As community workers, advocates and policy makers, we are in the business of social transformation. We work to transform the lives of people experiencing disadvantage and social dysfunction, and believe our society as a whole can only become richer for it.
But in sometimes trudging through the day-to-day realities of social and policy work, we would be forgiven for questioning whether real transformation is only a lofty aim. With evidence suggesting a growing divide between those who have and those who have not, and the persistence of complex social problems, we might personally begin to lose confidence in the community sector’s impact. We might begin to wonder whether social problems are simply too great, or too complex, to effectively solve with the limited resources we have at our disposal. Our hope may then be redefined, from achieving real social transformation, to simply keeping heads above water.
A new VCOSS report, Walk alongside: Co-designing social initiatives with people experiencing vulnerabilities, invites people to challenge their thinking about social problems and the people affected by them, as well as the way government and the community sector works with them. It encourages us to genuinely connect with people experiencing vulnerabilities so as to understand their world, their aspirations and the solutions that will work best for them. The report describes the value of co-design: a ‘ground-up’ approach to service design that begins by asking people what their needs are, and then exploring possible solutions with them. It is characterised by the pursuit of social transformation, and focuses on positive goals of growth, wellbeing and social cohesion.
Critical to this approach are the mentalities and mindsets that underlie a co-design practitioner’s thinking. The report describes a co-designer as being open and responsive to new insights, reflective about their own assumptions and holding belief in the creative potential of the people they are working with.
Walk alongside also provides examples of co-design practice, such as Good Shepherd Australia and New Zealand’s ‘empowerment approach’ to engaging parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation’s work with Aboriginal families. These examples demonstrate the transformative effect of genuine engagement and creative problem-solving through co-design, not only for the people affected by social problems, but for practitioners and organisations who work with them.
VCOSS believes working closely with people in the community is one of the best ways to design services and programs that will help them overcome the forms of disadvantage they face. We hope the principles and practices outlined in Walk alongside will help bring people, community workers and the government together to best design the social programs, services and forms of support people need to overcome disadvantage and build brighter futures.
The full report, Walk alongside is now online.