A fund for innovation

Tapestry

It’s time to start addressing the causes of entrenched disadvantage through innovative approaches led by communities across Victoria, and to establish a Social Innovation Fund to do it. MARY SAYERS explains.

Victoria is a tapestry of different communities. Colourful and diverse, it is made up of hundreds of places—each which its own unique character, strengths and challenges. Some communities thrive while others have experienced deep and entrenched disadvantage and need support to find solutions. But all of them have the potential to re-energise and become vibrant again.

The threads of industry, government and community services interweave through these communities, and play crucial roles bolstering different areas as challenges emerge. But with many parts of Victoria now battling long-term poverty, it’s time for fresh thinking and new ideas.
We can’t keep trying the same things over and over, expecting different results. We need new ways of addressing the causes of complex social problems, rather than old models that address the symptoms. What we need are new ways of addressing the causes of complex social problems, rather than old models that address the symptoms. We need social innovation. And we need a fund to help deliver it.

Social innovation requires new ways of thinking, working deeply with communities and with people facing disadvantage and vulnerability to understand what will make a difference in their lives. It involves trying new things that may fail, but along the way learning and discovering what might work.

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Social innovation requires new ways of thinking, working deeply with communities and with people facing disadvantage and vulnerability to understand what will make a difference in their lives.

The community sector is already a major driver of social innovation and uses its ‘on-the-ground’ experience to identify emerging trends and devise fresh ways of tackling complex disadvantage. But many community organisations lack the funding to take the next step and act on these bright ideas.

Victoria’s policy and program implementation cycle is driven by piloting programs. Programs that show promise are scaled up more broadly, without reference to the context of what else is already delivered in different communities, their capabilities, and the specific conditions that may help a program work in a new context. Programs that fail are abandoned, without ever discovering why they didn’t work, and what might need to be modified, retried and re-evaluated.

At the same time, there has been an increasing government push for greater accountability of health and social service organisations.1 This leads to a significant burden of reporting red tape and compliance obligations.2

Increasingly, funding for community service organisations is becoming less certain, due to person-centred individualised funding, competitive tendering processes, federal and state relations, (particularly with National Partnership Agreements being changed or ended without consultation or sufficient notice), and changing government priorities and funding commitments.3 This makes it hard for communities, and organisations that work with them, to experiment with new ideas to address seemingly intractable social problems.

A Victorian Social Innovation Fund would enable communities to work around these challenges and experiment with “out of the box” approaches.

It would be a dedicated fund to which not-for-profit organisations could apply. It would focus on prevention, early intervention and social inclusion initiatives. Importantly, it would not fund service delivery or replace core government funding. The fund’s scope would be limited to supporting innovative, community-driven and collaborative place-based approaches.

A Social Innovation Fund would be effective because, when resourced to do it, community organisations are highly effective at developing bespoke approaches to social challenges, with the involvement of local people, businesses, government agencies and other public services.
There is growing recognition that truly understanding the needs of people facing disadvantage—and partnering with them—significantly assists in tackling complex social problems holding back different communities. The perspectives and realities of people who face social disadvantage essentially helps determine whether initiatives will actually be effective.

However, traditional feedback methods only ask for these perspectives and feedback after a program or service has been planned or implemented. At this point, practitioners have already formed a clear idea of the problem and the range of possible ‘solutions’ that follow.4
A Victorian Social Innovation Fund would enable deep co-design with people facing disadvantage from the beginning.

Of course, it’s no good just funding something without measuring the results. Traditional research and evaluation methods start with defining the intended outcomes and later evaluating whether they were achieved. If the desired outcomes are not achieved, it is considered a failure. However what if the wrong outcomes were chosen in the first place, or there were unintended positive or negative outcomes that weren’t measured, or the wrong strategies and activities were chosen to meet the outcomes?

In social innovation, the initiatives, activities and intended outcomes are unknown at the outset. Projects are designed, trialled, allowed to fail if necessary, and learned from. Things that do work are continued and scaled up quickly. Things that don’t work are ceased immediately. So measuring the outcomes of a Victorian Social Innovation Fund requires rigorous and innovative evaluation methods that encompass “design, test and try, evaluate and redesign” methodology. Every project funded under the Social Innovation Fund would have evaluation built into funding.

The Victorian Social Innovation Fund would be an investment, not a cost to government. It would be insurance against greater costs in the future. Every dollar spent establishing and administering the fund would be repaid over the long term by thriving communities, reduced disadvantage and more productive members of society.
A Social Innovation Fund can help deliver this brighter future.

Mary Sayers is Deputy Chief Executive Officer at VCOSS

Photo: Adam Forkner/CC

 

1. Victorian Primary Care Partnerships, Navigation Health & Social Service Reform, 2017, adapted from the Loddon Mallee Primary Care Partnerships Road for Health & Social Service Reform, prepared by Victorian Council of Social Service, 2016.
2. Victorian Council of Social Service, More than charity: Victoria’s community sector charities, July 2016. 
3. Victorian Primary Care Partnerships, Op. cit.

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