11/11/2010 - 00:00

Communication key to reform success

11/11/2010 - 00:00


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Changing government policy is a tedious process and the ensuing bureaucracy requires patience.

Communication key to reform success

Changing government policy is a tedious process and the ensuing bureaucracy requires patience.

In the case of reform to WA’s community services provision, the organisations involved in the Economic Audit Committee’s implementation are particularly concerned about the cultural shift in communication that will be demanded of government departments.

Speaking at a recent WA Business News boardroom forum, members of the community sector expressed concern that government ‘line agencies’ – departments such as child protection that dish out funding – would be the kink in the chain of reform.

“For me the biggest barrier to any of this being achieved is the cultural change in the line agencies and I am not sure how government is going to effect that change. It is not going to happen overnight, it will take years,” Nulsen chief executive Gordon Trewern said.

“Intergovernmental department relationships are very siloed. Not many government departments have good, strong, robust relationships; they don’t talk to each other.

“That is going to be a big challenge, to get the government to change its culture.”

Ruah chief executive Francis Lynch agreed, saying, “The opportunity is there to achieve better consistency across the departments but only if they talk to each other. There are good examples of departments engaging the sector quite well in terms of policy formulation and the decision about how services should be constructed.”

“And yet in the next door department it can be like 1983 or 1993, purchaser/provider split, nobody talks to each other. They are both state government departments, so why is this the case?”

Mr Trewern added he thought the non-government sector and the central government seem to be aligned on the issue, but that “it is the line agencies that are struggling with this concept of this new world with a more equal partnership and us having a greater role in policy”.

Rocky Bay chief executive Michael Tait agreed.

“You get the impression the central agencies understand, it is the line agencies that are struggling,” he said.

Mr Tait did, however, offer a positive.

“The whole of government has given us the opportunity to access the various departments,” he said.

“We have opened dialogues with people we have never had the opportunity to have dialogues with before.

“The premier [Colin Barnett] stated what he wanted to achieve with this, which meant those departments had no choice, but they do seem to have adopted the general process with an enormous amount of enthusiasm.”

Mr Lynch agreed, adding, “Line agencies and the central agencies are actually in genuine discussion with us around the issues we feel are important. It won’t lead to a utopia and it won’t answer all of our individual concerns or issues but I am certainly heartened by the way that it is going.”

UnitingCare West chief executive Chris Hall said the government departments weren’t the only sector requiring a shift in communication norms.

“There are some challenges for us as a sector, as much for the government, in terms of how we will come together under the new world, and how we will transact and interact with each other. I think we are only beginning to do that,” he said.

Given the level of concern around the lacking commitment from government departments, a critical question is how can these EAC working committees ensure intergovernmental communication lines remain open?

Mr Lynch said consistency between government departments’ attitude to the shift in policy is going to be crucial to the success of the reform, for starters.

“That is part of what is being looked at (through the working committees), how can we ensure all of the departments actually relate to the funding of services from government to non-government in a consistent way so it isn’t reliant on one person’s interpretation within a department, that there is a whole of state government approach,” he said.

Mr Lynch said it wasn’t so much about legislative enforcement of the change but more so government departments embedding policy changes in their practices.

“My experience is these sorts of things need to move away from being the pet projects of a particular minister or even a premier and be brought into the way things happen on an ongoing basis,” he said.

“I hesitate to say a legislative approach, because I don’t think that is the answer, I think it is about changing the way the government departments do things.

“It is about ensuring the procurement process within government is well supported. I think what has happened is that it has been haphazard at times. Some departments have very good procurement relationships with not-for-profits and in other departments there is a change of personnel and that will change the whole approach because it is not embedded well within the system.”

“It is not about digging it down into long winded processes that never get anywhere, because none of us want that, but there are key points in decision making processes that can involve other people.”

Lotterywest chief executive Jan Stewart suggested the government’s development of a forum for its human services departments was one way the government could be seen to be working to mend broken lines of communication.

“They have created a forum for human services disciplines and that has been clearly aimed at developing the line agencies to work more cooperatively and to break down the silos,” she said.

And while much of the conversation centred on the support needed from the state government departments, the need for federal government support for reform as well as bipartisan support was also raised.

Ms Stewart highlighted the need for federal support for Mr Barnett’s EAC-led reform, and others agreed it was necessary for the reform’s longevity.

Interestingly, in keeping with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s election promises, Canberra is in the process of assembling what it refers to as a Non-Profit Sector Reform Council which will be made up of leaders from the community sector.

One of the main objectives of the council is to streamline federal government tendering and contracting processes for government-funded organisations and to provide advice on the development of a national ‘one-stop-shop’ regulator for the sector – seemingly good news for WA’s community service provision reform’s lifespan.



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