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Sydney Policy Lab research in action

Current research

We are exploring three themes to drive big changes
We bring civil society, government and business together with renowned researchers to develop research questions, shape ideas and build change. Read a snapshot of our research.


Data is increasingly used to direct services, secure funding and influence policy. However for the disability community in Australia, access to high quality data is significantly lacking.

This report captures the perspectives of 40 members of the disability community to the idea of a National Disability Data Asset (NDDA) in Australia. 

The Lab’s interviews and workshops identified participants’ hopes that the NDDA will improve the quality and availability of data about people with disability, and that this improved data will be used to create positive change for people with disability. 

The clearest single insight to emerge from the research was that participants’ support for the NDDA was dependent on the meaningful involvement of people with disability in the Asset’s design, governance and operation. 

Research team: Emma Calgaro, Juliet Bennett, Sheelagh Daniel-Mayes, Leigh-Anne Hepburn, Kimberlee Weatherall, Libby Young Louise Beehag, Amy Tong and Marc Stears

Research partner: NDDA National Project Team 

Download the full report here (pdf,2.9MB)

Download the easy read report here (pdf, 9MB)

Around the world, established political parties and democratic institutions seem unable to rise to the enormity of the global challenges we face, from inequality to climate change. Hungry for change, citizens are looking for alternatives.

With most of the world’s population now living in cities, this project examines the new democratic practices and organisational forms emerging in a myriad of global cities that enable citizens to organise and participate meaningfully in political life.

At the end of 2019, the Sydney Policy Lab convened over a dozen of the world’s leading grassroots campaigners for social change at the University of Sydney, hailing from Cape Town, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Cardiff and more, to learn from each other and collaborate with researchers to advance understandings of citizen-led social and political change.

The project is part of a three-year program of work funded by the Henry Halloran Trust. Insights from this project will be published as a book, People Power in the City, and in the International Journal of Housing Studies. The gathering was featured by the Guardian Australia and across multiple episodes of the ChangeMakers podcast.

Research team: Dr Amanda Tattersall and Associate Professor Kurt Iveson

Project partners: Sydney Alliance, Queensland Community Alliance, Reclaim the City (South Africa), Citizens UK, Industrial Areas Foundation Northwest (USA), Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and Way to Win (USA)

How have changes in work and employment relationships impacted social cohesion and belonging in Australia? This research project explores this question by exploring the lives of the people who clean and maintain the spaces where citizens encounter each other on a regular basis, such as public schools, hospitals, libraries and justice institutions, and their experiences of community recognition and trust.

The research is distinctive because of its long-term focus, comparing workers in direct and outsourced employment arrangements in different states over a 20 to 30 year span, using a blend of archival and interview sources, and because of its attentiveness to the everyday patterns and rhythms of recognition, following the ideas of theorists such as Winnicott, Polanyi, Dewey and Honneth.

The project follows a participative research design, which has been closely and continually informed by relationships with cleaners, maintenance workers and their union. The research aims to uncover hitherto overlooked dimensions of the nexus between work arrangements and dynamics of belonging and recognition and offer principles that can guide future policymaking.

Frances’s publications on the research so far include this Guardian piece on the history of outsourcing, and this Griffith Review essay on public school cleaning.

Project team: Dr Frances Flanagan

A report prepared by the Sydney Policy Lab for Multicultural NSW offers insights as to how we can better enable young refugees to directly influence the development of the public policies that shape their lives.

After many years of declining trust in established institutions, there have been increasing calls for and efforts to include people from the broader community in public decision-making. This is emerging at all levels of governance, and is underpinned by the potential to develop innovative ways of finding consensus on and solutions to long-term and complex challenges. Accordingly, the decade ahead may present new opportunities to reshape the relationship between people and their governments.

It is in this context that the Refugee Youth Policy Initiative was born. This is a unique NSW Government initiative led by Multicultural NSW and the NSW Coordinator General for Refugee Resettlement that seeks to include young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds in the process of decision making about settlement services policy in NSW.

The report contributes to practice-based evidence and enrich understanding of what works and what does not work in efforts directly to include people in policymaking processes, particularly regarding initiatives that include people who are experts by direct experience in the policy matters being considered.

It found that public participation in policymaking, at its heart, can have most impact when it is underpinned by two fundamental factors:

  • a willingness to innovate – to try something new, and
  • a willingness to share power and responsibility with members of the public.

Key insights and recommendations are outlined in the report.

Research team: Professor Susan Goodwin, Sanushka Mudaliar, Isabelle Napier, Professor Marc Stears

Project partners: Multicultural NSW, Refugee Youth Policy Initiative

Download the full report here (pdf, 4.5MB)

They say that a society is defined by how well it treats those most vulnerable. So what does it say about our society when our systems of care are at breaking point? 

Multiple royal commissions into aged care, disability, child abuse, mental health and the treatment of veterans have revealed the deep and endemic shortcomings of the care sector. Given the recommendations of such commissions, and the long-running advocacy of the sector, we already know many of the things that need to change. But change has not yet happened. 

The past three years have seen fires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic dominate our national attention. As Australia begins embarking on recovery, and looks towards a post-pandemic future, it must also be time for us to consider the long-delayed task of reforming care. 

We know that social change doesn’t happen quickly or easily. It requires not just a coalition of thinkers and practitioners – it demands attitudinal shifts in society. 

Our ambition 

Australia Cares is an ambitious new initiative from the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney, supported by the Paul Ramsay Foundation. It has grown out of a broad and diverse coalition of people who recognise the need for a fundamental shift in the way that society views and practices care. 

Our ambition is to ensure systems of care in Australia are based on the values of agency and dignity. These values should be at the heart of the way care is conceived, funded and delivered.   

Our approach is based on co-design with people across the care sectors. During the past two years, the Sydney Policy Lab has been facilitating dialogues with care practitioners, managers and executives, economists, public policy experts, social innovators, campaigners, advocates and changemakers and of course care recipients. 

Based on these continuing dialogues, we are designing a series of collaborative projects that aim to: 

  • create a vision for placing care at the centre of a strong, resilient economy and a fair, sustainable society;
  • establish a more effective policy and investment framework; and
  • change practices in the design and delivery of care.

We know we need to strengthen relationships across sectors, build unlikely coalitions and make these changes together. We look forward to hearing to your thoughts on the questions we ask, the process of seeking answers and together refashioning our care systems to care for all Australians.

This project was launched in March 2022, and is a two year plus program.

Research team: Professor Tim Soutphommasane, Professor Marc Stears, Associate Professor Luara Ferrocioli, Louise Beehag, Dr Juliet Bennett, Martin Stewart-Weeks

Project partners: Paul Ramsay Foundation

If you would like to learn more or get involved in this project, please contact us at 


A new case study of the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group, prepared by the Sydney Policy Lab, offers insights for government and non-government organisations wishing to align policy and resources towards supporting community-led agendas for change.

The case study draws on the knowledge and practice of the Bourke Tribal Council through Maranguka, a community-led initiative based in the town of Bourke in Western NSW, which, as stated on the Maranguka Community Hub website, “is a grassroots vision for improving outcomes and creating better coordinated support for vulnerable families and children through the true empowerment of the local Aboriginal community.”

The case study examines a previously unexplored aspect of Maranguka – the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group (CSLG), a key site of interaction and direct engagement between local Aboriginal community leadership and government and non-government organisations. The evolution and story of the Maranguka CSLG offers important lessons for those wishing to support and respond to Aboriginal community leadership – including politicians, government agencies, philanthropists, and service providers.

The Sydney Policy Lab’s research highlights four key factors involved in the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group:

(1) strong community leadership to which other partners align their activities;

(2) the commitment, time and skills required to engage in deep collaboration and build trust around a common purpose;

(3) the importance of authorisation, including the need to respect Cultural Authority, and the role of political leaders in giving ‘permission’ to act; and

(4) different levels of accountability, formalised through milestone documents, structures and processes which lay the groundwork and tone for future activity.

While these lessons emerged from the specific context of the Maranguka initiative in Bourke led by the Bourke Tribal Council, they offer potential insights for other government and non-government organisations wishing to align policy and resources towards supporting community-led agendas for change.

Download the full report here

Research team: Professor Marc Stears, Mark Riboldi, Lara Smal.

Project partners: Maranguka Community Hub, Dusseldorp Forum, and Paul Ramsay Foundation.

One of the fundamental tasks of any government is to ensure the people and communities, especially those experiencing disadvantage, have access to the services and supports they need to lead full lives. But getting it right is extraordinarily difficult. Historically, governments have tried to rise to the task through welfare states and the introduction of corporate principles to public governance, yet many citizens remain dissatisfied with their experience.

Since the late 1990s, “commissioning” as a term has gained steady ground as a promising new approach to the design and delivery of human services, including in Australia. But what is commissioning? How is it different from previous methods of contracting service providers? And, most importantly, can it put people’s needs and aspirations at the centre of service design and delivery? These are the questions we explored with a coalition of peak bodies in the NSW community sector, guided by the central question: what is our collective vision and how do we build the relationships to move forward together to meet the needs of the communities we serve?

The resulting research brought together state-of-the-art academic knowledge, international best-practice expertise and deep local experience. It offers a new framework for commissioners to engage with in any given experiment, called “the commissioning jigsaw” as well four fundamental principles which, when taken together, form a lens through which the government and community sector ought to approach the design of commissioning initiatives in NSW: putting relationships first, letting communities lead, embedding learning and investing in people.

Download the full report (pdf, 8mb)

Research team: Professor Susan Goodwin, Professor Marc Stears, Dr Elaine Fishwick, Lisa Fennis and Mark Riboldi.

Project partners: The Centre for Volunteering, Churches Housing, Domestic Violence NSW, Fams, Homelessness NSW, Local Community Services Association (LCSA), NSW Council of Social Services (NCOSS), Shelter NSW, Y Foundations and Youth Action.

The violation of the workplace rights of migrant workers is a live topic in policy and political debates in Australia. Major government inquiries including the Senate Inquiry A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Worker Visa Holders and the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce have drawn attention to this issue in recent years. Large-scale litigation has been brought by the Fair Work Ombudsman and other legal actors in disputes over workplace rights.

What are the key issues for migrants and employers? What is the role of legal actors, broadly defined, in shaping the policy landscape of workplace rights for migrant workers in Australia? These are the questions this research seeks to address, drawing on analysis of close to 1000 court cases brought by migrant workers to trace the nature, extent and attributes of alleged workplace violations experienced by migrant workers in four jurisdictions: Australia, Canada (Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario), England and the State of California over a 20-year period (1996-2016). It covers criminal, wage, safety and leave violations and discriminatory actions against employees. It also includes interviews with legal parties, non-governmental organisations and migrant worker associations on several of the cases.

Governments in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, alongside the OECD, have sought insights from this research project, which will be published as a book, Patterns of Exploitation: Understanding Migrant Workplace Violations Globally. The project has been published in the Journal of Industrial Relations.

Project team: Associate Professor Anna Boucher

Over the last decade or so, many Not for Profits (NFPs) and civil society-based advocacy organisations have increased their focus on digital and field-based public engagement to enhance both their membership and donor base. Yet at the same time, due to rising overheads, many have been forced to downsize their internal capacities to undertake research.

What is effective citizen empowerment and action for social change in a time of democratic turmoil? How can university researchers and policy communities together build relationships that enable inclusive social change? This project maps the process of internal research capacity change in the NFP sector, examines how organisations are either currently looking to external university-based research partnerships or may be interested in doing so in the future. With the rapid digitalisation of research methodologies, the project assesses the core needs for either new or updated research skills development among NFP and advocacy organisation staff.

The research team audited and surveyed around 500 advocacy and campaigning organisations, comprising 300 citizen advocacy organisations, augmented by an estimated 200 NSW-based citizen advocacy groups, community legal centres, think tanks, and political parties. Workshops on digital associations, democracy and election advocacy, in combination with the audit and survey, contributing to deepening understanding of the changing landscape of policy engagement and instrumental role of research translation in effective advocacy.

Project team: Associate Professor Anna Boucher, Dr Madison Cartwright, Associate Professor Amy Conley-Wright, Noah D’Mello, Associate Professor Anika Gauja, Dr Madeleine Pill, Professor Ariadne Vromen

Project partners: The Advisory Panel for this project includes representatives from the Community and Public Sector Union, Oxfam Australia, the Committee for Sydney, the Sydney Alliance and the Australian National University.

Policy advocacy is an increasingly important function of many non-profit organisations, as they seek broad social changes in their concerning issues. Their advocacy practices, however, have often been guided by their own past experiences, anecdotes from peer networks, and consultant advice. Most of their practices have largely escaped empirical and theoretical grounding that could better root their work in established theories of policy change.

The first book of its kind, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan, Nonprofits in Policy Advocacy bridges this gap by connecting real practices of on-the-ground policy advocates with the burgeoning academic literature in policy studies. In the process, it empirically identifies six distinct policy advocacy strategies, and their accompanying tactics, used by non-profits. Case studies tell the stories of how advocates apply these strategies in a wide variety of issues including civil rights, criminal justice, education, energy, environment, public health, public infrastructure, and youth. This book will appeal to both practitioners and academics, as each gains insights into the other’s views of policy change and the actions that produce it.

Research team: Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright, Associate Professor Sheldon Gen San Francisco State University

Project partners:  A variety of US-based non-profits are featured in the book, including Sierra Club, American Lung Association, Code Pink, Parents for Public Schools and many more.

In partnership with Paul Ramsay Foundation and in collaboration with civil society leaders from across Australia, the Lab is embarking on an ambitious new project to strengthen civil society and build community resilience.

Chief investigator: Professor Marc Stears,

Core research team: Mark Riboldi and Lisa Fennis

Advisory Panel: Maha Abdo OAM (Muslim Women Association), Tara Day-Williams (Stronger Places, Stronger People, Australian Government Department of Social Services), Jason Glanville (PwC Indigenous Consulting, Australian Indigenous Governance Institute), Devett Kennedy (Queensland Community Alliance), Edwina MacDonald (Australian Council of Social Service: ACOSS), Anandini Saththianathan (Paul Ramsay Foundation), Liz Skelton (Collaboration for Impact), Anita Tang (Australian Progress), Dame Julia Unwin (Civil Society Futures).

Read more about this project here.


The first half of 2020 has thrown the challenges facing the Australian economy – and the people it serves – into stark relief. The record-breaking bushfire season placed the reality of climate change, and its threat to Australian society, front and centre. Only a few short months later, the COVID-19 pandemic and the near-total shutdown of the economy that accompanied it demonstrated both the capacity of government to intervene in the economy on a massive scale, and the shocking precarity and inequality that has characterised our economic system.

This project seeks to address the complex of interconnected issues that sit at the heart of both the climate crisis and the economic crisis caused by COVID-19: a carbon-intensive economy offering poor working conditions and insecurity for too many workers in Australia.

The project draws together a coalition of over a dozen community, corporate, climate, and union partners in a long-term participatory research project. Our approach to the research is distinctive, as it draws on the combined but divergent interests of our community partners – involving them in research design and ensuring the voices of those at the forefront of the twin crises are included in policy solutions.

There are three strands of work under development in the project:

  1. Political-economic research on policy solutions; 
  2. Participatory action research involving diverse communities around Australia;
  3. Targeted regional case-studies in key transition areas like the Hunter Valley and Central Queensland.

Research team: Dr Amanda Tattersall, Dr Rosemary Hancock and Dr Gareth Bryant, working alongside a team of interdisciplinary researchers including Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Dr Frances Flanagan, Professor David Schlosberg, and Mr Edward Jegasothy.

Project partners: United Workers Union, GetUp!, Australian Conservation Foundation, Original Power, Committee for Sydney, Sunrise Project, Queensland Community Alliance and many more.

Read the report here.

Like many other global cities, Sydney is becoming a city of extremes with a growing divide between the haves and have nots. There are persistent gaps between groups in Sydney that enjoy the majority of benefits of the city’s growth compared with the groups that do not.

The City of Sydney, therefore, has to be able to keep track of the inequalities on its doorstep, so that it can know when to step in and when to call for change. To this end, the Lab developed a wholly new set of inequality indicators to help the City track, evaluate and take action on the state of inequality within the City.

Drawing from best practice in collaboration with researchers in New York and London, we developed measures across a host of domains – from public participation to employment – and demographics – from age to income group.

The research found that inequalities are starkest for City residents who are Indigenous, low-income, or living with disability, and that there are inequalities on the basis of citizenship, gender and sexuality in key areas of City life. Not only does disadvantage affect certain groups in Sydney disproportionately, but advantage also accrues to other groups on the basis of class, race, ability, gender and citizenship.

Download the report here.

Research team: Dr Rebecca Pearse, Dr James Hitchcock and Llewellyn Williams-Brooks, with advice from Professor Marc Stears, Professor Frank Stilwell, Dr Madeleine Pill, Isabelle Napier, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor Liz Hill, Dr Michael Beggs, Professor David Schlosberg and Associate Professor Alexandre Lefebvre

Project partner: City of Sydney

Public investment is essential for creating equitable and sustainable societies and economies. However, government budgets tend to be constrained by a focus on the present costs, rather than the future benefits, of policy in these areas. Grounded in an understanding of public spending as an investment in the future, innovations in public finance can create much needed fiscal space for governments to pay for critical services and infrastructure.

A report on the state of the 2019 NSW budget showed how the state government can raise revenue in a more efficient and fair way, and change the way it spends money by supporting forward-thinking policy models, like Justice Reinvestment. Such approaches to public investment inform a range of the Lab’s projects, including the Real Deal research coalition.

Research team: Dr Gareth Bryant

It's exciting to be involved with the Sydney Policy Lab's efforts to bring together research and public policy. The lab's work is of utmost importance at what is a turbulent time for liberal democratic politics.
Tim Soutphommasane, former race discrimination commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission