Australia’s ‘slow burn disasters’: why we need to share learning to respond better, together
Are we all in agreement that Australia’s most complex social issues require systematic change to ensure no one slips through the cracks, today or in the future? As single organisations, our programs and services affect individual lives, but the systemic change that’s desperately needed can only be achieved by sharing learning and tracking change together.
Australia’s complex social issues – including early childhood developmental vulnerability, homelessness, youth unemployment and domestic violence – need to be re-framed as ‘slow burn disasters’. We need to learn from international humanitarian relief: when disaster hits, these organisations are immediately agile, acting quickly to save lives, working together while avoiding duplication, learning together based on rapid and continuous local assessment. This shows Australia’s NFP sector has the capacity to be nimble, responsive and act collectively, including with government, business and community.
Why do we lack a coordinated, urgent response to tackle Australia’s ‘slow burn disasters’?
We are a large sector, with many organisations working to address the same issues, yet we track change and learn in silos. No one plays the neutral coordinating role, bringing stakeholders together, analysing and sharing back to all who work on the issue.
We need to share measurement and learning on what works (and what doesn’t) to help change this. This is one of the conditions of a Collective Impact approach, because it creates an evidence base focus for activities and learning, and helps drive urgency and commitment.
To do this well requires those organisations, across sectors, to commit to three things:
- a common goal
- indicators to track progress (what does success look like?)
- the collection and sharing of data to inform change.
Agreeing on the common goal is often straightforward enough. Agreeing on indicators however, is often easier said than done.
Here are two ways to start, and these can be combined:
- The organisations working on X issue identify evidence-based indicators that demonstrate success towards X goal (eg for measuring early childhood success in Australia the ARACY NEST framework is widely accepted.)
- The affected community decides what success looks like for them – how they’ll know if X goal is achieved.
Once indicators of success are collectively agreed, a ‘backbone’ coordinating role becomes crucial for enabling the gathering, analysing and sharing of information provided by the collective, both back to the group and where appropriate, to wider stakeholders.
Because the group learns what does/not work to achieve X goal, this leads to scaling up, adapting, and closing down particular activities. Innovation is fostered. Progress is made towards population level change.
The barriers to address Australia’s ‘slow burn disasters’ are not as big as they seem:
- Data: While the government has volumes of helpful data (and has signed up to the Open government partnership, a global initiative to free up data), collaboration groups often get stuck for years trying to access this. But social change need not start with data. Quite the opposite. It can and should start with what change looks like for communities, and supporting local momentum to address indicators of change.
- Dedicated resource: We’re in the early stages of understanding the role of a ‘neutral backbone’ to coordinate collective responses in Australia. United Way’s own experience in locations like Gippsland in Victoria, show while there’s plenty of solid local data available, it’s been no-one’s ‘job’ to bring this all together, analyse it, and share it back, and population level progress hasn’t occurred.
- Attribution and funding: Ten years down the track in our collective work, how do we say it was X organisation that caused change? This matters for funders at present. We need to prove the outcomes delivered by collaborative models, and transition funders to support these outcomes for population level change, nationally.
Eleanor Loudon is United Way Australia’s Head of Community Impact, with more than 15 years’ experience in community-led approaches, social inclusion, collaboration, and the management of innovative programming to increase impact and organisational accountability.