Using people-centred evidence to shape policy


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Content type
Short article

March 2019

This article is based on a presentation given at the AIFS 2018 conference, 'Using people-centred evidence to shape policy strategy and implementation: new approaches to data analysis and stakeholder co-design from the Department of Social Services', with presenter  Dr Tim Reddel from the Department of Social Services.


This article describes the new approaches being taken by the Australian Government Department of Social Services to better understand and help those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. This has involved developing a number of new policy and program initiatives in partnership with other government departments and service providers.

Key messages

  • The Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare uses actuarial analysis to identify those at risk of long-term welfare dependency to enable early interventions.
  • Try, Test and Learn uses innovative ways of collaborating with stakeholders and citizens to develop and implement new policy design.

The Department of Social Services' (DSS) mission is to improve the wellbeing of individuals and families in Australian communities. Our work affects people at all stages of life, from early childhood through to late adulthood, and has a particular focus on people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. We recognise that for people to achieve improved wellbeing, they need access to opportunity, and the capacity to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. This knowledge frames the way we design, develop, implement and evaluate policies, programs and services.

The Australian Government has a large number of payments and programs designed to support families and communities to build the opportunity, human capital (education and health), and capability (the skills to access resources) necessary to enhance their capacity for self-reliance. A number of our policies and programs are designed and developed in partnership with other Commonwealth departments, states and territories and, where relevant, with service providers.

A common theme of our work is effective investment in better outcomes. This requires that we analyse the drivers of disadvantage, including intergenerational disadvantage, understand the pathways to better outcomes and identify key intervention points and outcomes that government can influence.

Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare

The Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare is a major initiative that relies on an actuarial analysis of social security and other government data to improve people's capacity to live independently of welfare, address the risk of intergenerational welfare dependence and reduce long-term social security costs.

The actuarial model uses 17 years of social security data alongside other longitudinal data and research to build probabilistic models, projecting how particular groups of people are likely to interact with the social security system over their lifetime. This investment approach uses people-centred evidence to shape policy strategy and implementation.

By way of example, analysis tells us that young parents (aged 18 and under) are particularly vulnerable to the risk of long-term welfare dependency. In 2015-16, 3,760 young parents were receiving the Parenting Payment. If nothing changes for these young parents our analysis tells us that 79% will be receiving income support in 10 years and 57% will be receiving income support in 20 years.

While Australia's welfare system ensures our most vulnerable will always have help, identifying cohorts at risk of long-term welfare dependence may enable early intervention to help change the likely outcomes. We will be able to give those with capacity a better opportunity to find work and live independently of welfare. We need to work smarter and better in policy co-design, delivery and funding in Australia to strengthen our outcomes.

Trialling new and innovative approaches through Try, Test and Learn

The Australian Government's $96.1 million Try, Test and Learn Fund is trialling new and innovative approaches to help people live independently of welfare, incorporating evaluation and co-design principles.

Try, Test and Learn uses data and insights from stakeholders as well as citizens to leverage change. It is already demonstrating the value of engaging stakeholders and citizens in policy design. Trials have the potential to change what we deliver to people at risk of welfare dependence, and to change how we deliver those services.

The Try, Test and Learn Fund's path to developing new approaches recognises that innovation can often come through collaboration. It also recognises that the best ideas might be discovered through new partnerships between government, the community sector, businesses, academics and members of the priority groups themselves. Collaboration has been facilitated in a number of ways.

In tranche 1, an outline of all project ideas was published online to enable different stakeholders to read each others' ideas. Stakeholders were encouraged to contact each other with offers to collaborate or innovate on published ideas, or to discuss issues with priority groups through an online forum. In the first tranche the DSS also held a Policy Hack, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Close to 100 participants - with roughly a 30/70 split of government to non-government attendees - worked across 10 teams to create targeted responses aimed at improving workplace participation for the fund's priority groups.

Each team pitched a proposal to a mentoring panel that identified four proposals as worthy of special merit, and one was identified by popular vote on the day. Ideas produced at the Hack were submitted through DSS Engage alongside all other submissions; they were assessed for shortlisting for co-development alongside all other ideas.

Some examples of projects being trialled under the fund:

  • The Strengthening Students' Resilience project will use behavioural insights through a mobile app and website that encourages students to set individualised short- and long-term goals, build study support networks and connect with on-site advisers. 
  • The Data-driven Job Opportunities for Young Carers project uses a data analytics and augmented intelligence to match young carers with guaranteed job opportunities and training.
  • The Supporting Expecting and Parenting Teens project is a national initiative that is providing young parents' access to a mentor, and connecting expecting and parenting teens across Australia with health, education and employment support before and after the birth of their baby.

Under tranche 2 of the Try Test and Learn Fund, an ideas exchange was held to directly involve end-users, service providers and others in the community to understand the challenges older unemployed people face when seeking work, and then to develop new and innovative approaches to address these challenges.

Held over two days in Burnie, Tasmania, the ideas exchange saw people with lived experience of welfare support, community leaders, employers, jobactive providers, and community support services come together to develop innovative solutions to support older unemployed people in the region to get back into work. Tranche 2 also encouraged collaboration through an online directory that lists details of individuals within organisations that are interested in collaboration.

Co-design for better outcomes - Cashless Debit Card

One of the most significant features of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) is the way the government worked with the community at the design and implementation phases. Through a genuine partnership with a strategic group of community representatives, we continue to work together on the trial, including on detailed operational matters and larger strategic issues. This enables us to learn and adapt, where necessary, to ensure the CDC achieves the results its intended to.

While there are some characteristics to this approach that challenge traditional notions of consultation and delivery, overall we have found that by creating and maintaining trust and openness with our partners, we are able to be more responsive and our solutions are tailored to the local context.

Learning and adapting is integral to this approach. After the initial implementation phase, the DSS established a CDC monitoring round table in each trial location to provide a platform for stakeholders to meet and discuss how the program was progressing and to supplement program data with additional context and local knowledge.

Longer-term policy thinking

Getting better outcomes is further supported by detailed conceptual analysis that can be drawn on in policy design. This work is guided by the DSS' wellbeing planning frame and horizon scanning. For example, the family functioning and children's outcomes policy approach includes a conceptual model of family functioning and its relationship with child outcomes, and an example for mapping outcome pathways. The approach describes families by what they do (the functions they perform) and identifies the factors that influence how a family performs their functions (including parenting) that, in turn, affect children's outcomes. It draws on the long-term development of ideas on measuring family functioning, on supporting family wellbeing and on identifying indicators of pathways for children's developmental outcomes.


The strategic stewardship of data assets, combined with advances in data capacity and analysis, give us the evidence we need to identify the barriers to opportunity and the levers that government can influence. The Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare, the Try, Test and Learn Fund, the Cashless Debit Card and our longer-term priority thinking are examples of the current person-centric approach to using evidence to shape policies and programs.

These innovations will assist us to better understand interconnected systems relevant to complex policy problems, to reduce policy gaps and overlaps, to identify leverage points to disrupt cycles of disadvantage, and to improve policy and delivery through appropriate engagement and better planning and coordination. The commitment towards co-design draws on the increasing literature that responses to critical public policy problems need to be co-created with stakeholders and citizens, who bring unique insights and expertise.