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The NDIS National Workforce Plan – We need a broader understanding of workplace innovation

29 July 2021 at 7:30 am
The new workforce plan emphasises the importance of innovation. But is the government’s conception of innovation ambitious enough in the workforce context, and will its recommended strategies deliver on this goal, asks Dr Caroline Alcorso.

Contributor | 29 July 2021 at 7:30 am


The NDIS National Workforce Plan – We need a broader understanding of workplace innovation
29 July 2021 at 7:30 am

The new workforce plan emphasises the importance of innovation. But is the government’s conception of innovation ambitious enough in the workforce context, and will its recommended strategies deliver on this goal, asks Dr Caroline Alcorso.

For eight years, since the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the disability sector has been invited to innovate. A general principle of the 2013 legislation was: “Innovation, quality, continuous improvement, contemporary best practice and effectiveness in the provision of supports to people with disability are to be promoted.” In the years that followed, many disability service providers have indeed changed their services and service models. 

NDIS-related plans and frameworks continue to emphasise the need for innovation. A goal of the new NDIS National Workforce Plan 2021-2025 is to “Support sector efficiency and innovation”. But is the government’s conception of innovation sufficiently ambitious in the workforce context? And will the strategies it recommends deliver on this important goal?

Possible answers lie within the new workforce plan’s priority three which addresses innovation. 

Measures include:

  • improving alignment of provider and worker regulation and reducing red tape;
  • more use of technology, especially telehealth;
  • better information about market opportunities;
  • encouraging more human services organisations to enter the scheme; and
  • improving NDIS pricing, including to support workforce development. 

The first of these would possibly allow services to spend more on investment and innovation and encourage organisations to work across aged and disability services. If the government is planning to harmonise aged care and disability regulation, despite its investment in establishing the estimated $90 million/year NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission in 2018, this would be a major reform. More use of telehealth could boost productivity, but we are in the post-COVID world. At the height of the pandemic, nearly half of all mental health services were delivered by allied health workers via telehealth. Would an NDIS target be higher than this? 

Other strategies seem to duplicate what already exists or have been recommended before. The Boosting the Local Care Workforce program (costing $41.5 million to date) has run for three years with the aim of improving the operation and efficiency of labour markets by better matching supply and demand and providing local labour market knowledge to disability and aged care service providers and workers.

As for adjusting prices to cover the costs of training, in 2019 the Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS recommended that: “[the] NDIA better reflect in its pricing of supports the additional administration and professional development costs.” (Recommendation 16)

Hopefully the workforce plan’s repeat mention will be quickly followed by action to improve learning and development opportunities for the mainly part-time, low paid NDIS workforce. 

Other than adjusting regulation and the operation of the labour market, how else can we put in practice the NDIS’s invitation to innovate? Are there other forms of innovation that directly address work practices which government could help facilitate? 

One example is to foster new ways of working and new forms of work organisation. A few organisations across Australia are conducting experiments in this area. In different contexts and different ways, they are transferring elements of decision-making authority and control to their workforce. And they are doing it for one fundamental reason: to improve the customer experience. 

Indeed, contrary to the common assumption that customers’ and workers’ interests are opposed, these organisations are finding there is much mutual ground. Improving the customer experience is what motivates most workers, and along the way, makes their lives easier.

While loving the opportunity to work with people with a disability, workers find that bureaucratic aspects of some disability organisations significantly hinder strong and responsive customer relationships. These include, for example, slow decision-making processes, paperwork that reduces time with clients, rosters that isolate staff from one another, reliance on agency casuals who undermine client progress, not having their skills utilised, and not being able to make simple decisions. 

For workers, decentralising power is attractive for quite simple reasons. They want to give people the best possible person-centred supports and new opportunities to enrich their life. They want to be able to meet with colleagues so they can iron out problems or work together to innovate and bring people more joy. They want to be trusted to speak to family and carers, or allied health professionals, without having to gain a manager’s permission. Since they are closer to the customer, they want more freedom to make positive changes – in other words, to work in a way that lives up to the NDIS promise including more innovative services.

Some disability services managers also recognise that this is what flatter structures and more trust in the workforce can achieve. Along the way, systems and procedures may get streamlined, and skills built as well. Innovations happen. Many of the persistent problems that the new NDIS Workforce Plan documents are gradually addressed, such as the following two:

Expanding the workforce. The plan says some 214,000 workers will leave the disability sector in coming years while the sector needs to grow by nearly a third on top of this (an additional 83,000 people). Better ways to retain workers should therefore be at the top of the agenda. Disability organisations that adopt more self-organising approaches often find that (i) they become an employer of choice; (ii) their staff develop by taking up new opportunities within the organisation; and (iii) people become re-energised and engaged, thereby reducing staff turnover.

Improving quality and safety. The NDIS Workforce Capability Framework embodies the expectations – and aspirations – of what the NDIS could mean, in the best of worlds. Most workers would applaud the objectives it calls up in the voice of an NDIS participant, such as “Be present”, “Support me to pursue what’s important to me”, “Work with me to evaluate and act on what is working and what is not”. More autonomy can make this possible. They just want autonomy to act. 

Is it the government’s role to facilitate innovation in work practices? I would argue it is. The change process requires short-term investment even if in the long-run a more democratic work organisation has been proven to be more effective and efficient for most types of commercial and not-for-profit organisations.  

A carefully designed national innovation program which emphasises co-production and co-learning and which tracks both the customer and the workforce outcomes would be a valuable complement to the labour market and regulatory changes currently included in the plan.

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