Influencing social policy: insights from economics, psychology and biology

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

This event is being co-hosted by the Australian Social Policy Association and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

To quote the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin: "if you want to understand something, try to change it". Changing behaviour to improve wellbeing is central to social policy. Reflecting on my travels with social policy over the past 30 years, I am heartened by the many gains but despondent about the policy failures. We have been most successful when we have used traditional government levers such as legislation, regulation or financing to achieve policy outcomes. But we have often floundered when the policy levers have been aimed at persuading people to change their behaviour. The failures point to a failure of understanding.

During this period, economics has dominated the policy landscape. Social policy has achieved much on its coat-tails. But as a discipline to explain behaviour, traditional economics has limitations. Recently, we have seen the rise of behavioural economics in response to these limitations. In this address I will consider these developments. I will also look beyond to a broader range of disciplines — including social psychology and biology — for a better understanding of behaviour to improve the effectiveness of social policy.

BIOGRAPHY - Mary Ann O’Loughlin
Over a career spanning 30 years, Mary Ann has worked in social policy from many different vantage points. She is currently an Executive Director at KPMG in Policy, Programs and Evaluation. Previously, she was Executive Councillor and Head of the Secretariat of the COAG Reform Council. Between 2000 and 2008 Mary Ann was Director of the social policy practice at the Allen Consulting Group, an economics and public policy consulting firm. Before joining Allen Consulting, she had been Senior Adviser (Social Policy) to the former Prime Minister, the Hon Paul Keating MP; the head of Corporate Affairs at the largest publicly listed private health care company; and had held a number of senior executive positions in the Commonwealth Public Service, including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Department of Employment, Education and Training.

Mary Ann is a Director of CEDA and a National Fellow of IPPA. In 2013 she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to public administration, social policy and reform of federal financial relations.