Five themes to improve policy for women in the 'missing middle'

21 December 2020 5 min. read

It is widely acknowledged that women are most at risk of falling into the “missing middle” – the gap in policy, funding and services between prevention and crisis response for critical and complex social issues. Kathryn Anderson and Julia Hovenden from Cube Group examine the impact of Covid-19 and how a new approach to policy making can create a better future for women.

In March 2020, Cube Group assembled more than 100 of Australia’s best and brightest minds in policy design and service delivery to discuss how women are disproportionately impacted by the ‘missing middle’. That discussion could not have been more prescient. Immediately after, the world was enveloped in one of the most devastating pandemics in living history; an event already proving to have devasting new impacts on women.

No aspect of life has been untouched, be it physical, emotional and financial wellbeing, education, travel, workplaces and even our rule of law. But perhaps nowhere have the consequences been more keenly observed than across social issues that disproportionally effect women – insecure and casual work, family violence, homelessness and financial inequality.

Those impacts have been consistently highlighted in our work with communities through the pandemic – with a clear call to arms: a prosperous future for Australia must be a gender-equal future. it was encouraging to note the Victorian Government’s 2020-21 Gender Equality Budget Statement, which acknowledged that women have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and focused on security, stability and safety. Sadly this gender lens was not a feature of other jurisdictions’ budgets.

Two key themes emerged from Cube Group’s summit: the need for a holistic approach to designing and delivering integrated services addressing women’s needs, and the importance of genuinely incorporating the lived experience of women in all aspects of policy design, implementation and review.

The report ‘Creating a better future for Victorian women builds’ on these themes to identify fundamental system reforms necessary to overcome current systemic and institutional barriers affecting women.

Commitment to doing things differently

First and foremost, leaders need to acknowledge the problem and recognise that the current approach isn’t working. They need to be courageous and surround themselves with people from diverse backgrounds that bring a range of experiences and insights to contribute new ideas.

Strong and effective leadership also includes working collaboratively with other organisations that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. But it doesn’t mean no one is accountable. A common pitfall of multi-organisational policy design and implementation processes is a lack of clear governance. People need to know what they are accountable for, how decisions are made, funding sourced and distributed, and who has the final say. 

Lived experience and stakeholder expertise baked into policy response

The need for including lived experience is often talked about in policy circles, but rarely extends further than a few token stakeholder interviews or establishment of an advisory group.

Women in the missing middle and those at the crisis end need to be the driving force behind the design and implementation of any policy solutions. Women from a range of cultural backgrounds, socio-economic groups, age groups and locations must be included and need to steer policy direction and solutions. 

Linking policy aspiration with implementation experience

Often the most difficult part of the process is understanding how to make policy aspirations a reality.

Knowing where the women who need these services are and understanding how to make the services easily accessible is critical to ensuring that the policy response is correctly targeted. These are the things that are best known by those who work on the ground or who have used the services. Linking operational experts with policy thinkers creates optimal teams to drive effective policy change and sustainable change.

Simple things such as workforce impact assessments, testing of tools in a real-world setting, understanding the motivations and working styles of people delivering the policy reform, and knowing where in the process the policy changes need to occur will help ensure policy reforms are delivered effectively.

Trial to prevent error

Great leaders know that things don’t always work the first time. Trials and pilot programs are a lower risk, cost effective and fast way of understanding what works, what doesn’t, unintended consequences (both positive and negative) and the funding and resourcing required for further roll-out. Science uses this approach as standard – just think of the testing and clinical trial regimes for new vaccines – and it can work exactly the same way for policy reform.

Trial different implementation approaches, monitor and learn from them, then roll out those with the greatest impact to the rest of the community. There will still be challenges and changes will need to be made throughout its operation, but the fundamentals will be right.

Measuring achievement against outcomes

You can’t measure success if you don’t know what you want to achieve. And if you don’t know what you want to achieve, you should question why you are doing the project. To this end, part of every project start-up should include development of a program logic/theory of change, a monitoring and evaluation framework and a commitment to either an ongoing review or clear review cycle.

Understanding and improving outcomes and value for the community is the ultimate policy aim, so policy makers should be using all the tools and evidence at their disposal.

Creating sustainable change is hard, but it’s not impossible. Understanding the key elements that create successful system change will go a long way to ensuring that the missing middle for women is acknowledged and that the right policy responses are being developed and tested.

About the authors: Kathryn Anderson is a partner at Cube Group with more than 30 years of public sector experience. Julia Hovenden is a director at Cube Group, she has a passion for working with all sectors of the community.