Many tough social issues are interlinked and cannot be addressed in isolation, and instead require a long-term and more holistic approach to policy development and execution, said Isabella Saunders, a research assistant at the Centre for Social Impact.

“As we start talking about recovery and a post-pandemic world, we need to be conscious of how already existing inequalities can be amplified unless appropriate policy structures are put in place from the outset,” said Ms Saunders.

“People are not going to be starting from the same position in terms of financial buffers, but also how safe they feel in their communities, their access to education and healthcare. For overall social progress to improve, it has to improve for everyone.”

Ms Saunders is a researcher for Australia’s first Social Progress Index, a tool that measures how well the states and territories of Australia are providing for the basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunities of its citizens.

“Our concerns with policy responses to COVID are around shelter, particularly: many of the legislations passed in response to an economic downturn primarily were about protecting the economic interests of landlords and residential tenants; there hasn’t really been any long term strategies or planning around the need for more adequate and appropriate social housing,” said Ms Saunders, who recently spoke as part of a UNSW Business School BusinessThink webinar on COVID social vulnerabilities state-by-state.

“There has also been uneven political messaging about how school education should be delivered during this time: in person or remote learning require different resources, and assumes that all school students will automatically have access to the same internet, computers etc. at home.”

How decision makers can close the gap

There are a number of steps decision makers in the public and NFP sectors can take to close policy flaws and gaps, according to Centre for Social Impact Research Fellow Dr Megan Weier, who also presented as part of the webinar.

In particular, she said policy responses and investment should pay attention to the ways that factors such as remoteness, cultural background, living with disability, and socioeconomic background all interact with how accessible and appropriate policy solutions are.

“It follows that equality/equity argument – sometimes to ensure that everyone is getting the same opportunities – means creating targeted policies and services in consultation with specific groups to ensure that they are appropriate,” she said.

In the Northern Territory’s SPI scores, for example, current policies are not working in providing the basic standards of living and wellbeing compared to the rest of Australia.

This means that policy and service decision making needs to be done differently: “we would suggest that attending to basic human needs such as access to basic medical care, water and sanitation, shelter and personal safety should be first priority,” said Dr Weier.

Furthermore, these issues can’t be siloed and there needs to be connection and collaboration across sectors and also across social issues. “For overall social progress to increase, we can’t just focus on access to information and communications, or personal safety,” said Dr Weier.

“We also have to ensure that we are attending to inclusiveness, access to higher education, and water and sanitation. Many of these issues interlink and are actually dependent on each other.

“So there needs to be some creative collaboration in how services are offered; we see this work particularly well in community-led centres that respond to multiple issues of housing, health, education, and personal safety within the one team.”

The Social Progress Index: key findings

The Social Progress Index can be useful to help the private sector identify areas for growth and impact, Dr Weier observed. From the index calculations between 2015 and 2018, some of the consistently lowest scoring components of social progress were:

1. Access to information and communications (inequitable access to digital inclusion)

Private sectors should consider if they need to address where there may be inequities in service delivery, Dr Weier explained, for example, in remote communities, pricing of internet for low-income households or availability of public libraries or free hotspots.

2. Environmental quality

Having access to renewable and clean energies are more likely to improve environmental quality scores in the future. “As more private sector companies get on board with climate protection, there needs to be serious reflection on how business practices may be contributing to poor air quality, water stress and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dr Weier.

3. Shelter

Social progress is about ensuring that everyone has adequate access to shelter and basic utilities, and Dr Weier said the private sector can greatly contribute to this by advocating for, and including social and affordable housing as part of new developments, or choosing to invest in projects that prioritise these developments.

For more information or to view the webinar please visit UNSW Business school’s BusinessThink.