Barwon Trial Site: 3 Years On

Libby Mears is the CEO of Leisure Networks, an organisation in the Barwon trial site that has been going through significant NDIS driven growth.

We sat down with Libby to find out how her experience has changed in the three years since the trial site was launched.

What would you say have been Leisure Networks’ biggest challenges in the NDIS? How have you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges has been the uncertainty, not knowing what the Scheme would be like for the organisation in transition.

Along with that, it’s been planning to be able to be successful within the Scheme, looking at the systems and staff skills that we’d need within a self-directed model, what would make us successful in terms of the types of services we offer and whether we would be able to be successful and manage our business within the set pricing structure. The way we’ve overcome that is by very much focusing on knowing what we do and trying to be great at that and by looking for ways in all areas of our work to be very efficient, to really systematise most of our processes.

In terms of working with uncertainty, we’ve been really focused on culture and supporting staff to manage uncertainty and change, helping people to feel comfortable that not everything is known and there is much that will continue to change. We’ve really focused on building a culture and an organisation that is comfortable with some things that aren’t known, comfortable with things that do change but clear about the future and clear about what the role of the organisation is.


Would you say that Leisure Networks is still in a state of NDIS “transition”?

Yes, certainly. While we’ve got great experience, we are still learning and transitioning. I think we are continually looking for ways to respond to a consumer-directed environment. I guess in all purposes, we’ve officially transitioned because we do not have any funding from any other state based sources but I think that transition to what the principles of the NDIS is all about is certainly ongoing.


How has your experience of the NDIS changed over the past three years?

We’ve definitely become a lot more confident and clear about who we are and what we can offer and provide. That’s been a really good thing. We’re a lot more confident and positive about what the NDIS can achieve.

While we’ve always believed in the potential, we’ve now seen stories and great outcome so now we can have true belief, true confidence and commitment. It’s not just that the theory sounds good, it’s actually that that practicality is amazing, people’s lives really can change and people can aspire to live a normal life, whatever that might look like, because the NDIS and the funding it provides enables that. So I think that’s the biggest change in our experience – that confidence that this is the future, this is now.

I think the other major experience is building relationships with people. We’ve built important relationships across the sector, particularly with the Agency. That didn’t start off that way necessarily, I think there were some challenges with the providers in Barwon but over time and with continual commitment to the common goals, we’ve definitely built some really positive relationships.


After three years, do you see any winners and losers in the Scheme?

We’ve seen that families and people who have the ability to develop their capacity are really surviving and thriving. When you’re working with families who actually, with some support, can build their independence skills so that they are able to understand what choice is, so they start saying, “This isn’t working for me and I want to do something different” or “I have thing funding and I want to use it in this way”, that really is creating a situation where people really are succeeding. .

There may be people living in areas where there is less access and less opportunity so there might not be a range of services because it’s new and it’s more remote. So I’m thinking of people who are in the Barwon trial who are further away from the major centres, they probably just find it harder because of travel and maybe they don’t have transport in their plans and they may not then have the choice of services and opportunity. I think as soon as you move away from the major centres and that the services are less available, people don’t then have choices and that diminishes their options.

I think the trial has shown that there are challenges for certain people with certain disability types and especially those who may not have family and other natural supports around them. That is a reality in their lives and that creates difficulties and possibly inconsistent outcomes.. So I think it’s those groups we see who are really able to self direct, able to learn and build their skills over time and then have access to choices really are doing well.


Where do you see the sector three years from now?

What I see in Barwon and I really want to see across Victoria is a community that embraces people with disability, where there is visibility, engagement and inclusion. That’s not the sector. The sector hopefully contributes to that but it’s actually communities more broadly. It’s organisations or shops, it’s places where people gather, it’s businesses who are willing to employ. It’s all the things we need to enable people with disability to be visible. It ensuring housing and accommodation supports people with disability to live included non-institutionalised lives.

We’re seeing that now in the Barwon region, we’re seeing people who might have been less visible in the past, might have had less opportunities to contribute in different community environments. So for me, in three years I want to see communities being more embracing, to have a higher level of inclusion.

I think the sector is an enabler for that. So we don’t just see our role as supporting individuals , we see our roles as building inclusion and that’s beyond our work individually, it sits within community environments. Because we’re moving out of institutions, out of day centres and more into the public realm, the sector can make an important contribution to that.

I guess the other thing is that I hope the sector becomes the real champions for the NDIS because we see the difference in people’s lives. At the moment there’s still a lot of nervousness and fear about what the NDIS means for organisations. I hope after three years, organisations will have gone through the journey of transition and be strong and vocal advocates for the Scheme and all it offers.


If you had your time over, is there one thing you would do differently?

I think I would be less worried about a sense of competition. I think in the first instance I was nervous about what it meant to be within a competitive environment but now I see it’s fantastic. Competition is great. It makes you think about how you do things, it makes you think about what products you’re delivering and that competition is fundamental to the success of the Scheme, so that people then have choice, and great choices.

So maybe I would be more embracing of the competitive nature and more comfortable and confident that actually a competitive environment with all sorts of providers, non-profit, for-profit, small, large – there’s actually enough need for everyone to have a place if you do what you do well.