Updates

Blog: How to embed a culture of human rights

The Human Rights Act QLD (2019) creates a new obligation on all Queensland public entities to act compatibly with human rights and to give proper consideration to the 23 human rights outlined in the legislation when making decisions.

As we embark on our journey to embed human rights in housing and homeless service delivery, we must be clear about what a human rights culture is, and what is required to spark and sustain that culture within our own organisations.

The housing and homelessness service sector across Queensland is large and complex, with great diversity in service delivery models across our vast state. Each geographic region has its own place-based drivers for housing demand, with each different service providers applying distinct approaches to supporting individuals and families to find and sustain housing in the context of their clients’ particular needs. It is tempting to see difference and diversity as common features of our sector, rather than a unifyingbut as the experience of other states shows us, it is possible to create a unifying ‘culture of human rights.’ across organisations.

Fortunately, the experience of other Australian states in their Victoria and ACT’s human rights journey teaches us that although there is no one-sized-fits-all approach, there are three key ingredients to developing a good human rights culture. Let’s explore what these are and reflect on what we can do to bring them to life within our own organisations.

Ingredient 1 – Senior leadership and vision 

It may seem obvious, but the first step along the journey is for leaders to expressly acknowledge that cultural change is in fact needed. It is then important and necessary for leaders to be committed to driving the evolution of a human rights culture; it should not be left to frontline or operational staff to champion human rights within an organisation.

If you are in a senior leadership position, consider whether you have made a publicly commitment to human rights to your staff and to the people who access your services? Are human rights woven into your organisation’s strategic vision and values? Is there a specific plan to put that vision into action? Leaders who demonstrate their commitment to human rights will create the conditions to enable broader cultural change across the organisation.

Ingredient 2 – Operational capacity 

Day-to-day operational activities are the second key ingredient for creating and sustaining a human rights culture. This work is guided by plans, policies and procedures, supervisor and team behaviours, recruitment and promotion, and knowledge and capacity of staff.

Supervisor and team behaviours are extremely influential in supporting cultural change. Managers should use the language of human rights, be prepared to reinforce rights-based policies and procedures and call out workplace behaviours that undermine or overlook human rights. This should not be bureaucratic, but values-driven and connect to underlying human rights principles.

Also important here is continuous human rights training for staff, specifically in the context of housing and homelessness. Managers should actively support staff to attend human rights training, ideally as part of their initial recruitment and followed up by ongoing enhancement training. Training need not be costly as organisations can take advantage of a growing number of free and on-demand human rights resources currently being developed by this project. The Queensland Human Rights Commission also has a growing library of quality learning resources available.

In terms of recruitment and promotion, organisations should consider whether position descriptions have human rights-related capabilities expressly written into them. Is there a way to reward staff, either through promotion or other forms of recognition, for their knowledge and application of human rights in service delivery and their support of a human rights culture?

Ingredient 3 – External input and oversight

The final key ingredient for growing a human rights culture includes external factors such as community attitudes and expectations, and external accountability and oversight. Improved human rights understanding by service users can help ensure that people will raise concerns when poor decisions are made. It is important to consider whether your organisation has a robust, accessible complaints process and whether complaints are viewed by management as an opportunity for continuous improvement in human rights-based decision making. It is also worth reflecting on the voice of service users in service design – is there an opportunity for the individuals and families that you support to have a say in how services ought to be designed and delivered? This may not be realistic for all housing and homelessness service providers, but it is indicative of a human rights culture.

So, how do we know if we have embedded a culture of human rights? 

Cultural change does not happen overnight. It is a long-term commitment that can yield many workplace benefits. Research shows that human rights cultures within workplaces make for happier staff, lower staff turnover, increased satisfaction among service users and an atmosphere of mutual respect between staff and service users.

When human rights are immediately and seamlessly considered in your organisation’s decision-making, this strongly suggests that you are well on your way to embedding a human rights culture. Over time, a narrow focus on compliance will recede in importance and will be supplanted by values-driven action, and daily interactions with service users that are always respectful of human rights. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the late Sergio Vieirade Mello expressed this transformation well when he said:

“The culture of human rights derives its greatest strength from the informed expectations of each individual… understanding, respect and expectation of human rights by each individual person is what gives human rights its daily texture, its day-to-day resilience.”

This blog is based on findings of the report, ‘From Commitment to Culture: The 2015 Review of the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006’ by Michael Brett Young, and the research article by Jem Stevens, ‘Changing Cultures in Closed Environments: What Works?’ (2014) 31 Law in Context: Human Rights in Closed Environments 228.