The Try, Test and Learn Fund established by the Federal Government’s Department of Social Services has been a unique investment into supporting vulnerable people towards stable, sustainable independence. The Fund was established to generate new insights and empirical evidence into what works to reduce long-term welfare dependence.
Researchers and practitioners from across the country were awarded grants to support investigation into the kinds of approaches and tools that might work to collaboratively refine policy. Co-design activities with researchers, practitioners and those with lived experience were embedded into the project at all stages of implementation — from designing, testing, and evaluating initiatives.
We were really lucky to work with the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University over the past three years, supporting them to conduct an iterative and developmental evaluation of their project, Giving it a Go: Working towards health and wellbeing (GIAG). The initiative was a modular based-program designed to support people living with musculoskeletal conditions (conditions that are highly disabling and painful), specifically those who are recipients of the Disability Support Pension. Through providing tailored information and supports via an interactive app, GIAG aimed to improve the ability and confidence of people living with chronic MSK conditions to engage with work, education and the wider community.
The initiative was co-designed with people living with MSK conditions and expert advisors with topics identified through focus groups and interviews in late 2019. A nine-module design was decided on that stepped participants through supplied material. Modules were intended to be completed consecutively, with the program design including prompts through notifications to participants administered at junctures throughout engagement.
Co-designing a program like GIAG, including its implementation and evaluation, is a really exciting and important development in the ways that government can work with people experiencing disability to explore and collaboratively develop programs that work.
Through our evaluation, conducted throughout the program’s lifecycle, we arrived at three key findings with important recommendations for future refinement with DSS:
- Participants who experience MSK conditions have diverse experiences and challenges as they relate to work, education and community engagement. Many participants were interested in further engagement, and the barriers they experienced were structural, ableist and steeped in attitudes and beliefs.
- App based programs have a real potential to support the knowledge and understanding of living with MSK conditions, but many participants craved interpersonal connections and support to navigate some of the complexities of the health and social services systems.
- Tailored content and information for people experiencing MSK conditions is difficult to find, and having it in one place served as a hopeful early intervention for participants navigating the impacts of acquired disability on employment and income security.
There are around 168,000 people living with an MSK condition in receipt of a disability support pension in Australia. We heard from many of these people who conveyed their hope to further connect with employment, with their communities and even to pursue study. Many MSK conditions are hidden and employers are not always ready to support.
The concept of the Fund is to do what it says on the tin — to try out new approaches, to test scenarios and solutions with people who need them, and to learn about what works in order to better collaborate. It’s a hopeful objective, and there are real opportunities to consider how to listen to those with lived experience in future policy development. The evaluation is evidence of participants’ banging the drum to pursue sustainable independence; now the structures that are in the way need to be addressed.