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Adapting place-based initiatives to a hybrid world

27 July 2022

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The COVID-19 pandemic led to an acceleration in shifting service delivery online, which has transformed the way governments are working with communities. 

ANZSOG-commissioned research into the impact of this change on place-based services has shown that hybrid and physical place-based models can complement each other, and that governments need to encourage and build evidence for innovation into different ways to deliver services. 

The research project, commissioned and funded by ANZSOG in 2021 and co-sponsored by the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet (NSW DPC), aimed to identify the emerging considerations for government in designing and delivering hybrid (i.e. virtual and face-to-face) services and hybrid place-based initiatives (PBIs) – specifically those relating to social services. The research was undertaken by a team from the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW and led by Professor Ilan Katz. 

The final report How do place-based services evolve in a world of virtual, physical and hybrid service delivery? has now been published as part of ANZSOG’s Research Insights series and is freely available on our website. 

The objectives of the research were to: 

  • Examine the effect of virtual and hybrid modes of service delivery on stakeholder groups within government, industry and community, including service providers and their clients/customers. 
  • Identify features of place-based service delivery that promote community capability and wellbeing; economic development; collaborative governance; and help-seeking and service access amongst vulnerable populations. 
  • Identify the policy settings and resources that will support the ongoing transformation of place-based service delivery. 

While there is no clear agreed definition of a PBI, there is agreement that PBIs address both people and place in a specific location, often with a focus on integrating or joining up different services, and with elements of community co-design. 

COVID-19 expanded the range of services governments provided online, and as a result many are now being delivered in a hybrid form. The study found that the increasing use of online service components is coexisting with a greater focus on `place’ and locality. 

Given the inevitable growth of virtual and hybrid services, a recommendation in the Report concerns planning and design: future government initiatives need to consider up front how virtual services can be included  and integrated and interact with face-to-face components. 

The original assumption underlying the project was that there is a tension between PBIs and virtual services because, by definition, virtual services are not dependent on place and can be accessed anywhere. However, the findings showed that virtual components can be complementary to face-to-face services and programs, and hybrid services can not only substitute face-to-face services, but can improve service delivery and accessibility. 

The benefits of hybrid PBIs for service users include increasing access, flexibility, connection to other users and consumer choice. Virtual services can facilitate access to people previously excluded from services and provide new ways of engaging service users. The benefits for service providers include increasing reach, increasing efficiency, providing staff with greater flexibility, and providing staff with greater support remotely. Hybrid PBIs can also create new opportunities to connect service users and providers. 

Participants in this study recognised that clients must always be able to access a human being, be it virtually or face-to-face. 

Using evidence of what works to encourage innovation

Governments supported and enabled service providers to innovate and shift towards hybrid service delivery in the early response to the pandemic, but the response has largely been ad hoc.  

The research recommends that governments should continue to encourage innovation, supported by a robust evidence base which looks at what works, for whom, and under what conditions. 

A key challenge for government, therefore, is to find ways of maintaining innovation while at the same time learning from these developments about the essential aspects of successful implementation, governance and sustainability of hybrid services and initiatives, and using this knowledge to develop new services and PBIs. 

The approach used during the pandemic has the potential to be continued post-pandemic, offering flexibility to innovate and develop new practice. Rather than occur in isolation, government can facilitate knowledge sharing and translation by establishing and resourcing an innovation pipeline.  

The report states that considerations for commissioning services should therefore include: 

  • Enabling organisations to innovate and adapt services to the particular context of the initiative or service. This may be facilitated by: 
    • Focusing on outcomes (outcomes commissioning) rather than over-specifying the mode of service delivery or PBIs. 
    • Encouraging the consideration of hybrid services in tender requirements, requiring providers to articulate the rationale for doing so and how online and face-to-face services will be integrated.  
    • Including mechanisms to monitor and evaluate outcomes that encourage innovation while satisfying probity requirements. This will ensure that hybrid services meet their objectives and provide better value in terms of costs, outcomes and/or access than would otherwise have been the case 

The full report is available here as part of ANZSOG’s Research Insights series of publications.