Too often, important inquiries or royal commissions mark the end of government action when they should be seen as the very beginning. The recent resignation of UK Police Commissioner Cressida Dick over her institution’s failure to address mismanagement of sexual violence cases is another example of the sluggish global response to this well-documented problem. Tackling violence against women and children has been an intractable problem for far too long. Getting serious about achieving change will require planning, action, measurement, revision, resources, and sustained effort.
To make meaningful progress on this, or on any key priority, a government needs to be able to answer these five questions…
This question may seem obvious, but governments often struggle to clearly define their aspirations in concrete, meaningful terms. Higgins sums up the issue, “The National Plan [to Reduce Violence against Women] doesn’t aim low….Unfortunately, its aims are so lofty and vague that it’s impossible to disagree with and equally difficult to examine…but the question is: How will they be achieved?” We see a similar pattern in the UK, where the national strategy to tackle violence against women and girls lacks clear, measurable goals along the path towards achieving the main objective.
So, the first step to making change is to set concrete goals. Where do we begin, and what do we want to achieve in what timeframe? The NSW Government did this in 2015 when they set a goal for reducing the number of domestic violence reoffenders by 8% over 4 years. To quote Higgins again, “Without clearer action and firm targets, there can be no accountability.”
Once there is a concrete aspiration, a delivery plan can be developed that specifies what will be done, when, and by whom. We often find that government plans don’t include these critical details, which makes it virtually impossible to hold anyone to account for delivery. We must move from agreeing on what should happen (in this case, reducing violence against women and children) to planning how it will happen.
A good delivery plan is a ‘living’ document. It is updated to record the ongoing process and progress. It can be adapted to accommodate changing information and circumstances. Many governments have created these living documents as part of their Covid-19 responses, where it has been necessary to constantly adapt plans to fast changing circumstances. The same tactic can be applied to any number of initiatives, including reducing violence against women and children.
A plan is only useful if we keep track of whether or not our actions have the desired impact. While it can be very hard to measure social change, thoughtful data collection and analysis is critical for evaluating progress. Tracking indicators such as incidents of sexual assault, waitlist lengths for victim and perpetrator support services, and other available metrics can help us learn which interventions are working, and which ones are not.
In addition to tracking system-level data, it is important to hear the experiences and wisdom of individuals on the frontline. We must engage directly with survivors, social workers, health workers, NGOs and other community members who are critical for reducing violence against women and children. This engagement is an essential part of developing, measuring, and revising the action plan, and it needs to be led by a diverse and inclusive group. In Australia, we must work to ensure that the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities are centred at each step of the process.
Sometimes the best laid plans don’t work. Having routine reviews of the delivery plan and data indicators allows us to assess whether or not we are on the right track. If the plan isn’t working, the system needs to be able to pause, identify the problems or oversights, and troubleshoot solutions. Many leaders have come to understand the value of time for reflection. In the UK, Tony Blair made a commitment to review progress on his political priorities every three months in a Stocktake meeting, regardless of any other urgent issues vying for his attention.
Doing this well requires public-sector investment of people, time, and resources to bolster our problem-solving capability and encourage continuous learning. When dealing with complex issues such as violence against women—an issue embedded in our social fabric—change takes longterm commitment. One-off actions do not make a real impact.
Addressing violence against women and children is complex; it involves transformation at the level of the individual, the community, and institution. To facilitate such change, countless government and community agencies across Australia will be involved. To make real progress, establishing a dedicated team, such as a Delivery Unit, can help build momentum, maintain focus, and coordinate concurrent efforts. This cross-agency organisation is fundamental to success.
A good Delivery Unit functions like a critical friend that can challenge approaches and ideas in a productive way. Delivery Units are not there to have all the answers or to assert top-down control. Their job is to help the leaders of action move towards their goal, and to ask, “How can we help?” An effective Delivery Unit stays humble and learns from the organisations and communities who are already making change happen on the ground. They have direct access to system leaders and help them overcome challenges and unblock pathways to positive change.
Delivery Units have helped achieve ambitious goals – from improving education outcomes in Pakistan, to reducing litter in NSW, to increasing access to water in Indigenous communities in Canada. As we enter into the upcoming Australian federal election, this model for measurable impact can help whichever government is elected to demonstrate clear progress in reducing violence against women and children.
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