The community sector and the state government are working collaboratively to create major change in the provision of community services.
THE state government has quietly embarked upon major reforms that are expected to substantially increase the community sector’s role in delivering services to Western Australians.
The report made broad recommendations for a more effective government/community sector partnership.
Community sector representatives are now putting in the hard yards, working with representatives from Treasury and Finance and Premier and Cabinet to bring the recommendations to fruition.
“There are three fundamental things that underpin all this. One is we are fundamentally talking about major reform. Two we are talking about major change management processes, and three we are talking about a fundamental change in the basis of the relationship between the community sector and government,” UnitingCare West chief executive Chris Hall told a recent WA Business News forum.
A number of the state’s leading community services organisations used the forum to offer their support for the reforms, agreeing they were positive and mutually beneficial.
“I have seen lots of attempts to improve relationships, develop contracts. Never before have I seen a process led by the premier,” Senses Foundation chief executive Debbie Karasinski said.
“We have a premier committed to it and cabinet committed to it, and the rest of us saying ‘let’s give it our best shot’.”
Mr Hall said the EAC was by far the most significant potential opportunity the sector had to forge a relationship of equality with the state government.
Words like ‘potential opportunity’ and ‘best shot’ were reflective of the measured optimism at the forum, and while that could be seen as proceeding with caution, it is more likely reflective of the time often taken to go through the bureaucratic processes.
“It is still very much in that early phase, not being signed off with cabinet. Some of the recommendations will be turned into reality, some will be open for discussion and debate,” Mr La Galia said.
Nulsen chief executive Gordon Trewern was a little more enthusiastic, saying it was the first time in 30 years that he had seen genuine effort in changing the way the sector and government worked together.
Mr Hall said the real challenge was achieving the desired outcome.
“I think there is certainly at this stage a very strong recognition of the importance of the community sector in Western Australia and the role we have,” Mr Hall told the forum.
That recognition isn’t just on paper, according to St Vincent de Paul chief executive John Bouffler.
“There has certainly been a greater level of consultation; they (government) are coming out to talk to us more often, they are listening to us. It is really important for us to be able to tell them our story and any challenges we have,” he said.
One of the major hurdles these organisations are hoping to jump is getting the government to better understand not just what they do, but that they are mature and sophisticated businesses.
“Something that has heartened me has been the genuine, sincere interest from Treasury and Cabinet, Treasury in particular. They are seeing the benefits the community sector can offer,” Rocky Bay chief executive Michael Tait said.
“They are not just voicing this; they genuinely give that impression by how they are leading the discussions.”
Mr Trewern said the government had realised the community service sector was comprised of sophisticated organisations that had knowledge, skills and expertise that could help deliver better outcomes.
“Government has realised the reality of the landscape and realised there is no way they can meet the demand for services on their own,” he said.
Those at the forum agreed that, over the years, diminishing government funds, growing costs, stretched human resources, rigorous governmental compliance structures and the lack of a clear understanding of the sector by government had culminated in a gap in disability, mental health, housing and various therapeutic services.
Funding the change
Optimism and recognition aside, however, what are the practical implications of this reform?
More money and, importantly, less government restrictions placed on how to spend it, an increased capacity for services and, ultimately, community benefits; well that is the plan.
“One of the biggest outcomes of the whole process is the initial funding that will come through not for profits so we can be sustainable and ensure we can access monies to ensure a good level of governance, risk management and proper wages for our staff,” Mr Tait said.
Mr Hall said funding was the fundamental issue at this point and a better price for community sector services was fundamental for the future.
“The history of non-government organisations is really important in all of this. The majority of our organisations came from a base of volunteers. So there has been a legacy of cheap labour, of doing it for nothing, of the capitalisation of good will,” he said.
There was agreement around the table that the gap between government sector wages and the wages for those in the community sector had grown during the past 15 years, and had been one of the major catalysts for the broader issues in the community services sector.
After all, without the ability to offer a salary that allows staff to meet their financial obligations, the community sector finds itself playing second fiddle to the government and private sectors when it comes to attracting the right people.
“The differential, if you go back 10 to 15 years, was 10 or 15 per cent; that gap has just gotten bigger and bigger,” Ruah chief executive Francis Lynch said.
Lotterywest chief executive Jan Stewart said this had inhibited not only the ability of the sector to attract and retain staff, but also the sector’s ability to deliver services that met the increasingly complex demands of community.
“We are talking about the provision of services to people with hugely complex issues and staff require the greatest experience and wisdom and professional backgrounds to be able to deliver those services,” Ms Stewart said.
Mt Tait said wage increases would be integral to the government outsourcing services.
“In order for more outsourcing to occur, the wages need to improve within the sector so we have the ability to provide those community services that are going to be outsourced. I do sense the genuine want to do that, but whether there is a genuine dollar at the end is unknown,” he said.
Senses Foundation’s Debbie Karasinski suggested a more realistic appreciation of the cost of services was essential to improve the lot of workers in the sector, and the overall level of services provided.
“We need to get to the point where we say, ‘this is what the cost of services is and this is what we need to be paid for it,” Ms Karasinski said.
“We have this huge historical barrier of inadequate funding. We get caught up some times talking about wages for our staff, but it really has got to do with funding for the services we provide.”
Mr La Galia said funding was fundamental to the implementation being successful.
“Funding is the elephant in the room. There is a cost involved in providing this service delivery model,” he said.
How that funding is dispersed is going to be critical to the success of this new system, according to those at the forum.
The EAC Implementation team agrees with that sentiment and has named reforms to the contracting and funding arrangements as key to its success.
Historically, government has controlled funds given to these organisations, dictating how much money they get, where they can spend it and in what time frame.
But with community services groups facing a changing landscape – with mental health issues more prevalent, increasing homelessness, drug abuse and multifaceted issues – there are calls for a new system that allows them to offer service delivery outside traditional funding models.
That new model will have to be adapted to allow the organisations to work collaboratively within the sector to deliver integrated services, with a sophisticated service delivery model behind it.
“The bottom line is we want to be paid adequately for the service we provide. How we spend that money, whether we put it into wages for staff, corporate governance, clinical governance, training, whatever – it’s our business,” Ms Karasinksi said.
Buck stops where?
So what will be the outcomes of this new funding structure?
“More efficiency, less red tape, less bureaucracy, that is one of the key outcomes of the process in terms of how we go through the contracting process,” Mr Tait said. “There is no question and now it has been acknowledged that we have to go through more hoops during the tendering process than necessarily apply to government.”
One of the key objectives of what is known within EAC committee circles as the ‘partnership forum’ is developing the essential elements of a genuine partnership.
Among those elements are fostering collaboration (seemingly already met by the coming together of the community sector and government on EAC committees) and driving innovation and integrated service delivery.
Paramount, however, according to those at the forum, is the building of government trust in the community sector.
“One of the things (under-treasurer) Tim Marney has been very open about is there has been a different way that government has dealt with the community sector, without there being any rationale behind it, and in fact almost on a basis of distrust,” Mr Lynch said.
Relationship building is clearly paramount to the success of the implementation of the EAC’s recommendations and will ultimately affect the delivery of community services.
Aside from equal parts of state government and community sector support, Mr Lynch raised the issue of bipartisan support as a vital component in the recipe for success.
“I want to see some long-standing, bipartisan change come about. That is one of the concerns I have, making sure this isn’t something that just gets wound back because there is a change of government,” he said.