Over 70 people from diverse backgrounds including the public sector, academia, consulting firms and NGOs were privileged to hear Mary Ann O’Loughlin’s stimulating and provocative lecture at ANU last month.
Drawing on her extensive social policy experience in diverse roles and organisations, Mary Ann addressed the question of why, despite decades of action, have we been so ineffectual in responding to critical social problems?
Her answer was simply this: we do not know enough.
Over the next 45 minutes, in her clear but rich address, Mary Ann explained that economic thought, whilst initially neglected, had become increasingly dominant in social policy thinking from the 1980s onwards, and needs to be complemented with the understanding of other disciplines – particularly psychology and biology.
Why these two?
Because they throw light on human behaviour, how it is influenced and how it can be changed – a neglected but fundamental challenge for social policy. As Mary Ann showed, psychology can help us understand the limits to rationality and incentives, and the importance of resilience and personality in changing behaviour. Meanwhile biology has increasingly informed us about how these are developed – particularly the importance of early childhood.
For me, Mary Ann’s lecture highlighted the critical role of relationships and connections, so often neglected in the way we develop and implement policies. It also made me think that perhaps we have also neglected other disciplines, in particular sociology which can help us understand how complex systems (such as child protection) as well as practitioner groups operating within them in often trying circumstances, could work more effectively.
Last month’s occasional lecture was co-presented by ASPA and ANZSOG. Plans are underway to repeat the lecture in Sydney, and the full text will also be published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues later in the year.
– Alison McClelland, vice president, ASPA