Friday, 18 September 2009

social inclusion

decided to have a night away from the internets last night. it's good for the soul sometimes! and i thought i'd put something up tonight cos it's going to be a pretty busy weekend.

back to labour party conference, and one of the sessions was called "social inclusion", where we got to hear from one monsignor david cappo. i went into the session thinking it would be about discrimination, and how to overcome it. but no, it was something else altogether. i'm going to write about it from memory cos i didn't take notes, so will likely have some of the details and the terminology a bit wrong. but hopefully you will get the main points.

mr (cos i don't know what the short form of his title is) cappo spoke to us about social exclusion that results from poverty, homelessness, truancy and crime. it was, in fact, a session about social justice, and a pretty illuminating one at that.

in south australia, which is where mr cappo resides, the new labour premier appointed mr cappo to head a social inclusion board, back in the year 2002. said board now has a good number of staff, and some pretty impressive powers. they can go into any government department and require them to implement policy developed by the board. they collect data on the effectiveness of programmes, and do hold departments, their heads and their ministers to account. seriously to account, as in hauling their asses in front of the board to explain themselves, and requiring them to change policies.

members of the board sit with on a particular cabinet committee, which is unheard of. non-elected persons don't get to sit on cabinet committees, but these people do. whether or not they have voting powers, we didn't find out.

the board has developed some pretty unique initiatives which have resulted in positive movement in statistics around, for example, truancy and homelessness. it has meant that people who are otherwise deemed "problematic" become engaged with society and feel as if they are part of the community. and one of the main ways this is happening in south australia is by making the community take responsibility for them.

yup. none of this "personal responsiblity" stuff. none of the "if you fall by the wayside then it's your own damn fault and you can stay in the gutter where you belong". no, it's an approach where the community is required to come together to help out those who are less fortunate.

one of the first things the board does is "active listening" ie consultation with a purpose. for a start, those who come to the consultation meetings are not allowed to discuss "the problem". mr cappo was quite clear that everyone already knows what the problem is. the purpose of the consultation is to come up with solutions. also, these meetings aren't open to the public, but are specifically targetted to those who have a background or expertise in the area.

the one example that i remember most clearly is around truancy. this was treated as a community problem, and so the community was asked to be involved in the solution. they set up these committees within local communities, and gave them both a budget and the authority to spend that budget. these "innovative community action networks" (ICAN)would include businesspeople, social service agencies and others. all members of the ICAN acted on a voluntary basis.

the ICAN would have local knowlege (or get it), and would then work on local solutions. so one example mr cappo gave was finding out where the truant kids went. in one particularly community, the kids went to the local mall and hung out in a cafe. so the local ICAN committee came up with the solution of putting a cafe in the school, and changing teaching methods so the kids would feel more engaged. mr cappo also talked about providing different forms of education for teen mums (which i think we already do well here in some schools), ensuring that these young women got some kind of education, even if it wasn't the traditional model.

the solutions were non-conventional, and they worked. the key was local knowledge, proper resourcing and the willingness to do things differently. and the results, from the statistics he gave us, were pretty overwhelming.

it's definitely a refreshing approach. in dear old nz, we'd have to hear endlessly about "pandering" to certain groups, about "one law for all" even though we know that a single approach doesn't work for everyone. there would be all these middle class and upper middle class people here feeling hard done by because their darlings weren't getting special treatment, like the poor kids were. but it seems that they have avoided all of this in south australia, cos their labour government keeps getting re-elected.

the only one little thing that bothered me about this set-up is that this all-powerful commission (which is one of three i think, another one being an economic one) sits outside the democratic process. the people on the commission are appointed by the premier, and i guess they are accountable to him and he is accountable to the voters, so there is some control in a roundabout way. it just seems to me that there is potential for such a set-up to go horribly wrong if you had the wrong people doing the appointing. and i wasn't entirely happy with mr cappo's response to a question on aboriginal issues.

but on the whole, it's such a different and better philosophy. mostly because it's about community, about collective responsibility, and about caring enough to put in the resources to get the results. it's about treating all members of society with respect, even those who have fallen off the rails. and it's also about getting results.


Hugh said...

I must admit I didn't realise that the Social Inclusion idea was based on a concrete proposal functioning elsewhere... I guess saying 'the Australians are doing it so well, we should imitate them' loses you the nationalist vote right there.

I agree that the main problem is the democratic one - the idea of board members sitting on Cabinet committees is a bit unsettling. Currently Cabinet Committees are one of the last strongholds of decision making by electorally accountable people in the executive, and history seems to show that when they're compromised by non-elected bureaucratic indirect input, eg in the 1980s and 1990s, the results are worrisome. So I'm inclined to be very sceptical about direct input.

That being said, it doesn't seem crucial to the proposal - it'd be easy to do the same thing but simply have the Social Inclusion bureaucracy feed into Cabinet Committees rather than sit directly on them.

I've got to say though, I think of all the policies that arose out of the Labour conference, it was not this one, but the free condoms one that really grabbed my attention, for all the right reasons, and impressed me.

stargazer said...

actually, this wasn't labour party policy in nz but just a window into something that seems to be working really well in a humanitarian way in south australia. apparently many other state governments there are showing interest in it, and as you say, a little bit of tweaking would make the structure more democratic.

as for the condoms thing, i was at the workshop where the remit was passed, and there was about 30 seconds of joking discussion as to whether they would be plain condoms or other varieties, before the remit was passed. of all the remits, it's pretty stupid that this was the one that made the news! but yes, i'm for free contraception of all kinds, and particularly condoms for health reasons.