Advocating for Defence families

Lessons learned as the inaugural Defence Family Advocate

An opinion piece by Sandi Laaksonen-Sherrin, Defence Family Advocate of Australia

It has been a great honour and responsibility to be the first Defence Family Advocate of Australia, and the to lead the Defence Families of Australia (DFA) team since 2021. In August 2023, I will be stepping out of this role to welcome my family’s second child.

While reform has been transformative at DFA over recent years, the future, fit-for-purpose governance and structure are still to be finalised through Defence and Government.

Until that time there are no leave or maternity provisions for DFA appointees, so it is more clean and considerate of all parties for me to step out at this time and allow a fresh set of eyes (and vocal cords) to lead DFA.

As we close out this chapter and I look to hand the reins to the next Defence Family Advocate, the DFA team and I have reflected on some key learnings of the past two years. We hope these insights will help potential candidates for the role to better understand the job, and set them up for success.

Sandi Laaksonen-Sherrin with Defence Chief of Personnel Lieutenant General Natasha Fox and Veteran Family Advocate Gwen Cherne at the launch of Legacy Week in 2022.

1. DFA are a unique resource for Government, Defence and the Defence community. We have demonstrated great examples of how we can deliver value for all parties to support over 84,000 Defence families. It is up to DFA to ensure these parties are well informed about what DFA do and can do for them, and for these parties to demand it.

2. A collaborative, consultative approach leads to sustainable change. We have found it is essential to advocate for change without having to be anti-establishment or combative. There can often be productive tension with stakeholders in Defence to drive advocacy goals, but this can be achieved respectfully for all parties.

3. Social impact is a never-ending workload. It is important to track milestones and wins along the way to recognise the change you have contributing to. The DFA team use a simple, dynamic tool to track advocacy goals, our Advocacy Map.

Sandi Laaksonen-Sherrin with Veterans and Families Hub Wodonga Centre Coordinator Sarah Charlton.

4. Identify the blockers and their drivers. Sometimes one or two individuals are all that stand in the way of significant positive change. For example, in the Department of Defence there are many bands of middle management, both Officers and Other Ranks (ORs), who can be a stalling point for approving and implementing change. Spend time to understand and support relevant stakeholders to address their concerns. Throughout the advocacy process, record-keeping is essential.

5. There are pockets of brilliance and there are blackholes for family inclusion and consideration in Defence. There are many people working hard in Defence to drive positive support and improvement for families. Others may be highly resistant to change. Consider the drivers of why in these instances, and take care not to paint the whole Defence entity with generalisations. Leverage the great examples to drive wider adoption of positive change.

6. Some people do not want your advocacy to succeed. In rare instances where this happens, it may be because they think it will make their job easier in the short term to not have the work stemming from advocacy achievements. For others, it may be because they don’t feel it suits their business or personal interests for you to be successful. The Defence support sector is broad and takes all types of people and perspectives. You will not always please everyone, but DFA’s clear mission, vision and values help to keep focus. For more information, download the DFA Strategic Plan 2022-2024.

Sandi Laaksonen-Sherrin and former DFA National Delegate for ACT and Southern NSW Victoria Dixon laying a wreath and bear at the Australian War Memorial to acknowledge the sacrifices of the families of current serving ADF members.

7. DFA appointees have felt almost every curve ball that military life can throw at families, as we have strong links to the community ourselves. Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are very real in this environment. DFA are proud to have established clear training, debrief models, and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) access as of November 2022 to help support appointees.

8. Working smarter is of paramount importance. Burnout culture is frequent in social impact sectors. Combat burnout culture with effective work practices and clear work boundaries. Often this involves collaboration, giving or sharing ownership or kudos. DFA has also developed tools to connect the DFA team’s efforts, and to leverage 10,000+ engagements with stakeholders per year to draw insights and indicators of the scale or nature of a family related issue.

9. Communication is critical both internally and externally. DFA have enhanced their communications platforms and approach to ensure we provide clear, concise and consistent messaging for families and other stakeholders. We are also growing the number and accessibility of avenues to contact us and provide feedback. For more information, read the DFA thought paper The Dual Deficit for Defence Family Engagement.

10. You cannot do it without your team! Despite being a remote team, the DFA team are a cohesive unit. Recognise them, support them, listen to them and take their advice. Synergise your efforts for a much greater social impact.

The DFA team and other stakeholders with Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans’ Affairs Matt Thistlethwaite and Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs Matt Keogh at the Prime Minister’s National Veterans’ Employment Awards 2022.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Defence Family Advocate role or to apply for the position, please ensure you sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page and follow DFA on social media. We’re on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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