People dance outdoors

Healthy Communities: Local Government Supporting Public Health

This is the first in a series of posts exploring how social science supports local governments in the provision of health policies and services.

Health is a broad term that includes the holistic wellbeing of individuals, inclusive of physical, mental and social dimensions. Social scientists focus on how culture, social networks, institutions and other social issues impact on the health, illness and life chances of different groups. Public health is the planning and management of social policies, programs, services and education that protect the health of  families, communities and broader society.

Social scientists work with local governments to ensure that their public health policies and programs meet legal, medical and social requirements. Social scientists provide research expertise and specialist consultation to address socio-economic and cultural issues that affect health and wellbeing. We work in three key areas:

  • Local health planning: ensuring policies and programs meet legislative requirements and current health and medical knowledge
  • Demographic assessments: measuring and addressing local needs of local councils, by analysing population trends and modelling changes over time
  • Social inclusion: evaluating and proactively supporting health access and participation of all local citizens, with a special focus on minorities, vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Let’s take a look at what public health involves and how social scientists assist the role of local councils in health monitoring, public health education and service provision.

What is Public Health?

Public health encompasses issues such as epidemiology, nutrition, family health, mental health, increasing workplace safety, sustainable planning, community development and other health issues such as public safety.

Population health planning involves various services, including:

  • Education: providing information and training for services providers;
  • Stakeholder relationships: liaising with referral services to assist young families;
  • Improving policies, programs & services: ensuring that at-risk and vulnerable populations understand and have access to social funding and specialist programs. This includes Indigenous people, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups, community members with disabilities, chronic illness, the elderly and other groups with special needs.

Mosaic of communities outdoors. Heading reads: How social science helps local government and public health

The Role of Local Councils

Local councils provide information on social and recreational programs that are culturally relevant, such as home care, recreation activities, meal and food assistance programs, transport, and other resources so that community members can fully participate in community organisations that will support their wellbeing and social connectedness.

Local councils also oversee other community development programs to support volunteerism and charitable activities, civic participation, anti-racism, corporate responsibility amongst local businesses, community grants to boost health and innovation, as well as various local events.

Social science enhances the health work of local councils through:

  • Research;
  • Evaluation;
  • Policy development; and
  • Program delivery.

Three key areas where social science input is required are: social planning, demographic assessments and addressing issues of social inclusion.

Four photos of people typing, listening to a talk, and doing tai chi. Text reads: social science for local health: research, evaluation, policy, programs

Local Health Planning

Local health planning includes the provision of cost-free or affordable educational classes, as well as support programs providing safe community spaces to gather, collaborate and learn. Social scientists draw on empirical and theoretical insights on health, drawing out practical applications for local councils.

For example, social scientists will study what the current best practices are according to leading experts, and determine how to tailor this information to suit local government programs.  What are the health trends in nearby councils, other states and overseas? How might these ideas “translate” to the local area? What needs to be changed to suit the local demographics? How might the local council implement these recommendations within their budget and time frame?

Social scientists answer these questions using valid and reliable methods, using established theories and concepts to make sense of data and population trends.  A social scientific perspective goes beyond the surface, to identify gaps in information, we shed light on short and long-term patterns of disease in light of the body of research already established, and we make recommendations that take into consideration social relations and institutional patterns (be they religious, educational, economic and so on).

People lying in the sun. Text: social scientists use valid and reliable methods

Demographic Assessments

Social scientists carry out demographic assessments  for local councils using rigorous research methods. This includes conducting population evaluations, community consultations and other health policy and planning to address diverse health issues. Topics of research might include:

  • Smoking, drugs and substance abuse;
  • Gender and equity issues affecting wellbeing;
  • Child services and family strengthening;
  • Early childhood and community work;
  • Redevelopment and city planning;
  • Provision of community grants;
  • Reduction of noise pollution;
  • Improvement of waste management; and
  • Support to advisory committees.

Social scientists will also implement and monitor community health action plans. This includes:

  • Emergency planning: for example, bush fire prevention programs;
  • Community resilience: this includes relief services for vulnerable groups. For example, planning and organisation of temporary housing in the event of a natural disaster;
  • Community safety: other property, animal or neighbourhood safety matters. For example, safety zones for children; education on crime prevention; working with youth on street art programs to support mental health.

A man and woman plant a small tree

Social Inclusion

Social scientists ensure that local policies, community programs and health services support the needs of everyone in the community. This is known as social inclusion, and it specifically involves reaching out to minority and special needs groups. In Melbourne, this includes:

  • Groups who speak languages other than English at home;
  • Families with young children;
  • Carers and families with elderly or disabled members; and
  • People in poor and working class neighbourhoods.

Social scientists work to establish trust between special-needs, minority and marginalised groups, to help them connect with local health providers. Social scientists also design specialised programs to inform vulnerable groups about their options for seeking culturally relevant information.

A woman waits by the side of the road waiting to cross. In the background people wait

How social science helps local government and public health

Social scientists focus on cultural, socio-economic and other social factors that affect illness and wellbeing. Social scientists support local governments in the provision of public health through research, evaluation, social policy and program administration. We provide health planning, population and demographic assessments and we ensure programs and services are inclusive of all community members. We deliver health outcomes through valid and reliable methods and established social theories to analyse health patterns.

In upcoming posts, I’ll provide a more in-depth look at how social science supports social inclusion, and how local health programs connect with national policies and global efforts to improve public health.

See the next post in the series: Work/Life Balance and Public Health.

Over to you: Do you have any questions about how social science supports public health? What health issues are of greatest concern to you in your local area?

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