Understanding the dynamics of obesity prevention policy decision-making using a systems perspective: A case study of Healthy Together Victoria

Brydie Clarke, Janelle Kwon, Boyd Swinburn, Gary Sacks
PloS One 2021, 16 (1): e0245535

INTRODUCTION: Despite global recommendations for governments to implement a comprehensive suite of policies to address obesity, policy adoption has been deficient globally. This paper utilised political science theory and systems thinking methods to examine the dynamics underlying decisions regarding obesity prevention policy adoption within the context of the Australian state government initiative, Healthy Together Victoria (HTV) (2011-2016). The aim was to understand key influences on policy processes, and to identify potential opportunities to increase the adoption of recommended policies.

METHODS: Data describing government processes in relation to the adoption of six policy interventions considered as part of HTV were collected using interviews (n = 57), document analyses (n = 568) and field note observations. The data were analysed using multiple political science theories. A systematic method was then used to develop a Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) for each policy intervention. A simplified meta-CLD was generated from synthesis of common elements across each of the six policy interventions.

RESULTS: The dynamics of policy change could be explained using a series of feedback loops. Five interconnected balancing loops served to reduce the propensity for policy change. These pertained to an organisational norm of risk aversion, and the complexity resulting from a whole-of-government policy approach and in-depth stakeholder consultation. However, seven virtuous reinforcing loops helped overcome policy resistance through policy actor capabilities that were improved over time as policy actors gained experience in advocating for change.

CONCLUSION: Policy processes for obesity prevention are complex and resistant to change. In order to increase adoption of recommended policies, several capabilities of policy actors, including policy skills, political astuteness, negotiation skills and consensus building, should be fostered and strengthened. Strategies to facilitate effective and broad-based consultation, both across and external to government, need to be implemented in ways that do not result in substantial delays in the policy process.

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