Family Matters No. 99 - April 2017

Insights from the Australian Government Department of Social Services' Families Group

Roslyn Baxter

Abstract

The Commonwealth Department of Social Services aims to improve the lifetime wellbeing of people and families through its range of policies, programs, and payments. This article highlights some of the ways the Department is collecting and using data to improve service design and delivery. These include its work with other agencies to implement the National Data Collection and Reporting Framework to help address domestic violence and the DSS Data Exchange, which is beginning to provide valuable insights about service usage and clients - from Family and Relationship Services to emergency relief. 

The focus of the Department of Social Services (DSS) is on the development of policies, programs and payments to improve the lifetime wellbeing of people and families in Australia. Over the last few years, DSS has worked with service providers, peak organisations and state and territory governments to lay solid foundations, through embedding evidence-based practice and increasing our focus on early intervention and prevention, where we know we are likely to have the greatest and most lasting impact on families and children.

Communities for Children Facilitating Partners is just one example where DSS has been working together with service providers and the Australian Institute of Family Studies to take some important steps over the last two years to strengthen evidence-based practice and improve outcomes measurement. This change has been significant and Facilitating Partners and their Community Partners have worked hard with us to implement these improvements.

Our focus now is shifting towards gathering the right evidence and data, at the right time, so we can ensure programs and services are well-designed and targeted. This will also enable the continuous monitoring, review and adjustment of these programs and services where required. The first steps are often the hardest but now we have momentum on our side. Being able to measure the success of programs and services for the wellbeing of children, families and communities is something that hits at the very core of our ability to get it right when it comes to helping families and communities.

Data helping work with family and domestic violence

Family and domestic violence is an area where we are turning our minds to data and outcomes. While there is an increased public awareness of the incidence and impact of family and domestic violence in Australia, there is still work to do in capturing data for the investigation of ways to truly change community attitudes - and protect women and their children in the longer term - equipped with the best knowledge available.

At a national level, DSS is working with a number of agencies to implement the National Data Collection and Reporting Framework developed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and to support nationally consistent data definitions and collection methods. These developments will build on established datasets, such as the National Survey on Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women (NCAS), which is funded by DSS and completed every four years.

The NCAS allows DSS to measure and track changing attitudes to violence against women in Australian society. There are some reassuring results from the most recent survey, including:

  • Most Australians recognise that violence against women includes a wide range of behaviours designed to intimidate and control women, not just physical assault.
  • Most Australians are aware that partner violence and forced sex in a relationship are against the law (96% and 91% of respondents respectively).

Conversely, the NCAS has also drawn our attention to some less desirable results, including circumstances in which Australians believe violence can be excused, for instance:

  • Twelve per cent of Australians think that if a woman goes to a room alone with a man at a party, it's her fault if she is raped.
  • Sixteen per cent believe women often say no when they mean yes.
  • Twenty-two per cent agree domestic violence can be excused if people get so angry they lose control or if the violent person regrets it.
  • While 95% agreed that violence against women is a serious issue, 51% thought most women could leave a violent relationship if they really wanted to, and 78% said it was hard to understand why women stay.

With this in mind, DSS has been working with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and other governments to identify existing data sources and gaps, and establish a central family, domestic violence and sexual assault data repository.

The aims of the project with AIHW and ABS are to:

  • confirm the information needs for family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV) reporting in the context of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, building on the Data Collection and Reporting Framework developed by ABS;
  • validate and update current sources of FDSV related data;
  • identify data gaps and explore options for filling the gaps, including the AIHW's own data holdings in health; and
  • prepare a proposal for developing a virtual data repository and reporting options on FDSV.

Though there is still a long way to go to change attitudes towards violence against women, this information has been vital in informing the ongoing design of campaigns such as "Stop it at the Start" that aim to help break the cycle of violence by encouraging adults to reflect on their own attitudes and have conversations about respect towards women with young people.

Our efforts in strengthening national data have been instrumental to informing the focus of the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, which was launched on 28 October 2016.

The DSS Data Exchange

DSS is now taking the next step in our data journey by looking inwards and sharing outwards. We now have the capability to use rich national data sources and to pair these with the information we are receiving from our internal data initiatives - such as the DSS Data Exchange (DEX).

Though DEX data is still in its infancy, it is already providing some valuable insights about the people using our services, where and how they are accessing these, and what other services they are also using. Matching DEX information with other sources of evidence is important in providing context for these client demographics and outcomes.

While this is providing some answers, it's also prompting questions about the location of services and how people move through the service system. These questions are integral to the ongoing conversation about deciding what works best in service delivery, program and policy design. 

For example, we know that Indigenous women, women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds and women with a disability are far more likely to experience higher levels of physical and sexual violence. However, DEX data tells us that women from CALD backgrounds and women with a disability account for the lowest volume of clients attending our support services related to family and domestic violence. While this information is worrying, this data does reaffirm the increased focus on reducing domestic and family violence within CALD communities and improving services for Indigenous women and children and women with a disability, under the Third Action Plan.

This is not the only way in which DEX is helping to inform programs and services in various areas.

Family and Relationship Services and men

Family and Relationship Services (FaRS) are well utilised across the country - and according to DEX, FaRS are used more by men than any other family services related program. In some areas, men account for over 70% of all those attending FaRS.

DEX is also able to tell us more about how people access services, for example almost 50% of all males across Australia who have attended a FaRS service did so through phone and online channels. Using DEX information we can think about the accessibility of our services, and ways to ensure we are best meeting the needs and preferences of clients.

On a local level, in Melbourne's West, we can see that the uptake in FaRS services and attendance at Family Relationship Centres by men is on the rise. This trend is supported by ABS information that shows employment in the once flourishing manufacturing industry is decreasing, while rates of problem gambling and family breakdown are increasing.

This means that, in addition to shaping national policy, DEX is helping to build a picture of family and community services at local and regional levels. Below, are some snapshots from the state of Victoria, Townsville in Queensland and Roebourne in Western Australia.

Victoria

DEX tells us that in 2015-16 nearly 1.6 million people accessed 23 funded activities under our Families and Communities program. Unsurprisingly, a large number of clients were accessing these services in Victoria.

DEX can also identify changes to service delivery. We know of an organisation delivering Families and Children's programs in regional Victoria. The grant agreement is to provide services to people in the local regions; however, information provided by the organisation indicates that the recent downturn in the dairy farming industry has increased the numbers of people coming from outside the agreed funded areas to attend sessions at their outlets. In this particular case, over 90 people (mostly of working age) who live well outside the grant funding agreement area have accessed the services (on over 400 occasions). More than half of these people also received a "working age" welfare payment.

By identifying these types of changes, both government and service providers can position themselves to better respond to the needs of communities.

Townsville

In North Queensland, DEX data is demonstrating that Emergency Relief and Communities for Children - Facilitating Partner services are among DSS' most used programs.

Looking a little closer, and focusing specifically on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Townsville, DEX data reveals that Emergency Relief is overwhelmingly accessed by women (84%); whereas 75% of working age Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients participating in Communities for Children are men. This is surprising, as DEX data shows us more women tend to utilise Communities for Children services nationally. While we aren't necessarily able to directly explain this trend, ABS data shows that the mining and manufacturing industries in Townsville are experiencing a downturn and more women are taking on part-time work, particularly in retail, to support their families.

This trend is consistent with our payment data, which shows the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people receiving a working age payment in Townsville are male (over 60%). This perhaps suggests that a change in broader circumstances in the community is influencing the roles that men and women are fulfilling in their families.

These types of analyses are helping us better understand how communities access services in response to local circumstances.

Roebourne

Sometimes, the data tells us a different story - and one that perhaps suggests a new approach is needed. There is already significant investment and a lot of willing organisations that are ready to support change in Roebourne, Western Australia. We know that there are over 1,400 people accessing 63 government services in the area - costing almost $41,600 per person, per year.

Most of these programs are meeting stated requirements. However, more is required to shift outcomes, despite this significant investment.

While the answers to complex problems, as exist in a community such as Roebourne, are not easy and require a whole of community and government approach, data and evidence help inform place-based solutions for individual communities and regions. This is both reassuring and promising.

Conclusion

This article has highlighted some of the ways that DSS is working together with other government and non-government organisations, and the information that the sector is telling us about families in need. The data that services supply via DEX is providing a clear picture of the "who, where, when, what and how" when it comes to our clients and services. Over time, we will start to learn more about the impact of our efforts through reporting program outcomes with SCORE (Standard Client Outcomes Reporting) and the client survey.

The ways in which we can all now use and share information is exciting and is bringing us one step closer to ultimately aiming our policies at preventing issues from developing in the first place, or becoming worse. The next frontier for DSS is to link this information with opportunities presented by the Priority Investment Approach to Welfare.

Already we know that of the 1.6 million Australians accessing families and communities programs funded by DSS, 45% also receive a social security payment (excluding the Family Tax Benefit) and access about half of the total services delivered. For the first time we are able to gain insights into both the way in which welfare recipients access support services and the welfare utilisation of our support service clients. This information can help those working in social policy to find innovative ways to reduce the disadvantage and marginalisation that many of our fellow Australians face.

Dr Roslyn Baxter is the Group Manager of the Families Group in the Department of Social Services. This article is based on an address given by Dr Baxter at the FRSA 2016 Conference: Measuring Success in the Family and Relationship Sector for the wellbeing of children, families and communities, Canberra, 1 December 2016.