NDIS board: accountability, but with no levers to fix the problems

Three years after the launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme a new board is taking the reins of Australia’s biggest social policy reform of the decade. But far from the idea of a corporate board with its hands on the levers, the board is beholden to the whims of governments on just about every decision that matters.

Entering the complex and murky governance that characterises the NDIS is incoming chair Helen Nugent and others with strong corporate backgrounds.  These appointments have been widely criticised by people with disability and advocates as lacking ‘lived experience’ of disability. They ask: how can a government agency focused on empowering people with disability lack people with disability on its board?

While disability advocates are right to say that the board should have lived experience of disability, the reality is that the most important decisions about the NDIS never get near the NDIA board. Nugent and her colleagues are handed a fait accompli on almost every lever needed to effectively manage the roll out of the NDIS.

The NDIA board is a third or fourth order priority if we really care about accountability and the input of people with disability in the NDIS. Our public debate should be about how to have genuine community input and consultation on the decisions about the NDIS that matter the most. Currently, these are being made behind closed doors by ministers, political advisors and bureaucrats.

The NDIS is a huge change in the way Australia supports people with disability. More choice and control. Funding that meets people’s needs. An insurance approach to make spending smarter and sustainable over time. The National Disability Insurance Agency is the front line of the Scheme, set up as a government company with an independent board and an insurance philosophy.

A question of control

A quick scan of whether the board can control the most critical elements of the NDIS shows just how hamstrung the board is.

The Prime Minister and Premiers have instructed the NDIA to create an average of 2000 plans every week throughout 2017. The Australian Parliament has passed the NDIS legislation which sets out the criteria to be eligible for the NDIS and whether the NDIS will pay for their supports. Federal Minister for Social Services Christian Porter also decided that the IT system would be built by the Department of Human Services, set a cap of how many staff the NDIA can employ, and required the NDIS to outsource 7000 of the 10,000 staff the NDIA had intended to employ.

Indeed, Nugent and her colleagues might be asking themselves what they get to decide given the public, people with disability and governments are holding them accountable to deliver the NDIS. Fortunately, the NDIA board are left with a few levers. They can decide how the NDIA interacts with people with disability, individual decisions about whether to pay for a specific item for a specific person and the prices that the NDIS pays for each item.

This decision-making imbalance highlights the accountability challenge for the NDIS. Governments are setting detailed policy, yet the NDIA board is being held publically accountable for delivering the NDIS.

Opportune time to reform

Added to this accountability deficit is also a governance problem. The bureaucrats and ministers with their hands on the real levers are numerous, dispersed and usually unable to agree. The result is policy inertia, limited opportunities for public input and a severe lack of transparency.

Across other industries affected by government regulation — including banking and finance and communications — it is commonplace to have exposure drafts of legislation. This allows stakeholders to provide their views, transparency on which government agency is making the decision and helps to build and understand the rationale for why governments have made decisions.

In the NDIS, detailed rules with significant regulatory impacts on providers are developed without seeking feedback from impacted parties. The government see it as difficult enough to secure agreement on a policy position from all eight state government departments and eight state ministers. Let alone letting people with disability and organisations required to comply with these rules to have their say.

Australia cannot afford the current indecision and finger pointing on a scheme that is worth 1.5% of Australia’s GDP, and that literally makes the difference between life and death for some of Australia’s most vulnerable citizens.

The appointment of a new board is timely for governments to either radically simplify the governance between the Commonwealth and the states, or hand over the NDIS levers to the NDIA board. Whatever governments do, people with disability and those with a stake in the NDIS should be part of the decisions that matter most in the NDIS.