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The process to develop the next 12-year National Plan promises less of the same

I am an ardent feminist and campaigner for the rights of women, non-binary people and for a solid end to the constant threat of violence, particularly as it affects children.

I stand with advocates’ concerned that this Women’s Safety Summit will by hijacked by the coercive controlling tentacles of the Morrison Government, gagging real discussion, holding space for their chosen few, veiled threats against organisations, or individuals, who don’t toe the party line.

But, too often during this week’s Summit, I read the approaches, metaphors and communications put forward by women’s rights advocates, and my crest falls. It’s another missed opportunity to challenge business-as-usual and take a radically different approach to the design and enactment of our next national plan.

The problem that we face, violence in all its forms, is by its nature a complex-chaotic problem. It requires a systemic approach to its design, implementation and evaluation.

The complex-chaotic problem has many names. It manifests as many different types of bodily harm leaving lifelong psychological and physical scaring. It has multiple drivers and contributing factors, and is both a soft system and hard systems issue to resolve. Soft, because it is about how we think, regard each other, value others, perform, and interpret events from many different perspectives. Hard because the structures we have in place to deal with it are insufficient, absent or only partially-formed and supported.

Both the soft and hard systems need to encompasses, like a supply chain for an enterprise, the linked systems for people coming in for help through to having a safe, supported passage to an outcome that leaves women and children in better off places than they were when they left their abusive situations.

There are signs that the Women’s sector recognises the potential of systemic thinking. A leading gender equality organisation recently hosted a 3-hour well-attended workshop on systemic thinking, that focused on the concept of emergence and what that looks like in practice for gender equality and violence prevention advocacy work.

New thinking about how we design integrated and coherent systems is critical. The end goal remains that women and children stop being killed in their homes and a permanent and enduring reduction in all forms of family and community violence.

A systemically designed approach might offer flexibility to change tactics when necessary, but without taking our eye off the only end-goal that matters- the permanent reduction of family violence in all its forms.

It would prevent the siloing effect, where ‘response’ is pitched against ‘prevention’, for example, building mechanisms for two-way knowledge generation, collusion and cooperation. An integrated and coordinated plan could function across states and jurisdictions recognising important connections between actions and their results, in areas such as law reform, service provision, and social marketing.

A systemic approach would demand a rethink of the timeframes and the current rigid funding cycles so that less activity is performed and is well thought through in its inception and implementation, with built-in mechanisms to adjust and experiment with what works.

The common expectation of high impact in short timeframes is utterly unrealistic when under-resourced in both time and money. Similarly, reporting frameworks that tick off against the progress of actions (completion through to delayed or ceased) says nothing about the value, perspectives upon, or contribution to, the actions themselves. As sensible as the actions may have seemed when first devised, what if they’re actually reinforcing or contributing to further harm of victim-survivors?

A systemic approach might be asking what long-term sustainable outcomes do we want for this national plan? It would definitely take a bipartisan view and build a plan that can be funded, supported and sustained no matter who the government of the day. In fact, it may make national plans redundant, focusing more on ongoing creative, survivor-driven and evaluated ongoing processes of continuous improvement.

A great bulk of funding is to ensure the right people are in the crucial jobs for organisational effectiveness and success of the long-term plan. Yet these positions are too often short-term, contract-based and insecure. The sector is vulnerable to what my friend calls the ‘annual lobotomization of staff’ leaving successors to have to start again from scratch. If the structures, people and resources are secure, the business of normative, attitudinal and value-driven change, might actually occur.

And finally, a systemic approach has the opportunity to build a learning infrastructure because changes in one part of the system influence others. Unexpected things will happen, and they are rarely the fault of just one agency or individual. Using a systemic approach, we will learn and grow as new knowledge comes to light. The comprehensive input of all voices, especially the people living in, working with, experiencing the problem of family violence, on a daily basis. The design of a soft, systemic system, necessitates a departure from technocratic and expert-led tools and voices. Not that they don’t play a role, but the difference between victim-survivors and experts, is at times chillingly discernible. The very nature of this complex-chaotic problem and how we solve it lies in embracing the inter-dependent and multiple variables, unpredictability, infinite number of experiences, and myriad of expected hopes and dreams of victim-survivors who want a better and different life.

Business-as-usual summits and plans codify a set of recommendations that are ultimately picked off by governments and funding bodies while pitting actors in the sector against each other in a fight for a slice of a woefully inadequate budget and standing room at the policy reform table. Involve victim-survivors in developing, delivering and constantly evaluating violence intervention and prevention, demand a radical rethink of how we plan and resource safety, and take a systemic approach to stopping violence. Now is not the time to maintain the status quo. Now is the time to tear the house down so we can properly solve the wicked, complex-chaotic problem of violence.

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