Dismissing the Un-dismissible
Thursday, 23rd April 2015 at 11:05 am
A natural tendency to be supportive of DSS officials engaged in Australia’s difficult welfare funding challenge was completely undermined by their arrogant presentation to the Senate Inquiry this week in which some officials displayed a complete lack of insight or concern about their impact on communities and organisations, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia.
I spent most of Tuesday this week listening to and giving evidence at the Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry into the way the Department of Social Services (DSS) has run the recent grant rounds for community services. It was a sobering experience.
There are clearly two issues involved in this Inquiry. The first is the impact of cuts on community services. No-one believes in historical funding – once you have government funding you should not automatically keep it forever. The community sector also knows that at times reductions and rationalisations of government program funding is inevitable.
Still, I found the very real stories about the impact of cuts to valued services working with marginalised groups were hard to listen to. What will happen to those people who have lost access to specialist support – the short answer is we do not know.
While the need for Governments to seek efficiencies is widely supported by the community, there is still an expectation that decisions about where to cut funding and how to improve efficiency and effectiveness will be based on good evidence. Most people also agree that one of the desirable goals in reducing government expenditure is to minimise any negative consequences for the most vulnerable in our communities.
This leads into the second main issue being addressed by the Senate Inquiry, the question of process. Even assuming cuts were to be made, did we get the process right in the way DSS administered the new grants?
It is important to note that most people making submissions and attending the hearings felt a level of sympathy for the DSS officials who had been given an almost impossible task. It would challenge any of us to be able to oversee the broad-banding of 18 discreet programs into a new set of 7 grant programs, while imposing cuts of around $270 million, and sorting through 5,500 applications seeking $4 billion in funding when less than $1 billion was available.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency to be supportive of DSS officials engaged in this difficult challenge was completely undermined by their arrogant presentation to the Senate Inquiry in which some officials displayed a complete lack of insight or concern about the impact of their behaviour on communities and organisations across Australia.
What has clearly emerged in the Senate Inquiry is that the process DSS set up to manage the grants was entirely self-informed and self-serving. DSS determined the scope and nature of the new grant programs, the areas of need, what services could or should be run, what services would or would not work within specific communities and how much funding organisations should be allocated to provide the services DSS wanted provided in that location.
The process for making these decisions was developed and imposed by DSS, and all decisions were made by DSS staff. The only external expertise called upon was the Australian Bureau of Statistics to provide some statistical information about various areas, and a probity contractor to ensure the process did not advantage one community group over another.
The time lines set by DSS allowed only five weeks for applications to be made, but more than five months for DSS to make their decisions about which applications were successful. It is anticipated the grant program will finally be concluded with contracts signed and feedback provided by mid-May, almost 10 months since applications closed. Along the way several deadlines set by DSS for themselves to announce who would continue to receive funding and who would have their funding cut were missed by DSS, and last minute extensions of funding by six months, then two months, then another two months were provided to many organisations awaiting the outcome of the grants process.
What is really disappointing is that after years of reviews and discussions about how Government programs need to be more outcome focused and based on achieving policy goals, at no stage did DSS go to the communities themselves and ask what services need to be provided. No feedback was sought about services currently provided, and no community representative was involved at any level of any decision making process.
This lack of engagement of the consumers of the services DSS are meant to be administering is unbelievable. The last funding round I was responsible for administering in mental health was about strengthening community based mental health organisations. The first people chosen to participate in the decision making forums, including the final funding decisions, were representatives of the community the services existed to serve – mental health consumers and mental health carers. To run a grant program for mental health services without involving consumers and carers would be seen as arrogant, dismissive and completely unacceptable.
Even if DSS did not see community representatives as having any useful knowledge about their communities or their needs, there was still an expectation that some systemic consultation with existing service providers might have been undertaken in determining what programs and services might or might not work in specified areas of need. Apparently not.
DSS told the Senate Inquiry they needed to test the market as many community service providers had been operating unchallenged over many years.
The whole concept of testing a market usually assumes you already know what products and services you want to procure. In community services, the first testing of any market should be talking to the community and consumers of services about what is currently working and what is not. The second step should be to talk to the providers of services about the limitations or strengths of the current market practices. Armed with this information, you might initiate a consultation about better ways to provide the priority services. This might involve new collaborations or new delivery models.
Threatening to withdraw funding from all the current providers, making them all reapply for funding within a five week period, building competition between providers and undermining collaboration, missing your own deadlines for decisions about future funding time and again, and providing multiple short term extensions of service contracts is not testing the market, it is destroying it.
DSS also told the Senate Inquiry they had only received 30 or so complaints, implying that complaints were minimal and came mostly from people who missed out on funding. Only the most isolated senior government official could believe that the level of complaints received to them about them indicates anything other than how many people are naive or brave enough to believe that complaining to the people that designed, implemented and are now reviewing their own programs will achieve anything other than a black mark against your name for future funding.
The Community Council for Australia submission to the Senate Inquiry makes ten very clear recommendations for future tendering processes. Three of these recommendations come from the Productivity Commission report into the productivity of the Not for Profit sector. One of these recommendations is for a closed feedback loop where community organisations can raise their concerns in a protected way and Department officials can respond through an intermediary. All the recommendations are about developing community and sector partnerships to better achieve Government policy goals.
Many Governments around Australia now recognise the benefits of establishing and maintaining a meaningful partnership between government officials and the community sector.
Most Governments also recognise the political risk of alienating such an important and influential sector.
At the very least, I would hope this Senate Inquiry process enables and empowers all officials in government Departments around Australia who understand what a partnership approach means.
The time for arrogant dismissal of community concerns has passed.
About the Author: David Crosbie is the Chief Executive Officer of the Community Council for Australia (CCA), and a member of the Advisory Board to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).