NDIS squandering sector good will

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There is an old Jewish saying: The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. The same goes for technology. It can either improve and enrich our humanity or else disrupt and distance us from true community. Technology can make menial tasks more efficient. But we need to consider all the consequences before adopting new systems.

Take the Census for example. Census night used to be a real community event. Friendly volunteers would deliver and collect the census pack, and the whole family would sit around the kitchen table completing the form. The hard-copy was always cumbersome, but it brought us together as a community on one important night every five years.

However, the recent Census was a complete social (as well as technological) disaster because the change to electronic submission was never explained. People could submit their answers within a six week range, eroding the civic aura around census night itself. The abolition of volunteers made the collection process less personal. And the submission of data via personal computer fractured our sense of community and made us paranoid about privacy.

Then the technology failed anyway!

We now know that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been seriously underfunded. Little was spent on advanced communication, and the technology itself was not up to scratch. It was just assumed that new technology would save money, and make the whole process more manageable. Instead, the lack of resourcing became a public relations disaster  eroding the good will of citizens and draining the process of hard fought social capital.

The same thing has happened with the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme). The new Myplace Portal for submitting payment claims  was hastily introduced with the promise of improved efficiencies. But the NDIA failed to test the system with existing service providers. Much of the supplied information was never transferred to the new system. In addition, people with disabilities themselves were expected to navigate the complex interface to provide the necessary links between the NDIA and their chosen service providers.

The upshot is that the portal crashed with many agencies still waiting for reimbursement for services delivered. It is difficult enough for service providers moving from upfront funding (as has been the case in WA) to payment-in-arrears (as is now the National model) but to then not get paid at all, having already paid our staff, is a recipe for mistrust and even cynicism. Associated costs are already high with existing agencies having to upgrade their own interface systems, train staff, and guide customers in their own new responsibilities.

My earlier blog posts have outlined the ridiculous hourly rates that the NDIS has implemented. For example, the trial site in Midland/Perth Hills pays providers a mere $43.00 per hour to provide a one-to-one service. This is 15 percent less than the Disability Services Commission (DSC) rate for the same service, and means that Interchange is losing money on every NDIS support. While we are attempting to absorb this financial loss, hoping it to be a short term glitch, we have no idea if or when these unsustainable prices will be rectified or else made universal.

To add insult to injury, the defective new payment portal has meant that Interchange hasn’t been paid for some support provided since June. This is annoying but manageable while we have the cash reserves to cover the unfunded services. But the lower NDIS rates don’t even allow service providers to build reserves in the first place. The $43.00 per hour rate does not factor in employing qualified staff, behavioural programs, adequate supervision and customer transport. Nor does it allow even a small margin for internal capacity-building.

So here we have a new, and defective, IT system that expects service providers to maintain customer support as funded from their own hard-fought reserves while implementing a cost structure that openly excludes the opportunity for establishing those reserves in the first place. It’s not just ironic, but presumptuous and clearly unsustainable.

The NDIS has fantastic potential. But the scheme itself is fast becoming so unwieldy that many recipients are unable to use it.

This is particularly true for people with disability who want to self-manage their NDIS funding. The recent debacle with the Myplace Portal has meant that many self-managed customers have been unable to pay their own staff, which is a terrible burden on our most vulnerable people.

The Disability debacle is on par with the Census fiasco.

New technology can make things quicker or cheaper, in theory. But such restructuring requires considerable resources to be implemented properly. The NDIS has been described as an aeroplane that is still being built while it takes to the skies. The same could be said of the Census, which barely got off the runway before it crashed back to earth. Skimping on costs, and communication, is a recipe for chaos. You can’t manage social change with mere technology. The human inputs and community consequences must always be considered.

Following weeks of disruption for disability support providers and NDIS participants alike, the government has finally agreed to establish an independent review into the implementation of the NDIS portal. But the failures in technology only replicate the failures in the broader system itself.

The NDIS has over-promised and under-delivered because service providers themselves have been excluded from contributing to the way it actually works.

It’s not the bureaucracy or recipients themselves that will improve the well-being of Australians with disability. It’s service providers like Interchange who can really make a difference. We are advocates for our customers and the midwife of social change. We understand how community works on a practical level and know that social change occurs one person at a time.

Technology can help or hinder but it’s never the point, never its own purpose.

The NDIS claims to champion full inclusion for our most vulnerable populations. But the excessive bureaucracy, generic pricing, and failed technology is excluding rather than including the very people it seeks to embrace.

Technology can bring improvements, but improvements for whom? As with the Census, the NDIS portal has been structured to cut costs more than enhance service. Websites do not replace faces. Buttons do not replace hands. And phones do not replace the human voices they transmit. The system must work for people and not simply work. The good faith of citizens, recipients and service providers alike is being eroded by under-resourcing and misplaced priorities.

If the government really wants to make a difference, it needs to include the service providers that assist and include the people they want to help. The NDIA is full of managers, accountants, engineers and technicians whereas service providers employ support workers, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists and community facilitators. Exclude us and you exclude the people that are best suited to help. The NDIS needs committed not-for-profit organisations like Interchange – to make the scheme work. But they’re still not listening.

As we’ve learnt from the Census, hard-won community goodwill can evaporate in an instant when real-life people are taken for granted. In our NDIS example, the goodwill of the sector in support of the system is being squandered by cost-cutting, shoddy preparation and the refusal to listen to service providers on how the system can best benefit the customers they serve. This is very disappointing but there is still time, and a clear way, to get things right.

Here in Western Australia, the NDIS has a local variant called WA NDIS which – unlike the Commonwealth model – is really listening to consumers and providers alike. Both systems are currently operating in tandem in trial sites across the State. I believe that the local model must be implemented to ensure that the NDIS operates fairly and efficiently for all West Australians with disability.

Wendel Bamford