Turning big ideas about ageing into action

17 July 2015

Let’s face it – there’s no shortage of ‘big ideas’ in ageing and aged care. From age-friendly communities to plans that capitalise on our ageing workforce, we’ve seen a plethora of interesting proposals over the years. But how many of these great ideas are ever realised? Think tank Per Capita has established a ‘do tank’, the Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing, to turn promising proposals into functioning programs. Its executive director Emily Millane tells Darragh O’Keeffe how it will work.

It may be just months old, but Australia’s new Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing has a history colourful enough to match Canberra’s most established centres.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, Everald Compton refers to it as “the night of the long knives.”

On 8 November 2013, less than two months after it had been sworn in, the Abbott Government abolished 21 non-statutory bodies “where activities are no longer needed or can be managed within existing departmental resources.”

Among the bodies was the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, which was being chaired by Compton, a former head of National Seniors for 35 years. The panel, established under the former Labor Government, was some six months shy of submitting its blueprint on ageing, which would outline the legislative and policy changes needed over the next decades for Australia to truly capitalise on its ageing population.

Later that day, Compton appealed via an Australian Ageing Agenda online news story for any interested organisations to reach out and support the panel so it could complete its work. Progressive think tank Per Capita responded and by February 2014 announced it had entered into a partnership with the panel.

A campaign was launched to crowdfund the panel’s remaining community consultations, a key component of the blueprint’s development.

Fast forward to November, and the reformed panel releases its Blueprint for an Ageing Australia at the National Press Club, putting forward recommendations in a range of areas from housing and retirement to technology and workforce. Specifically, it calls for a government Minister for Ageing, reporting to the Prime Minister; a Seniors Enterprise Institute to facilitate entrepreneurialism and volunteering; mandating the study of gerontology in all undergraduate healthcare courses; increasing internet access for seniors; a national telehealth strategy; and design standards for an ageing population.

At the blueprint launch, Compton declares: “The hard work now begins.” He calls on politicians at federal, state and local government levels to work with the panel to realise the broad and bold proposals outlined in the blueprint. And so the seeds for the Centre for Applied Policy in Positive Ageing, or CAPPA, are sown. Per Capita establishes the centre as a “do tank within a think tank,” to progress a simple mandate: take these bold ideas, bring together the relevant government and sector stakeholders, and broker programs to implement them.

As the centre’s recently appointed executive director Emily Millane recounts it: “Everald’s approach was, let’s not write another paper that sits in an MP’s office gathering dust. Let’s actually take these ideas and get them implemented. This has really informed how we approach the new centre,” she tells AAA.

Hit the ground running

Having spent the past two years as lead researcher on Per Capita’s Longevity Project, in which she authored reports on issues ranging from age-friendly housing to employment for mature-age job seekers, Millane brings insight, and a healthy list of stakeholder contacts, to her role in the new centre. Millane came to Per Capita in April 2013 after a stint in a London think tank, where she discovered that kind of work could cross the government-academic divide. It was also a role where one could focus on solutions to big social issues, something she found lacking in commercial law, where she had trained and initially worked.

Speaking to Millane, her sense of enthusiasm and excitement about her new role is palpable.

At CAPPA, she will have access to some policy and research heavyweights as the centre will be guided by the Longevity Forum, an advisory body consisting of Kathryn Greiner, Neville Roach, Professor Elizabeth Ozanne and Abby Bloom, with Compton as its chair. Millane and her colleagues have wasted no time in going about their goal of turning innovative ideas into programs, having already started the kind of brokerage work it sees as critical in brining stakeholders together. For instance, in January Millane produced a research paper, The Head, The Heart & The House, in which she put forward recommendations for how government can respond to the “urgent issues” arising from the disconnect between national housing strategy and aged care policy.

Per Capita followed this up by hosting a roundtable discussion which heard from leading academics, service providers and other stakeholders. It is also currently hosting discussions between the Victorian Government, an industry super fund and a developer.

“Even if you get your head around all of the ins and outs of the different models put forward as solutions, at the end of the day the big issue seems to be getting the relevant parties around the table to make something happen,” says Millane. “I think a lot of the time think tanks spend our days researching, diagnosing problems, and every week there will be a new paper coming out that says that this percentage of Australians is affected in such a way by such a policy.” Instead, CAPPA was born out of the idea that a think tank could be doing more than producing research or policy papers, Millane says. “And, to be perfectly honest, you can’t just wait for governments to do things, because you could be waiting a long time,” she adds.

Initial projects underway

The centre has identified a number of “practical projects” it will work on during its first 12 months, says Millane.

The first, Wise Young, aims to nurture entrepreneurial partnerships between seniors and younger Australians, combining bright ideas with wisdom – and hopefully resources and capital. “Wise Young overcomes some of those stereotypes and tensions between the generations and shows there’s enormous power there,” says Millane. She describes it as facilitating “an exchange of expertise and capital between generations to get businesses up off the ground.” “Everald is leading that project and is working with a number of really impressive business people who [are currently] advising on how the entity will work; whether it be an online exchange, or a face-to-face program.

All those things are to be worked out, but still it is the program that most people have been coming to me to talk about.”

Another fledgling program, Sharing the Wealth, aims to further develop philanthropy among the middle-class. “If people in the middle-class can be encouraged to give throughout their life, then there’s enormous potential for nation building projects,” says Millane.

Elsewhere, Millane has been in discussions with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and Council on the Ageing to co-design a community-based project, Money for Jam, which aims to nurture and support small-scale business ventures among seniors, and older women in particular.

Millane says the projects could be small, typically not involving large amounts of money, but which might mean the different between someone being able to afford “a few little extra comforts” or not. “As one lady said, in this particular group that TACSI had interviewed, having her neighbourhood gardening business is the difference between able to afford jam to have on their toast each week or not. So we’re looking at the kind of initiatives people are doing and seeing how they can be encouraged and scaled up.”

Responding to positive solutions

When asked about the feedback to the new centre, from politicians and governments in particular, Millane says the response has been very positive, with Per Capita being “sought out” at both the federal and state government levels.

She attributes this encouraging response to the positive programs and solutions that CAPPA is progressing. “It’s about putting ideas on the table that, yes, cost money, but the potential I think politicians can see is that there’s a win here – if you are delivering tangible benefits for what is a growing proportion of the electorate. That is something they should be keenly aware of.”