Five years ago, it seemed too good to be true: a national disability scheme that at last gave people with disability control over their own lives. In our area of assistive technology, it offered funding for helpful technology instead of requiring people to beg and scrounge for it. Instead of having services and supports allocated without regard to their own preferences, people with disability were empowered to make choices in an expanding marketplace of services and products. The language of the NDIS’ promotional material focused on empowerment and choice: “People with disability have the same right as other Australians to determine their best interests and to have choice and control over their lives.”
What has the bureaucracy been doing during these early phases of the NDIS? The new system has required a radical change in thinking by the bureaucratic structures that once supported the old system. With the advent of the NDIS, it has largely been on the back foot, fending off criticisms about delays, poor quality plans, an inefficient portal and cumbersome forms. Its defensiveness around decisions or processes has been bolstered when it has been able to point to the mare’s nest of rules and legislative requirements related to its operation.
Enter the Quality and Safeguards Commission. No one would argue with the need for services to be high-quality or for ensuring that safeguards are in place. There is no dispute regarding the need for protection for the most vulnerable people in the system.
But of all the problems incurred in the rollout of the NDIS, the quality of service providers has been relatively low on the list. On the whole, service providers continue to try to make the best of a difficult situation, whereby regulatory certainty is a pipe dream and invoices frequently go unpaid.
Providers will have to be accredited in this new system. For a small organisation like Ability, this means a lengthy and cumbersome certification process, including a comprehensive audit at our own cost (estimated to be thousands of dollars). We have to provide policies and evidence that we meet 20 criteria. And yes, these include our “disaster relief” policy. The aim is to confirm our financial viability and our ability to provide a quality service. What is wrong with this?
Well first, as a corporation and a charity, an organisation like Ability already falls under the auspices of watchdogs like ASIC and the ACNC. We have been viable since 1991, and our accounts are on the public record. Yet registering with the Commission requires us to rehash information that has been vested with multiple regulatory bodies already. Why is the Commission walking this well-trodden turf?
The second issue, and this is the big one, is the attempt by the Commission to determine, by bureaucratic methods, what is a “quality service”. This is undoubtedly an intrusion into an area that should be the domain of participants. People with disability should be trusted to determine what is a quality service. That is central to the spirit of the NDIS. Participants should be able to express their preferences and opinions, as all consumers do. They could do this simply and directly by giving a star rating to each service they receive, on an app or website. This would also enable people to learn from each other’s experiences. Much the same way as we all rate hotels, apps, businesses. (And notice how a bad rating often triggers a response from the business, offering to do better.) This is real participant power. This would be a much more appropriate and effective method of quality control that could still allow for the fundamental safeguards to remain in place (e.g. working with children and police checks).
The role of the Commission in this area is intrusive and flies in the face of a core tenet of the NDIS. Under their bureaucratic approach, a provider could tick all the required boxes and still provide a low quality service. By contrast, low quality services would be flushed out in a market-based, participant-driven system.
This is not only using a hammer to fix a watch: it is using a hammer to fix the wrong watch. The NDIA should try asking participants what they would suggest might fix the NDIS. I can guarantee that the inefficiency and opacity of the NDIA will be much higher on the list than a Quality and Safeguards Commission.