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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.


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


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