Shortcutting policy: from concept to action for family-centred communities.

AuthorLuketina, Francis


This article describes a project that aims to ensure the needs of families are taken into account during policy and planning processes within local bodies. By this means, communities will become more family-centred. The project involves a partnership among the Families Commission, Local Government New Zealand and local bodies. Standard policy development approaches have been abandoned in favour of learning through doing. This involves local body representatives finding a way to bring a greater focus on the needs of families, which will be appropriate for their district. The solutions to this challenge might vary from district to district. The Families Commission and Local Government New Zealand are facilitating shared learning among the local body participants. The article also presents the results of a review of the literature on family-centred communities. The review set out to identify the key elements in these communities. It found that while there is a reasonable amount of material on child-friendly communities, healthy cities, safe cities, sustainable communities, and various other types of communities, there is very little specifically written from the point of view of families. Instead, the literature relevant to families is more focused on the planning process. The main finding of the literature review was that during planning, the priorities of families should be identified by engaging with families themselves, because each community is unique and will have different needs.


Shortly after the Families Commission was established in July 2004, it embarked on a large-scale consultation to find out what issues most concerned New Zealand families. By the time we had completed this exercise, almost 4,000 families had given us their views, either through submissions or through focus groups (Stevens et al. 2005, Seth-Purdie et al. 2006). Although families were most concerned with time pressures and financial matters, many of the issues they raised related to their communities; for example, housing, the local environment, transport, services, schools and crime. The Commission gave some thought to how it could assist families to have communities with the features they sought. In early 2007 the Commission began to plan a project that would adopt an innovative approach to community development. This project is now underway, and involves the Families Commission, in association with Local Government New Zealand, working with a number of local authorities to ensure the voices of families are heard and actioned during local government projects.

Councils are well placed to influence the development of family-centred communities and to enhance family wellbeing. They have a role in planning and helping to provide the services that families' everyday activities are dependent on. They also have a role in influencing the activities of other agencies. For example, councils undertake district-wide consultation with residents and organisations about the community outcomes people want. This is a statutory responsibility, against which councils are audited, and is generally a significant exercise for them. These desired outcomes guide council planning and inform government agencies and others about community needs.

Early in the project we decided to commission a literature review on family-centred communities, which we had hoped would give us a picture of what such a community would look like. What are the characteristics of a family-centred community? In the event we discovered that the literature points in a different direction: it suggests that providing a checklist of elements of a family-centred community is the wrong approach. Every community has unique needs, and these should be identified through consultation with families themselves. Accordingly, the literature is about the process of engaging with families, rather than giving a prescription of what should be found in a family-centred community.

This article presents a brief review of this literature. During our search for material on family-centred communities we came across an extensive literature on other models for communities, such as child-friendly and aged-friendly communities, communities for the disabled, sustainable communities, and safe communities, to name just a few, and these are covered briefly. Further information is also provided about the Families Commission and Local Authority New Zealand project.

This project involves direct action with local authorities to improve the focus on families when planning for any significant development, short-cutting the policy development process, hence the title of this article. There is, therefore, a brief discussion of the theoretical underpinnings for this approach.



Deciding what constitutes a family-centred community is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is the lack of a common understanding of the terms "family" and "community". Despite national policy statements and initiatives regarding "family strength", "family resilience" and "strong communities", the concepts remain highly abstract. The "family" in the Families Commission Act 2003 includes "a group of people related by marriage [or civil union], blood or adoption, an extended family, two or more persons living together as a family, and a whanau or other culturally recognised family group". On the basis of the definition in its Act, the Families Commission has adopted a broad and inclusive approach to families that considers the full range of families and their roles and functions (Families Commission 2006). The Commission also recognises that families might extend over a number of households.

This broad definition creates a complication for the concept of family-centred communities. Some families have all their members living in a single locality or neighbourhood, while others can have members spread across many neighbourhoods, districts or nations. Some families comprise people who have little or no interest in being in contact with children and may prefer child-free settings or, in some extreme cases, a child-free gated community, as Freeman (2006) identified in her critique of gated communities. Others want child-friendly settings. In practice, however, most of the literature ignores this complication and treats family as meaning adults with children.

Community and Neighbourhood

A neighbourhood can be defined as a small, localised area around the home (Forrest and Kearns 2001), whereas a community may be thought of as a network of people and organisations linked by various factors such as shared identity, culture and whakapapa, similar interests, or common places where they interact. This definition can encompass a wide variety of forms, including a virtual community (Blakeley 1995 and 1996, Bowles 1999, Loomis 2005, Richardson 1998, Royal Commission on Social Policy 1988)...

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