Shitstorm: A Short History of NDIS Implementation

At DSC we have now asked thousands of Australians ‘what is one word that sums up how you feel about the NDIS?’. The answers invariably polarise. Some people say fear, confusion, anxiety; while others say: hope, opportunity, control.

Well, after 6 weeks of NDIS national roll out, sadly, my one word for the NDIS is Shitstorm.

How did it get to be so bad so quickly?

It was truly amazing how the ducks lined up to make the NDIS a reality.

PM Rudd wanted to keep a new contender away from the main game so gave him a minor, seemingly unimportant portfolio. The portfolio: disability, the contender: Bill Shorten.

Then the Economical Rationalists at the Productivity Commission gave us the dream report, they told us the NDIS will SAVE MONEY!

People with disability, carers and service providers united to create a powerful political force to drive the campaign for change (thanks Bruce, Rhonda, Ken, Ara and the late Lesley Hall).

The Every Australian Counts campaign recruited John Della Bosca an ex NSW Disability Minister and astute political operator to run their campaign (I applied for the job but am still waiting for an acknowledgement letter) with Kirsten Deane as the abfab campaign coordinator.

Then PM Julia Gillard tried to drive a political wedge with the Libs by making the NDIS a political football (remember the new tax on Medicare) and Tony Abbott said he was on her side (oh how Joe Hockey hated that, on so so many levels).

There are more happy ducks (including previous Minister Macklin’s drive) but that’s enough happy ducks for this piece and enough to give birth to the NDIS.

 

BUT now a different set of more dastardly ducks have lined up to create the the NDIS implementation shitstorm we know so well.

PM Julia Gillard brought the scheme forward one year to launch in 2013 (instead of 2014 as the Productivity Commission had recommended). She wanted the NDIS as part of her election platform but created too short a timeline for adequate preparation. I witnessed first hand the chaos this caused in the planning stages in Canberra as everyone scurried to build the biggest social reform since Medicare. Quite a bit later in NSW, Premier Mike Baird took a page out of the ‘lets get elected with crazy stupid ideas book’ and brought forward the NSW roll out from ending in 2019 to ending in 2018. OUCH!

The incoming Liberal Government (despite PM Abbotts’s support for the NDIS) was not that fond of the concept of a big spending NDIS and tried to grab some control back, which unleashed the natural tendency in Canberra for political infighting. So then the Department of Social Services (the bureaucrats) ramped up their aggression towards the NDIA (the Agency), and the politicians ramped up their nastiness with the NDIA Board and the states ramped up their natural tendency for biffo with the Commonwealth. Preparations for the NDIS have been a bit like bikies crashing a suburban birthday party ever since.

In amongst the infighting, the Federal Department of Human Services got hairy chested and grabbed the development of the NDIS portal off the Agency. Their IT system implementation has been the worst we have seen in a very long time, and given Canberra’s propensity to stuff up IT implementation, that is a really bold call.

The Abbott Government pulled an idiot masterstroke and decided to outsource 7,000 of the NDIA’s proposed 10,000 jobs. They cut the capacity of the Agency managing the biggest social reform… blah blah, by 70% and the outsourcing process is proving an absolute nightmare to administer. You’ve got to wonder how many of the staff left in the NDIA are simply trying to manage the outsourcing.

State based politics intervened to stuff up Commonwealth intentions. (Is that sentence a short history of Australian politics?) In NSW they gave away $200 million (yes $200 million) in LAC contracts without a competitive process. Right now in Victoria (as happened with disability deinstitutionalisation in the late 1980’s) the unions are dominating Labor government thinking about NDIS transition as union demands are jostling to get higher priority than the needs of people with disability. And that is not to mention WA’s parochialism, SA’s inability to count (the number of ECEI participants) and Queensland’s dogged recalcitrance (ok, let’s don’t).

Combining LAC’s and Planning is a bad idea and the ILC is desperately under-funded. I could write a whole article on that (oh wait, I did click here).  LAC staff need to process hundreds of thousands of new NDIS participants over the next 3 years, a task requiring both individual case management type skills and exceptional community development capabilities. These are incredibly different skillsets. The LAC’s will be overwhelmed with processing large numbers of individuals in distress and the community development function will simply fall off the table. This is the single biggest decision the NDIA has made about the community interface of the NDIS and it is not a very good one.

For four years we have told people with disability and their families to expect control and choice, to dream their dreams and expect whatever is reasonable and necessary. Now we have My First Plan, aka getting what you have already got for the first year. Why did the Agency need to pull that rabbit out of the hat only a couple of months ago? Did no-one realise until then that planning for 380,000 participants in the 3 years from 2016 (2 years in NSW) was going to be a little tough?

 

So is the NDIS broken? Hell no! The NDIS is a fabulous scheme and the Productivity Commission was spot on recommending it.

The NDIA is staffed by some of the hardest working and smartest people you would ever like to meet, they have been given a really hard task and then so much has conspired to make that hard task, so much harder. This is not simply the Agency’s fault, it’s Australian politics at their worst and yes along the way some bad decisions got made.

We all need to acknowledge and not ignore the challenges and the Agency needs to dramatically improve its (2 way) communications and collaboration. The sector and the media needs to pay more positive attention to the design of the NDIS, too few people seem ready to constructively criticisethe scheme. We now need to be hypervigilant about making sure we don’t allow some of the current things in the pipeline to also end up being a disaster. ILC is a great example – everyone is saying that it is an issue, but it’s not until we actually see the ILC contracts and realise how inadequate the funding is and how much stuff is about to be lost that the sector will be up in arms. There needs to be more attention paid by everyone in the sector to the design of the NDIS and to call out problems when we see them, because once we allow the problems to materialise, it’s way too late.

This article is about highlighting the factors that led to this mess in this first 6 weeks of implementation; factors that are not built into the scheme’s design. The ducks lined up early to get the scheme off and running then we had a bunch of nasty ducks and now we need to move on.

Just how long this will take will depend on the next set of ducks and the leadership that is shown by all of us as the current storm passes. We can all positively address the fear, confusion and anxiety and really start to deliver on the hope, opportunity, choice and control the NDIS will bring.

The shitstorm will subside and if we get it right, Australia will have a world leading system to support people with disability, the NDIS.