Disability policy on the run

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, March 25, 2014


BEWARE the minister in a hurry. As political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe observe in a recent analysis of British government stuff-ups, “a considerable proportion of our blunders were committed at speed”.

In The Blunders of our Governments, King and Crewe introduce us to the activist minister, a habitual speedster with a cause to promote and a reputation to build who insists on cracking on with a heavy foot on the accelerator. It provides a useful framework to dissect the legacy of the Rudd and Gillard governments, and to understand the scale of the panelbeating now required.

The National Disability Insurance Agency looks very much like a rush-build, as former Centrelink chief Jeff Whalan finds in a ­report commissioned for the agency’s board. “The agency is like a plane that took off before it had been fully built and is being completed while it is in the air,” says Whalan.

Just in case the directors missed that line, Whalan repeats it four times. The cover illustration hammers it home: an aircraft cruising above the clouds as a team of engineers patches up holes on the wings and fuselage. A man with a bucket and paintbrush hangs from the tail. “The agency has been given a challenging role, with a very, very difficult timetable,” concludes Whalan.

The phrase “very, very difficult” — as opposed to “very difficult” — is as close as an urbane consultant comes to telling a board to pull its finger out.

Yet the agency’s chairman, Bruce Bonyhady, seemed not to have grasped the gravity of the message when he appeared on ABC’s The World Today on Friday. “The board is committed to delivering this scheme as quickly as possible,” Bonyhady said. “There’s nothing here to suggest the scheme is going to crash and burn.”

Technically speaking, he’s right. Politically, the scheme is too big to fail. Tony Abbott is personally committed and his message to ministers is make it happen.

Yet, as Whalan points out, the effects of poor service provision will be felt by those the scheme is supposed to serve. Clearly someone has to take the scheme by the scruff of the neck, starting with the agency’s board.

It has not had the best of starts. The NDIS’s launch was brought forward a year to July 2013 to fit a political timetable. In the jargon of modern government, an announceable had to become a deliverable in time for last year’s election.

The legislation to establish the agency — all 180 pages of it — was passed just months before the start date. The board did not take office until the day the NDIA opened for business.

The idea of testing the waters with a few local pilot schemes had already been thrown out of the window. “There will be launches, not trials,” Julia Gillard told parliament. “DisabilityCare starts in seven weeks’ time, and there will be no turning back.”

In June last year, less than a month before accelerated launch date, the prime minister announced that the NDIA’s administrative headquarters would be built in Geelong. Staff in Canberra were faced with temporary contracts and job insecurity. Meanwhile, hundreds of jobs are unfilled at Geelong.

On and on the problems go. The IT system is less than two years old but needs to be replaced urgently. Data from state agencies has been difficult to process. The agency still does not know which customers are currently using state services. The definition of “reasonable and necessary” support — a key concept when deciding who qualifies for what assistance — is vague.

All in all it is impossible to imagine that the scheme can be ramped up from scratch to serve almost 450,000 people in four years, as the timetable dictates.

The board has only just ­appointed the scheme actuary and the full actuarial team is not yet in place. For a scheme that is supposed to run on insurance principles, that is more than a little troubling. Whalan says the managerial problems can all be overcome. The NDIS’s legislated DNA is less easily fixed.

Understandably, the Gillard government was reluctant to ­assume full responsibility for disability care from the states. Consequently the NDIS’s governance is shambolic. Policy decisions are made collectively by state and ­territory ministers. A body called the NDIS Independent Advisory Council is also entitled to have its say. Mitch Fifield, the federal Assistant Minister for Social Services, is responsible for administering the act but can only exercise the statutory powers the Council of Australian Governments’ Standing Council on Disability Reform chooses to grant him.

Inevitably, in these labyrinthine cross-jurisdictional conglomerates, the bureaucrats take charge and refuse to be bossed around.

Their reaction to a federal minister who dares to interfere resembles that of a teenager caught in a custody battle: “You can’t tell me what to wear — you’re not my real dad.”

Fifield’s best chance of pulling Gillard’s unruly child into line is to put the heat on the board and make the chairman and the board work for their fees of $100,000 and $50,000 per annum respectively.

The Labor-appointed board commissioned Whalan’s report, so there can be no suggestion of a political ploy by the current government. The chairman must take control.

Bonyhady has been a passionate advocate of a disability reform for many years.

Arguably without his tireless lobbying the scheme might never have been adopted.

Appointing him to head the board, however, was a brave decision that demands Bonyhady make the difficult transition from activist to prudential overseer. It requires a cool head and emotional detachment.

In the light of Whalan’s report, however, the board’s only responsible course of action is to appeal to its state, territory and federal masters for more time.