The north star for achieving community impact – why place-based and systems approaches are here to stay.

In Part 1 of this series, Dr Jess Dart talks to Jen Riley about how place-based approaches work and what they offer, and how Clear Horizon Academy’s new course, ‘Evaluating systems change and place-based approaches’, was born.

What does place-based even mean?

To understand place-based we need to firstly understand systems change. While evaluation grew out of programs – a defined set of activit
ies leading to specific outcome – systems change approaches are about breaking the rules. They work across programs, trying to address the underlying causes of a problem.

Let’s take an example: say you are trying to improve year 12 outcomes or get young people to stay in school. A program would normally be bound within the school context, but if you really want to solve this problem and get kids to do well at school, you have to get outside the school to work out what is going on in the system. Maybe there are issues at home, maybe it’s the economy. Systems change is about jumping around to try and get to the underlying causes of the problem.

A place-based approach (PBA) is a systems approach within a defined location, such as a suburb or small town. Restricting the scope of work to a geographic location can help pin down a problem without leaving you completely overwhelmed.

Another feature of place-based approaches is that they are community-centric. Community members are involved in the decision making, with their aspirations for the community anchoring the scope of the work. These aspirations are the ‘north star’ for place-based approaches.

Is there any stage where a place is too big? The State of Victoria?

I’ve heard place-based approaches are best in populations between 2000 and 40,000 or even up 200,000, but not the whole of Victoria! You can’t chase a problem around in such a big area.

What if the population is spread out, e.g. the Mallee region?

I think it’s more about population than location size. Maybe it’s more complex over a wider area, but going back to what systems change is – chasing a problem down – you are still trying to chunk off the work by community priorities rather than by sector. I don’t see why it shouldn’t work in bigger regions with lower populations. It’s probably more important to determine if there is a community that connects as a community. It is of course, possible to do this stuff across a community bounded more by topic than location, which is why some people refer to it as systems change approach rather than place-based, because it’s defined by the community.

Can you talk about who else is involved alongside the community?

The whole point is that you collaborate with everyone who is part of the problem to try and tackle the underlying causes. Generally, you end up collaborating with a broader range of people, so with the school example, rather than just working with principal, the teachers, the kids and even parents, you may also work with local business owners. You have to think more broadly about the causes of the problem, and that often takes you further afield. It’s more collaborative and multi-sectoral, but the people you choose to engage with need to be bound by the aspirations of the community.

Is this a new way of working?

Nothing is ever really new, but a place-based approach offers a few new twists that I like. It builds on years of community development and community strengthening. It draws from traditional approaches, but it’s quite advanced and exciting, and you can see in some places it’s really working.

Place-based is a bit of a hot topic. Do you think it’s here to stay?

I do. The world is getting more complex and we’re the frogs in a pot. We’re heating up and have just realised we need to do things differently to address complex problems. I think our sector has picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit and solved a lot of issues, but our current services are not necessarily working. We’re spending money on programs that are providing services not impact, so we need to re-think how we work.

Clear Horizon Academy’s course, Evaluating systems change and place-based approaches is based on a Framework that’s now published. How did it all come about?

We’d been repeatedly asked to evaluate place-based initiatives over the last five years or so, but things heated up when we were contracted by a partnership between the Commonwealth Government, the Queensland Government and a collective impact project called Logan Together in Queensland.

They got together and decided they needed to work out how to evaluate place-based approaches. Clear Horizon together with The Australian Centre for Social Innocation (TACSI), Collaboration For Impact (CFI) and Community Services Industry Alliance (CSIA) won the contract for the work, and through a highly participatory process engaging over 150 people, we co-created the Framework. We tested it out on Logan Together, who were really struggling with the question of “How do we do evaluation in this space,” and tearing their hair out because they had tried a few things that hadn’t worked. They’d given ‘shared measurement’ a really great go – theirs was one of the best shared measurement frameworks I’d ever seen – but with their focus so much on shared measurement and not so much on the other parts of evaluation, it just wasn’t enough to assess impact and what was really happening. That’s where we came in, and where this Framework and course came from.

In Part 2, we’ll explore shared measurement versus evaluation, and how to choose your own adventure when it comes to selecting place-based evaluation tools.

Clear Horizon Academy’s new 6 week online course
, Evaluating systems change and place-based approaches, starts on 4th November 2019. For more information and to enrol, visit the course overview.

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Jess Dart sq

Dr Jess Dart


Inventor of practical methodologies and highly demanded facilitator, Jess navigates complexity with comfort and helps her clients to become clear about their desired outcomes and how to get there.

Recipient of the 2018 AES Award for outstanding contribution to evaluation, Jess has over 25 years experience in evaluating and designing social change initiatives and strategies in Australia and overseas.

In October 2005, Jess founded Clear Horizon Consulting and is now CEO. She is also a board member of the Australasian Evaluation society.

Jess is passionate about developing and designing real world evaluation and strategy for social justice and sustainability. She particularly works with systems change interventions, large scale strategy and social innovation. After completing her PhD she co-authored the Most Significant Change (MSC) guide alongside Dr Rick Davies, which is now translated into 12 different languages.

MSC is well suited to evaluation in the complex emergent context. The latest innovation by Jess, Collaborative Outcomes Reporting (COR), is a collaborative form of impact evaluation.

Jess is also an active mum and has two teenage boys. In a quiet moment, she loves reading far-future science fiction and enjoys long distance running.

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