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Sydney Policy Lab research in action

Current research

New research that helps combat inequality, share power and build a sense of belonging together
We have united changemakers, politicians and public servants with researchers for new, collaborative research that is transforming policy solutions – across disability insurance to justice and out-of-home care. Read a snapshot of our research.


Professor Heiko Spallek, Kylie Gwynne and their team from the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and the University of Sydney School of Dentistry have piloted a system-changing innovation to improve dental health for Aboriginal children, who currently have almost double the rate of tooth decay compared to non-Aboriginal children.

The problem is that only medical professionals are permitted to apply fluoride varnish, which for many remote communities is difficult to access and expensive, while drinking water, even though it is fluoridated, is often unpalatable.

Professor Spallek and Ms Gwynne examined how community-based Aboriginal health workers, trained and coordinated by Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Services (ACCHS), can perform fluoride treatment in local schools throughout the year.

The University of Sydney research team co-designed the project with ACCHS teams, and partnered with the NSW Government Centre for Oral Health Strategy and Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District.

The project provided the leverage to persuade the Chief Dental Officer and Chief Medical Officer to change legislation and commit to improving dental health. This success has spurred calls to explore nation-wide implementation. The Lab is helping Spallek’s team to plan a national stakeholder workshop to investigate offering fluoride treatment across Australia.

Project team: Professor Heiko Spallek, Mrs Yvonne Dimitropoulos, Ms Kylie Gwynne, Dr Michelle Irving, Dr Steven Naoum, Dr John Skinner

In 2016 thousands of Australians transitioned to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) from existing mental health programs across Australia.

Associate Professor Jennifer Smith-Merry and her team from the Faculty of Health Sciences, in collaboration with Community Mental Health Australia, investigated the rollout of the scheme. They found that a significant number of people became ineligible for services while others experienced gaps between existing provisions and the NDIS – 91 percent of people with severe mental illness are likely to fall through the cracks.

The team worked with consumers, carers and practitioners from more than 58 stakeholder organisations to develop, test and propose a set of policy solutions. The report generated significant media interest, was tabled in Parliament and used to question the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA).

Project team: Associate Professor Jennifer Smith-Merry, Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn, Dr John Gilroy, Dr Nicola Hancock


Community Fellow Jenny Norderyd worked with her mentor, Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright from the Institute of Open Adoption Studies to find ways to keep newborn babies placed with their siblings in out-of-home care – specifically through Barnardos’ Find-a-Family Program.

Research shows that adults who exited care after enjoying access and strong relationships with biological siblings reported higher levels of social support, self-esteem, income, and stronger adult sibling relationships. Co-placing children with siblings is particularly important. While research is limited, studies do suggest that co-placement can improve the stability of care and adoptive placements. It can also strengthen children’s sense of self and culture, improve children’s social functioning, mental health and educational outcomes.

Yet the importance of placing siblings together is not reflected in NSW legislation, and while Barnardos’ policies support co-placing siblings, often newborns cannot be placed with siblings. Jenny investigated the barriers that exist in both policy and practice and how these can be overcome to help children form bonds with their siblings.  

Project team: Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright and Community Fellow Jenny Norderyd, Find-A-Family Care Manager from Barnardos Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language programs across the continent often operate in isolation, in under-resourced circumstances, and with languages that are at different stages in the revitalisation process. 

Community Fellow Carolyn Barker from First Languages Australia, mentored by Dr Susan Poetsch and Sue Goodwin from the School of Education and Social Work, investigated the history and recognition of the role of First Languages in Australia.

With support from the University of Sydney Informatics Hub, she created a remarkable public knowledge bank that captures key milestones in contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages advocacy, from the 1970s to the current day. It includes content from language centres, libraries, archives, linguists and more than 32 organisations around the country.

The online tool, Jarrak: Our languages journey was published to support both ongoing advocacy and effective progress for revival and maintenance of Indigenous languages. Jarrak includes a timeline and searchable database, with links to documentary and audio-visual evidence of achievements made in four areas: policy, education, language centres and resources. It caught the attention of ABC TV program, Play School, which subsequently filmed segments on Indigenous languages.

A full-day conference is being planned to coincide with the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Australia has a low rate of adoption from care compared to similar nations. In New South Wales concerns about growing numbers of children in foster care and length of stay has led to a policy shift toward open adoption from foster care. But there is little evidence that exists in the Australian context to guide the direction and implementation of the policy, and this can pose a risk to the program’s success.

This project takes the first step in shifting the policy conversation from measuring costs and outputs of services and programs to measuring the outcomes achieved for children’s wellbeing. The research team will establish the groundwork for an analysis of social investment in permanency pathways for children in out-of-home-care in NSW, including restoration, guardianship, open adoption and long-term foster care. Initial data and evidence will form the basis of a larger research project.

Partners on this project include the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, the NSW Department of Education and Barnardos Australia.

Project team: Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright, Associate Professor Stefanie Schurer, Professor Colm Harmon, Professor Judy Cashmore, Dr Qingsheng Zhou, Professor Deborah Cobb-Clarke


Eliza Ginnivan, a Senior Policy Officer in Justice Strategy and Policy at the NSW Department of Justice, is passionate about using the justice system to strengthen rights and combat systemic disadvantage. Under the mentorship of Professor Peter Cashman from the Sydney Law School, Eliza’s Community Fellowship allowed her to explore the design and implementation of online dispute resolution (ODR) mechanisms in NSW courts. Her aim is to reduce barriers to justice, make processes fairer and improve the experience of going to court.

In early June 2018 the NSW Attorney General and Treasurer announced that the ODR scheme at the heart of Eliza’s fellowship would be piloted as part of the NSW Civil Justice Strategy. The pilot will turn LawAccess, the government’s online legal portal, into an interactive guide providing self-help tools that allow users to resolve common disputes. It is hoped this guide will ease pressure on courts, and save people time, money and stress.

Health services, workplaces and insurance programs increasingly offer tailored health promotions and services via mobile smartphone apps, sometimes even as an accessible and cost-effective alternative or adjunct to face-to-face care.

The market for these apps, however, is largely unregulated. There is little or no oversight of consumer protection concerns – few health apps offer privacy assurances and many frequently share consumer data with third parties, with no way for consumers to know what data is collected or how it is shared.

With a multidisciplinary research team from health, data science and engineering, Dr Quinn Grundy has analysed the flow of consumer data between popular health apps and third parties. In partnership with the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Australian Digital Health Agency, the team identified how apps are sharing consumer data, whether this sharing is secure, and what third parties might be doing with this data.

This work will inform consumer advocacy and the development of standards for apps integrating with MyHealthRecord, the national electronic health record.

Project team: Dr Quinn Grundy, Dr Ralph Holz, Dr Fabian Held, Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli, Professor Judy Kay, Professor Lisa Bero

In 2009 the economic cost of domestic violence was estimated at $13.6 billion. The social costs are evident through death, physical and psychological health tolls, housing issues and impacts on children. The Third National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (2016-19) is the federal government’s central policy response, but it has so far failed to decrease the incidence of domestic violence.

The research team partnered with key frontline actors advocating for and working with victims of domestic violence in three states; No to Violence (Victoria), Women’s Electoral Lobby (NSW) and Stopping Family Violence (WA).

Drawing on the views and experiences of more than 45 frontline workers of domestic violence services across three states, the study produced insights that were crucial to developing more nuanced approaches to both developing and implementing a national policy response. Its findings improve the Australian Government’s ability to address domestic and family violence as a widespread, harmful and costly social problem.

Project team: Associate Professor Ruth Phillips, Dr Susan Heward-Belle, Associate Professor Susan Goodwin

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