Collaborating for kids: playing and learning through systems work

By: Michael Hogan   |   Convenor, Thriving Queensland Kids Partnership and Adjunct Professor, QUT   |

Queensland children have higher rates of vulnerability than children in any other major Australian jurisdiction. We know that pandemic and natural disasters disproportionately impact those already vulnerable. We know that early and enduring adversity affects everything: brain development and physical and mental health, stress at home, success at school, relationships, employment, income levels, all the way through the economy and society. Overwhelmingly, children who start behind stay behind. Without interrupting the life-long trajectory of disadvantage, that then unfolds as an intergenerational cycle.

Due to the efforts of many, thankfully this gap is closing in Queensland – as indicated in trends in the latest AEDC results. Yet despite large-scale investment, great depth of knowledge, fabulous organisations, skilled practitioners and many bright spots of great programs and practice, the progress we are making on reducing overall rates of child vulnerability is slow, and the gap for some kids and in some places is still way too big.  

This is, in part, because current efforts continually hit structural barriers and systemic ceilings, beyond which successes cannot readily be scaled or sustained. It is also in part because our systems are siloed and stretched by unrelenting tertiary demand, and by the pace and pressures of public governance and accountabilities. They are also constrained by deeply ingrained ways of thinking, organising, doing and accounting, and hampered by fragmentation and a lack of alignment up and down and across systems and sectors. All this leaves precious little space and time to collaborate, innovate, evaluate, learn and adapt.

I have been working in, advocating about and leading systems my entire career – first, as a young departmental legislation officer, then doing public interest advocacy with community organisations, and as a senior executive in central and line public sector agencies in NSW and Qld. I spent 6 1/2 years as a Director-General in the Queensland Government, variously responsible for disability services, child protection, youth justice, and strategy and investment related to youth, women, multicultural affairs, and domestic and family and sexual violence.

Like many, many others – frontline practitioners, executive colleagues, NFP leaders, and Ministers – I was thrilled to progress reforms, innovations and investments that delivered public value. I spent considerable time working to stitch systems together, so they worked better to prevent, respond, and enable recovery from human adversities and natural disasters.

But I also heard and shared the frustrations, even with that much influence and authority, that come with the hard work – at any level – of trying to shift life chances and systems.

After finishing as a Director General just over two years ago, I have had the enormous privilege of:

This has been quite a journey, and I have come to share the realisation that we have seriously lacked some of the diagnostics, mindsets, capabilities, platforms, and architecture required to enable the collective efforts necessary to shift systems and life chances and trajectories. As Karen Pitman, from the Canadian Forum on Youth Investment said:

“…programmatic interventions help people beat the odds; system interventions help change the odds”.

From the insights of systems leaders and practitioners, the burgeoning evidence about what works and the growing experience of systems leadership, catalytic investment, and transformative collaborations, I’ve had the opportunity to engage a growing band of fellow travellers in doing something to address our challenges with the status quo.

As is oft said, it is ‘less of a knowing problem than a doing problem!’ So, we’ve gone about discussing and working through some critical questions, such as:

  1. How can we work better with what and who we have, and what we know and learn?
  2. How do we demonstrate valued allyship with First Nations leaders and organisations?
  3. How do we connect and amplify, and not compete or duplicate?
  4. How do we address fragmentation, gaps and rubs without adding to the ‘complicatedness’?
  5. How do we address inequities, and disrupt cycles of disadvantage?
  6. How do we put the lived experience and voices of citizens of all ages at the core?
  7. What might be integrative and developmental to help ‘weave our systems together’?
  8. How do we best connect to and across efforts at local community levels and work underway at a national level?
  9. What can get people and organisations on the same page – down and up and across – aligned in their efforts?

From dialogue and design over the past two years has come the fledgling Thriving Queensland Kids Partnership. TQKP is emerging as a coalition of the willing and as a systems catalyst and intermediary. This has been instigated by ARACY in collaboration with key Queensland leaders and organisations, including Children’s Health Queensland, Health and Wellbeing Queensland, plus four Queensland Departments and two statutory authorities, seven universities and a growing number of NFP and philanthropic partners and collaborators.

These partners and collaborators are coalescing around a shared purpose of ‘catalysing systems to change the odds for Queensland children and young people to thrive’. To achieve this, we are:

  • bringing people, organisations and sectors together,
  • using what we know and learn,
  • supporting leaders and catalysts, and
  • facilitating collaborative action, innovation and development.

We believe that by doing this, we can build better connections, capabilities and capacities. And we can get enough hands on the key ‘systems levers’ of concerted leadership, smarter investment, enabled caregivers and communities, stronger workforces, integrated delivery, and putting data, evidence and experience to work.  Our vision is an eco-system well equipped, stewarded and working together, and better able to reduce the experience and consequences of inequity and adversity.

We are thrilled to be joined on this journey by a growing group of philanthropies, each of them committed to systems work and catalytic investment to enhance their value and the impact of their partners.

At a function hosted by the Queensland Parliament Speaker, The Hon, Curtis Pitt MP and Minister for Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs, Leanne Linard MP, at Parliament House in Brisbane recently, four philanthropies - Hand Heart Pocket, The Bryan Foundation, The John Villiers Trust and the Paul Ramsay Foundation - joined together to announce a $7.7 million co-investment over the next three years in practical and integrative systems-level initiatives through the Thriving Queensland Kids Partnership.   

This will enable a portfolio of TQKP and partner-led and supported initiatives to build capabilities - starting with improving access to data, building workforce capabilities through mobilising insights from neuroscience and development science, enhancing public knowledge and scaffolding local leadership. We plan for this to build out and leverage other efforts and resources.

We are creating a space for systems leaders and change agents to play and learn. With the backing of Ministers, Directors-General, Commissioners, CEOs, and with the collaboration of leaders and change agents in communities and organisations across Queensland, we are confident that together we can positively affect the ‘actors and factors’ that shape the lives of Queensland children and young people, their families and communities, each one of them a ‘unique human system’.

May. 19, 2022

Philanthropy Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.

Sign up here