The Penumbra Effect


penumbra-effectThe Penumbra Effect – Family-centred Public Policy

The penumbra diagram shows that almost every area of public policy impacts on the family whether intentionally or otherwise. The strength and effectiveness of family relationships can be influenced by a wide range of policy areas including education, health and social care, housing, employment, criminal justice, finance and debt, and tax and welfare payments. 

Many governments have abandoned intentional policy from a family perspective despite its critical importance to children, the elderly and the vulnerable. We believe this trend can and must be reversed. 

While stronger family relationships cannot simply be legislated into existence, and wellbeing cannot be required by law or delivered by government, it is time that we recognise both family relationships and wellbeing can be influenced by public policy and, by extension, can also be shaped by government-sanctioned programmes and legislation. In this regard, policy must create an environment that promotes and sustains strong family relationships rather than undermining them. This requires a break from the historic trend of adopting a noninterventionist family policy regime.

This represents a departure from the traditional piecemeal, or fragmented, approach of policy to family relationships. Instead, it implies the need for the policy agenda as a whole to be intentional and integrated with respect to its impact on family relationships, guarding as much as possible against unintended and undesirable consequences. Although individual policies may each only have relatively small effects on families, their cumulative effect can be significant.

The arrows of influence in the penumbra diagram above work in both directions. Policy must ensure that families are capable of sustaining policy outcomes. A family-centred policy agenda must therefore be clear about how family relationships influence the outer circle of policy goals, and how policy in each of these areas might influence family relationships and their capacity to contribute to these goals. This can be assessed in terms of positive contributions as well as the costs and consequences of weak family relationships.

penumbra-effectThe Relationships Foundation report The Penumbra Effect: Family-centred Public policy was commissioned by the Office of International Diplomacy.