Social Capital and Public Policy: How social capital can inform public sector interventions to improve health and reduce inequalities

Fran Baum, Patricia Lamb

This research is funded primarily by the Australian Research Council Linkage Fund with contributions from each of the Industry Partners: Department of Health, Arts SA, City of Onkaparinga, and Department of Justice.

The project key aim was to develop a greater understanding of the concept of social capital and the way it has been and may best be used for policy to reduce economic and health inequalities. In particular, this project sought to understand the ways in which social capital can affect policy outcomes in Australia and to provide insights into how the principles of social capital can inform policy and practice. By closely examining existing initiatives (case studies that embraced social capital as their framework), the investigators sought to understand in more depth the strengths and challenges of these kinds of projects as well as their health related outcomes. The three case studies chosen for the project were: (1) Blair Athol Community Capacity Building Project (Department of Health), (2) The Parks Helix project (Arts SA), (3) Yangara Reserve Redevelopment and Community Capacity Building Project (City of Onkaparinga).

The findings will be summarised in a handbook for practitioners and policy makers. This document will also provide a review of existing evidence and theoretical framework and a range of practical tools and references.

As of December 2007, the handbook is in the latest stages of development. As a result of a close collaboration with partners involved (both on the ground and from policy sectors), the research team decided to split the handbook into two separate documents, one designed to assist these involved in work on the ground, and other to assist policy makers.

The first one, titled Practical Social Capital: a Guide to Creating Health and Wellbeing, has been designed to assist organisations to apply a social capital approach in practice. The Guide has been written for government and non-government organizations involved with local communities who wish to design and deliver programs that will assist in creating health and wellbeing and reducing inequities.

This publication is planned to be released in about August 2008 and will include:

  • a description of the case studies, including lessons and challenges, followed by recommendations for future practice
  • an overview and rationale for employing a social capital approach in community building work, including evidence for social capital and its effectiveness in building health equity
  • tools to make the agency ‘social capital’ savvy, to measure change and social capital
  • steps towards straightforward evaluation and planning
  • a list of free resources available on line.

The second ‘policy’ publication will be written and released later in the year and will provide concise information for policy makers on evidence linking social capital and health, as well as factors important for successful community projects. The researchers hope to demonstrate that a social capital approach makes economic sense as it assists in building long term health results for communities.