know if you’re getting any closer. How many people will benefit, and how? Is it a profound impact on a small group of people whose lives will be transformed and level of wellbeing significantly improved? If so, how will you quantify that?
Develop a theory of change – Once you know what you want to achieve and the system changes that are required to achieve that, the question is who has the power to make that happen? What steps do you need to take for those people to arrive at that decision? What are the steps in between?
To do this effectively, you still need to know how the system you’re operating in works including what opponents and barriers there are. Unfortunately some old truths are unavoidable!
Build your credibility and play to your strengths – Organisations and individuals need credibility in the space they want to advocate in. Credibility can be derived in different ways, from learned expertise, decades of experience or new research and data – but it’s very hard to have an impact without it. Aligning your expertise with your advocacy makes it far more impactful and it is also likely to be less resource intensive, particularly if advocacy isn’t your core business.
Pick your point of influence – Different advocates have access to different levers in the system. Pulling on the one that gives you the most leverage is the most efficient way to achieve the biggest change. If you can’t do everything, do the thing that gives you the most influence but also be conscious that if your theory of change relies on shifting public opinion you may need a loud voice or an extensive grass-roots campaign. If you don’t have one, consider working with others who do.
Try to build momentum – Effective advocacy initiatives live on well after the original tactics have finished. This is crucial as social change takes time and is built on earlier successes. The key to creating ripples is to have a new or novel initiative that advances a debate beyond its current standing. It’s important to support other people’s advocacy and positions where they are aligned with your goals. This helps build ‘advocacy capital’, a bank of friends, supporters and networks. But catalytic change requires something new.
Below, we examine how these principles apply to two examples of catalytic advocacy – an innovation in funding and delivering a service, and a service itself which has helped change the system.
An innovation – Newpin
Australia’s first Social Impact Bond (SIB), Newpin, has become a totemic example of a new way of attracting private capital into social services. What’s less well known is the way in which the advocacy around Newpin is leading governments across the country to rethink how they fund, test and deliver social services.
The Newpin SIB provides private capital to UnitingCare Burnside to run a service for children and families who are in contact with the child protection system. As intermediary, SVA raised the money for the SIB. The service is designed to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care and reduce the time they spend there. In its first two years it achieved a family restoration rate of 66 per cent and helped 35 families avoid children being placed in out-of-home care.
… the discipline created through tying this to a financial instrument paid on outcomes added a new level of rigour rarely applied in the social sector.
There is good evidence that reducing exposure to out-of-home care improves the lives of children as well as reducing the likelihood of future homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system. As a result, it also has the potential to significantly reduce the costs to Government (which funds out-of-home care and the other down-stream services), and so also has the capacity to pay a performance payment to investors based on the estimated savings resulting from achieving the social outcomes.
Newpin has several inherent elements which support an advocacy initiative. An evidence base had already been established for the program but the discipline created through tying this to a financial instrument paid on outcomes added a new level of rigour rarely applied in the social sector.
Government was also a partner from the start, and so relationship building and educating decision-makers was a natural part of the co-design of the SIB. Co-design with government can be a very powerful part of your theory of change because there is also co-ownership and responsibility for success.
All governments are financially constrained, so presenting a private sector financing solution is an important part of understanding the environment government is operating in.
… the advocacy looks more like ‘test and replicate to scale’ as a way of shifting the government-funded service system.
As a result of Newpin’s success, the NSW Government is currently undertaking its second round of SIBs, the SA Government has recently announced its first SIB, and the Governments of Victoria, Queensland and WA are examining SIB pilots, as is the Commonwealth.
The UnitingCare service itself is also being closely examined as a model by other state governments and out-of-home care has been a focus in a number of the SIB discussions.
In this case, the advocacy looks more like ‘test and replicate to scale’ as a way of shifting the government-funded service system.
But there is also deeper and more lasting impact, which has the potential to create a cultural shift within government.
…showing how outcomes in one part of the social services system can create significant savings – or costs – in other parts of the system.
Since the return on the private investment is linked directly to agreed metrics of success in the social program, and the right data is collected to measure these outcomes, Newpin also provides a blue print for outcomes-based payments. This knowledge can be transferred to all kinds of other social programs with or without an SIB as the funding mechanism.
And it has also shone some light on the relationships between separate government departments and the walls that separate them. This has shown how outcomes in one part of the social services system can create significant savings – or costs – in other parts of the system.
An intensive program for children and families might appear expensive, but when you look at the potential costs associated with children who do poorly in out-of-home care – of police and jails, hospitals and shelters, then you start to realise the true cost across departments.
This approach has the potential over time to better align government service procurement to the outcomes that improve their clients’ lives in the most efficient way.
The advocacy around Newpin has created momentum for SIBs and for outcome-based contracting.
Successful service model: The Michael and MISHA projects
Mission Australia’s homeless programs, the Michael Project and its successor MISHA, provide another example of how a service can become a catalyst for systemic change.
In 2007, a highly motivated philanthropist approached Mission Australia to design a service for men in Sydney who experienced chronic homelessness, having slept rough on and off for years.
… the philanthropist had the explicit goal of using the service to advocate for systemic change.
The Michael Project’s service model provided ‘wrap-around’ support to the men enabling them to access a range of services – from dentistry to psychology, to life skills and job training – tailored to their needs, when they needed them.
MISHA, which began in 2010, was also a housing first program: housing is provided to clients with security of tenure while they work on other issues, rather than having to live in transitional accommodation until those issues – such as a drug or alcohol addiction – are resolved.
What was unusual was that the philanthropist had the explicit goal of using the service to advocate for systemic change. A longitudinal study was conducted of the assisted men in both services as well as cost-benefit analyses (CBAs) – some of the earliest CBAs conducted on homeless programs in Australia.
Through this research, it was possible to demonstrate that the programs improved the lives of the men across multiple domains – health and wellbeing, social and economic participation, as well as housing.
After two years supported through MISHA, 89 per cent of clients were still securely housed despite their history of chronic homelessness. There had also been a drop in substance use disorders from 37 per cent to 7 per cent. Through the reduction in use of government services, particularly hospital admissions, the program had delivered a saving to government of just over $8,000 per client per year.
Like Newpin, MISHA has provided an evidence-based solution that didn’t previously exist.
Unexpected findings also highlighted the need to change service designs and became an important part of the advocacy.
This gave Mission Australia a platform to conduct more traditional advocacy – presenting the findings to state and federal government ministers and making submissions to parliamentary inquiries; speaking in the media and engaging the organisation’s supporter base.
As a result of MISHA and similar programs, the combination of housing first, assertive case management and tailored intensive support is now built into the Government funded homeless service system for chronically homeless men. The lessons learned have become the new normal. That neither MISHA or the Michael Project still operate as a unique service is in this case a success.
Unexpected findings also highlighted the need to change service designs and became an important part of the advocacy. The very high rates at which the men had been exposed to trauma, such as being threatened with a weapon or held captive, contributed to a shift towards trauma-informed practice within homeless services.
It’s hard to argue with initiatives that save lives and money.
The empirical results on the changes to the men’s wellbeing, including using internationally recognised tools like the Kesler scale for psychological distress, shifted a public conversation away from asking whether it was possible to solve a problem that seemed as intractable as homelessness. Peoples’ lives were unequivocally improved.
The findings of the cost benefit analyses have also been influential in broader debates about government expenditure, including negotiations on whether the Commonwealth and States should continue to fund the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) which delivered more than $1 billion in homeless service funding over four years. The NPAH was extended. It’s hard to argue with initiatives that save lives and money.
Mission Australia deployed traditional advocacy tools including some public campaigning and direct lobbying as well as detailed mapping of the system. However, the impetus and the heart of this catalytic advocacy came from a successful and well evaluated service model.
While advocacy can seem daunting, there are a number of features of catalytic advocacy that can help you devise a strategy that has a big impact.
As Margaret Mead, the US anthropologist, said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”.
 From Homelessness to Sustained Housing 2010-13, MISHA Research Report (PDF), Mission Australia 2014