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Developing a plan for families: listening to the community

By Jenni Ibrahim - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

Those of us working in government recognise how often public consultation forms a final rather than initial step in public policy development, after the policy direction and much of the detail has already been developed. Since the community is generally the major stakeholder in social policy, this seems a curious state of affairs.

Government has a responsibility, which it does not always find easy to meet, to seek input from consumers of government services and from the wider community and to apply the results to service development. Kate Silburn in Victoria recently conducted a review of consultation approaches with a wide range of consumer groups previously marginalised from contributing to health service development. She concluded that, in this area, specific strategies targeting particular special-needs groups yield valuable feedback about how to provide services that are accessible and meet the needs of these diverse groups. However, the obstacle seemed to be in ensuring that health-care planners use the feedback.

Another critical factor may be timing. At what stage of the policy development process is consumer input sought? Frequently, the public policy consultation phase is used for checking or confirming the general thrust of proposed changes, or even simply to be able to say that consultation has taken place. Unfortunately, at this stage the general community may not fully understand the framework in which policy changes have been formulated. Public views then may appear irrelevant, off-target or generally negative, because they may question basic assumptions.


On the other hand, peak organisations representing groups of stakeholders often do understand these legislative and other frameworks, and can ensure that they couch their input within these terms, helping to ensure they are consulted again in future. However, time and other resource constraints may limit the ability of the professional employees of stakeholder organisations to consult widely with their constituents.


In June 1999 in Western Australia, a new Family & Children’s Policy Office (FCPO) was established with a brief to develop strategies that improve the quality of life and promote the interests of Western Australian families and children.

Its first major initiative is the development of a Five-Year Plan based on a State-wide consultation with families and children. The plan was to be cross-sectoral and direct consultation with families and children was to be central to the policy framework. Families, young people and children were to be involved directly in setting the agenda for the newly established office and the Family & Children's Advisory Council to be involved in the process of seeking the views of the community. The consultation process needed to engage – or at least connect with – as many households in WA as possible.

To complement the Five-Year Plan, an innovative business strategy was to be developed to promote a positive response to families by the government, business and community sectors. The FamilyOne Business Strategy acknowledges improvement in the family-friendliness of workplace policies and practices and of customer services, across business, government, non-government sectors. This strategy also has a research base; it is informed by market research conducted by the FCPO involving business, government and community organisations.

This paper describes the consultation phase, which concluded in May this year. The report of this consultation was released in May 2000, six months after the consultation phase was launched.


Role of Theory

On our side was the imperative that the public consultation was to be central to the Plan. Politics, ideology, and theory were not. This did not mean that family research could not play a part.

The purpose of the policy research was to discover the views of families and children about ways to strengthen families, rather than to inform theory-building about families or to measure family strengths. By taking a qualitative, rather than a quantitative approach, the actual words of families and children can more directly inform policy development.

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This is an edited extract from a paper presented to the Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, Sydney, July 2000.

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About the Author

Jenni Ibrahim is Principal Research Officer for the Family & Children’s Policy Office, Western Australia.

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