A report released by the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) last week has confirmed what we have been suspecting for some time – that rapid and massive reform in parts of the ACT community sector is eroding the community capital and social infrastructure, burning out volunteers and leading to the closure of many valued community organisations in this city.
This report focused on the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which has been one of the most significant community service reforms for a generation. While this is the largest reform we have seen, it is just the latest in a long line of reform processes that have been implemented across the sector over the last decade. There are now a few sub-sectors that have been immune from the impacts of big reforms triggered by reduced funding levels, changing regulatory requirements, shifts in government policy or changes in priorities. We also know there is more to come – with big changes in areas including age care and human services being signaled by Government and recommended by bodies such as the Productivity Commission.
In the case of the NDIS, this reform was universally welcomed given its aim to improve services to people living with a disability, and to reorientate service delivery to ensure that individuals are at the center of decision making, and are in control of the process. The ACT signed up as one of the test sites which resulted in a significant transfer of ACT Government funds to the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and our city becoming the first jurisdiction to be fully operating in the scheme.
This report captures the experiences of both individuals and services through this first phase of implementation. Not surprisingly, things have not gone as smoothly as we might have hoped. People accessing services say that reform implementation is inconsistent with the stated objectives of the reforms, not human rights focused, complicated, less flexible and not timely so people’s needs are not being met well. People providing services say sustained pressure on, and years of uncertainty for not-for-profit organisations has seen many disappear, others shrink and still more ceasing their involvement in whole-of-system advocacy due to lack of capacity.
At a time where the population is growing and need is increasing, the risks associated with this significant transition have effectively been outsourced to the community sector, without sufficient funds to support it. This has resulted in little funding to respond to gaps as they emerge, or planning for how we are going to protect valuable community development and self-help services that have been established and grown by affected communities and community sector organisations over many decades.
This report highlights the growing fragility in the sector, particularly within the self-help and consumer groups that have grown out of a need to provide support and care to people at times of great challenges. These experiences demonstrate the importance of having a systemic approach to providing the social infrastructure we all value and rely on as individuals and families. It demonstrates that reform is not about having blind faith that ‘the market’ will sort things out, and that we need to be weary of a confidence that things ‘will work out once we get through the transition phase’.
Reform is needed and is important. Reform provides the opportunity for individual services to reflect on how they are meeting the need in the community and to honestly assess whether or not current arrangements are the best way to do this. Reform calls for flexibility and adaptability – at an individual, organisational and a systemic level. When moving through a reform process it is important to recognise where things have not gone quite as planned, and intervene when we are witnessing market failure or seeing valued parts of the service system disappearing.
This is not easy, particularly in the case of the NDIS. There are complexities and challenges in the situation that now presents itself – not least the reality that responsibility and funding for major elements of this work have been transferred over to the NDIA, and any additional support has to be found outside this funding envelope. This was something that the ACT Government needed to confront earlier this year – when it needed to step in and provide transitional funding for SHOUT after it failed to secure funds through the NDIA. While the ACT Government now has less control due to the role of the NDIA, it is Canberra citizens that are impacted when things go wrong, and services start to disappear.
Given the gaps that are emerging and the significant reform that is still likely to be rolled out in coming years, this is the time to act and put in place mechanisms that will enable us to respond to issues in a planned and systemic way. The key recommendation coming from ACTCOSS is a call to the ACT Government to invest funds to enable organisations and the service system to emerge from reform processes stronger, and more able to meet the needs of our city.
A copy of the ACTCOSS report, Stories of Transition, can be accessed here.
I think the ACT Government should respond to the call of ACTCOSS and establish a contingency fund to ensure the continued availability of core social infrastructure in our city as we go through reform processes. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is an independent consultant who works extensively in the ACT and national community and health sectors. She has a long-term association with the ACT Council of Social Service.