The Govt Relationship Isn’t Working -Time for NFP Feedback
16 June 2015 at 12:07 pm
It’s time for an independent feedback capacity where charity and Not for Profit organisations can raise their concerns about Government processes in confidence, writes David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia.
When Productivity Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald reviewed the Not for Profit sector’s productivity in 2010 he noted that one of the most significant findings was the large discrepancy between how senior government officials and Not for Profit sector viewed their relationship with one another. A majority of government officials saw the relationship as positive. A majority of the Not for Profit sector saw the relationship as negative.
Even a cursory review of literature about relationships that have a power imbalance reveals those in a position of power often feel as though they are doing the right thing for the less powerful, while the less powerful do not always share that perception.
There is a long history of senior government officials patronising the knowledge, skills and value of the charities and Not for Profit sector. Unfortunately this history continually repeats. While many public servants work hard to ensure they have constructive and informed relationships, even the highest levels of the bureaucracy can be woefully out of touch.
Comments by Mr Bowles, Secretary of the Health Department, during the recent Senate Estimates goes to show just how dismissive the most senior health official in the country is about the impact their decisions have on many Not for Profits trying to provide effective community based services in for people with complex problems like mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction.
Senator DI NATALE: And we have a lot of organisations that cannot hold their staff at the moment whose programs are in limbo because you are working through these issues.
Mr Bowles: They should talk to us, because I do not believe that to be true. We have extended for six and 12 months and we have deliberately done that because a number of them did come to us about difficulties around their staffing. If there are more groups out there that are having difficulty with their staffing, they should talk to us.
Senator DI NATALE: How do you put a recruitment exercise out for somebody to fulfil a particular program for six months? You are recruiting a position for six months.
Mr Bowles: I do it all the time.
Senator DI NATALE: You recruit—
Mr Bowles: We recruit for short-term issues all of the time.
Senator DI NATALE: You have an ongoing program that is supposed to be—
Mr Bowles: I have a lot of non-ongoing staff in my organisation.
Senator DI NATALE: These are programs that are ongoing and have no certainty around their funding. They have no idea about whether they should be recruiting staff and we have no clarity about whether or not these programs will continue.
Mr Bowles: The groups concerned have been talking to the department over many months. They continue to talk to the department and, where there have been specific concerns about whether they can or cannot employ staff, we have been talking to them.
Reading this statement may make you think everything is fine with all charities and Not for Profits working with the Health Department. Apparently organisations that have concerns are raising their issues, they are being listened to and their issues are being addressed. This is far from the experience we’re hearing on the ground when talking with organisations.
A number of community based health organisations that CCA has been meeting with are really struggling with the uncertainty created by short term extensions that limit their capacity to enter into any forward planning; to recruit, train and retain staff; lease offices or equipment; invest in their organisation; or most importantly, seek to improve the services they offer the community. Apparently, at least for Health Department officials, this is not an issue – they hire temporary staff all the time so it is not an issue for community based service providers!
Similarly at the Department of Social Services (DSS) where the recent grants process was so mismanaged that it resulted in three separate extensions of contracted program funding for over one thousand community based organisations. Each extension occurred two months before the expiry of existing contracts – the first extension for six months, the second for two months and the third for two months.
A further one thousand plus organisations managed to meet the five week time line and apply for DSS funding. They were expecting to know the fate of their application within three months, but with the continual delay in decision making, it took almost three times as long to have an outcome.
Obviously this rolling uncertainty created problems for many of these organisations and the communities they serve. Again this was considered by senior government officials and largely dismissed.
This is an extract from the Senate Inquiry into the DSS grants process a couple of months ago:
Dr Reddell (Senior DSS official): We have also had an open process in terms of people providing issues or complaints to the department through our grants inbox as well as contacting our grant agreement managers with particular issues or complaints.
While we have received no formal complaints through the official channels, we have had 30 contacts made through the inbox, or through grant agreement managers, about people being offered less funding than what they applied for, and we have received 27 emails where applicants had received notification that their application was unsuccessful, and were dissatisfied with the outcome. So we are very open to receiving feedback.
Ms Bennett (Senior DSS official): If I can just summarise that evidence, of the 2,600-plus organisations that applied, 450 have requested feedback, which is in the process of being finalised within the next few days, and 30 sent us an email about being dissatisfied with the outcome….
So despite what most acknowledge as a somewhat difficult and challenging grant process for all involved, DSS told the Senate there were no complaints from the 2600 organisations involved, except for a very small minority unhappy that they didn’t get the funding they wanted.
You do not have to think too hard to identify why charities and Not for Profits seeking funding from Government might not complain about how they have been treated. Not many leaders in the charities and Not for Profit sector are prepared to risk future funding by complaining about how their organisation has been treated. Governments are not beyond choosing to fund organisations or appoint people they know to be supportive to decision making roles while dismissing those who have been critical.
For over three years, CCA has been arguing there needs to be an independent feedback capacity where charity and Not for Profit organisations can raise their concerns about government processes in confidence. Where these concerns are found to be both legitimate and shared across a number of organisations, the information should be de-identified and the raised directly with the Department or Minister concerned. This kind of closed feedback loop is a valuable process to improve relationships and provide those with less power an opportunity to have issues identified and addressed.
Given recent experiences across the charities and Not for Profit sector, CCA believes it is now time to initiate this feedback loop.
As an independent national peak body for Not for Profit sector, CCA is inviting any charity or Not for Profit with a concern about the process or the way they have been treated in their dealings with Government to lodge their experience with CCA. We are also keen to hear about particularly positive dealings with Government so we can provide positive examples as a way of providing additional guidance and support for change.
CCA will then be in contact about your issue and any potential follow-up. It is important to note that CCA will not pursue individual issues in order to maintain confidentiality, but where a number of organisations raise the same or similar concerns, CCA will aggregate the issues and present a case for addressing the concerns to relevant Departments and Ministers.
For too long, the charities and Not for Profit sector has been silent in the face of inappropriate treatment. We have also failed to reward or acknowledge best practice.
This is an important way to strengthen the collective voice of the charities and not-for-profit sector.
We can drive change in the relationship between Governments and the charities and Not for Profit sector. We need to own our issues just as we need to own our future in building the Australia we want.
All issues can be raised by sending an email directly to the closed and confidential account: firstname.lastname@example.org.