More decoration or meaningful reform?

Posted on 07 Nov 2023

By David Crosbie


When it comes to government forging a stronger community sector, the time for asking questions is over. It’s action that is now required, writes Community Council for Australia CEO, David Crosbie.

“As part of the Australian Government’s election commitment for a stronger, more diverse and independent community sector, the Department of Social Services is exploring opportunities to better support Australian communities through the design and administration of grants to the sector, including more meaningful working partnerships and options for greater innovation. A stronger, more diverse, and independent community sector.” – Department of Social Services.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) is a big spending department with a turnover in excess of $140 billion.

Any area of government where expenditure is this high will always be targeted for cost savings measures, and so it is with the DSS.

The department has been in our news feeds continuously over recent months, and not in a good way.

Robodebt exposed the willingness of senior staff to bend and break rules to please political masters through illegal actions aimed at finding billions of dollars in savings. That the Robodebt scheme persevered for so long despite being so wrong at so many levels will stand as a permanent indictment on DSS practice.

There are many good people who work in DSS, but ultimately the department is a line agency rather than a cross portfolio leader like Treasury or Finance.

The capacity of DSS to influence the way government behaves, outside of DSS itself is, at best, minimal.

DSS also has a long history of mis-managing various grant programs.

This became evident in the 2015 Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into ‘The impact on service quality, efficiency and sustainability of recent Commonwealth community service tendering processes by the Department of Social Services.’

The final report of that committee recommended 12 reforms including a suggested five year minimum length of contract where possible.

Community Council for Australia CEO, David Crosbie.

Over the past 12 months, DSS has been working with the Community Sector Advisory Group (CSAG) to develop an issues paper titled: A stronger more diverse and independent community sector. The consultation on this document has just closed this week.

Any attempt to improve practices at DSS should be encouraged.

Within the discussion paper DSS acknowledge they have already been told what would improve their engagement and contracting with the broader community sector.

Issues such as ‘pay what it takes’ or meeting the real costs of service provision in DSS contracts, offering longer term contracts, and different kinds of contracting arrangements including lead agencies, are all identified in the issues paper.

The problem with the issues paper is not so much the content (although this could be improved by referencing previous reports) or that it represents DSS seeking feedback from the sector.

What the issues paper highlights is that DSS have been told what needs to be done and can talk about doing things better, but they are making no commitment to change any of their current practices.

All the issues DSS highlights have been consulted on many times before, and been the subject of numerous reports and recommendations, the vast majority of which DSS has repeatedly ignored.

There is little or no contention, for instance, that the length of DSS contracts with community organisations requiring the employment of staff should not be less than three years and preferably five, and that notice periods to end contracts should be at least six months.

"What the issues paper highlights is that DSS have been told what needs to be done and can talk about doing things better, but they are making no commitment to change any of their current practices."

There is also little contention that such readily accepted fundamentals are not regularly factored into grant program development in the Department of Social Services. Many agencies face rolling 12, 18 or 24 month contract terms.

More than a decade ago the Productivity Commission clearly laid out some of the reforms needed to boost community sector productivity through more effective and efficient contracting of non-government organisations in this Productivity Commission report. More than a decade later, most of these recommendations have not been implemented.

In terms of governments actually meeting the real costs of service delivery, CCA and many other organisations were involved in supporting this report: Paying what it takes.

Eight years ago, CCA provided a submission to the Senate Committee reviewing the way the Department of Social Services contracts NGOs.

The ten CCA recommendations in our 2015 submission covered exactly what most readers would expect – including this recommendation: “Contracts with not-for-profits to provide community services should be for at least three years and no program should lose funding with less than six months’ notice.”

The DSS Issues Paper asks more than 25 questions about the way DSS could or should engage with the community services sector.

We already know from all the research and consultations, all the inquiries and reports into government contracting of charities and community groups, that DSS could significantly improve the way it engages and contracts community service organisations, if it wanted to.

The question CCA asked in our submission in response to the Issues Paper was, does DSS have any intention to change anything or implement any of the many existing recommendations about how it could engage and contract community organisations better?

If not, this latest DSS consultation is yet another exercise in decorative government, another ride on the merry-go-round of consultations and reports, circling back to words everyone can agree to, no change, no action.

David Crosbie has been CEO of the Community Council for Australia for the past decade and has spent more than a quarter of a century leading significant not-for-profit organisations, including the Mental Health Council of Australia, the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and Odyssey House Victoria.

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