This month has seen the fruition of two extremely influential debates. The Productivity Commission Competition inquiry released its first stage of its report into the possibility of opening human services to competition; and the Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter launched the Priority Investment Approach.
These are issues that separately have the capacity to truly change the face of the support that individuals receive and the community sector; and that together could completely change Australian society
The Priority Investment Approach is an exciting opportunity to better understand the effects of various factors in people's lives and ameliorate the bad, and provide or amplify the good.
It offers us a great window into understanding the effects and outcomes of the interventions offered by our services. In time we will be able to view the database to help us design services that are even better tailored to meet the needs of vulnerable people.
The Priority Investment Approach is one part of the response to the McClure report into welfare reform that is possible now for the first time. Various voices have been critical of the groups chosen for the first funded action.
Some groups have felt they have missed out on the spotlight, others have worried about being in the limelight. But looking at small groups offers the perfect opportunity for innovation, imagination, individualised responses and invention in our services.
This is stuff we know Anglicare members are good at. The nominations we have every year in our awards, the examples we see as we move around the country, demonstrate that we all work hard in responding to the person in their circumstances, meeting people where they are, whilst holding the hope of a different future.
The government funding through the Try, Test and Learn fund to meet the needs of the identified groups will enable us to devise tailored responses to individuals in those situations.
However we need to question the tacit assumption that changes to and for the individual will give them complete agency to change their whole circumstances.
As we have noted in our media commentary around this issue, our excitement at the approach must be tempered with the acknowledgement that there is a wider economic story at play - that of not enough jobs, not enough housing and, whilst on government benefits, not enough income.
What has rather unhelpfully emerged over the last few days is a conversation about the adequacy of the Newstart benefit. Some months ago we seemed to have arrived at a community wide, and even an unspoken bi-partisan political agreement, that Newstart is inadequate. The question of how to address this inadequacy in a tight fiscal environment was where the major parties differed in position. We need to keep this truth held large if we are to ensure people have enough to live on whilst we seek to make the changes to society and individuals identified in the Priority Investment Approach.
The Productivity Commission’s report has identified a number of service areas that they believe would benefit from being opened to competition and contestability. The report draws a distinction between competition and contestability. In shorthand this could be explained as open to all (competition) and tenders or commissioning and grant activity (contestable). The areas identified include services to remote Indigenous communities, public dental services and grant based family and community services.
Many of us are now experiencing the changes that competition will bring to the area of disability services through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. As the NDIS has taken shape there have been a number of areas where concern has been raised by us and others about the scheme. This is absolutely natural; the level and depth of the changes that are being rolled out is astounding and getting it right will take evaluation and changes, consultation and tweaking before the final scheme is fully fit for purpose. We owe this to ourselves as a community and more importantly to the people that use disability services – it would be unreasonable to think that something like this could be perfect first time.
But concerns about the mechanics of the scheme are now being joined by concerns about the overall outcomes. What happens to the person, to their family and their community after all the individualised services have been rolled out.
It is becoming apparent that there are many services where purchasing the service makes sense, the low risk, low intimacy type services that are transaction based. There are also people who don’t need anything other than those transactional based services – people with strong social networks, jobs, etc who need little else other than those roles filling. But there are other services that people require that are high risk, complex and have a high degree of intimacy involved. We need to ensure that individualised funding and competitive markets look after vulnerable individuals and vulnerable markets (for example those in rural settings).
The Productivity Commission must hear this differentiation between transaction and transformational – a difference I have articulated here and elsewhere many times.
There also is still something for me in the “extra” that is laid down by localised community services. Organisations that provide more than services. Some years ago I gave a speech to the ACOSS conference where I talked about community sector being both the fabric and the seamstress:
“We are the fabric – we provide what people need - especially to those without access to the full benefits of micro civil society. Our direct services provide what society sees as the basics in terms of food, shelter, warmth, skills.
We are the seamstress. We seek to weave our clients into their own micro civil society – to move from providers of the fabric of the macro to enabling people to create, discover and develop their own networks, their own micro civil society. This is a level of change which is sustainable. Financially certainly, helping people to help themselves is a persuasive mantra. But also sustainable more importantly as transformational change. Change that occurs in relationship with others, change an individual can upkeep.
What concerns me with the individualised funding policies and the competition agenda is that as person centered care becomes individualised funding the very necessary role played by the seamstress is lost. Without the seamstress to take care of the fabric it becomes frayed, the money spent upon it is not well spent, and life itself and its purpose is cheapened.
The Priority Investment Approach and the competition agenda both point to individualised approaches – offering the individual interventions and choice. At first glance this looks marvelous – choice and agency over your circumstances and life is one of the centrepoints of our culture.
However there is something missing in these approaches – something that I believe lies at the heart of our societal and personal disquiet. We may have all the choices in the world about what cheese to have in our sandwich or which GP to use, but there are times when groups of individuals having choice isn’t enough. A person is more than the sum of their needs and wants, and a society is more than a group of individuals with satisfied needs and wants. Communities built on this “group of individuals” approach will find themselves without foundation when things go wrong; without practice at operating together in being a community; without resilience and the ability to strengthen each other.
It is an important time in social and economic policy – important that we get the implementation of these policies right. In order to do this we need to remember that human beings should not be mere economic servants, that there is more to us than a collection of items to be serviced. We need to acknowledge that it may take us some time to get the policies right, to take it outside of political point scoring and be prepared to admit we need to make changes. And we need to hold tight to the narrative of the changes needed in society for those most vulnerable to flourish.