Disability Employment: Everything Old is New Again

March 2018 was a date full of hope and promise for people interested in improving the employment outcomes for people living with disability. The current Disability Employment Services (DES) contract were coming to an end after a 5-year period and it was set to be a time for a long-needed reinvention of the sector.

I still firmly believe that government has a strong desire to create and launch a new model that addresses all the well-documented failures of the current program[1] and improves the long-term outcomes for job seekers with barriers to work. Government knows that the current DES model is seriously flawed and their National Disability Employment Framework consultations in 2015-16 highlighted many of these problems. 

Job seekers, DES providers, community organisations and employer bodies were consulted for input into a future model, and despite some self-interested responses, there were many common themes.  i.e. capacity building, better engagement, less red tape, greater flexibility etc. 

Government promised co-design principles would be utilised and together, we would devise a much-improved DES framework for the post-2108 environment. This discussion has been occurring across the sector since the start of the contracts in 2013. Much time, effort and investment was placed into shaping up a new model that would best benefit job seekers, and also the cost effectiveness of the $800m program. 

However ministers come and go, and over a 5-month period the carousel of ministers spun, with each taking a new approach to their fore-bearer. Then without notice, the much heralded NDEF structure was shelved rather abruptly, and it appeared the current DES model was just going to get a few "tweaks around the edges”, and then wheeled back out once again with a fresh lick o’ paint.

Fast forward to the third quarter of 2016 as deadlines where running over and budget timeframes were blowing out. Discussion papers were promised that never arrived, the co-design occurred behind closed doors with a few select groups (that raised some eyebrows), and information that should have been shared, wasn't. The sector had been left totally in the dark. 

Previous DES tender periods have seen discussion papers released with the new model spelled out clearly so that all DES stakeholders could at least get a grasp of what lies ahead. However now the sector has been told, albeit not publicly, that the next release of information would be budget night May 2017. And that was nothing but a let down leaving providers still pondering the future.

To say this process has been a massive failure and a total disappointment would be an understatement. The 50-plus papers on the DSS Engage portal would support this statement. No one wants what we currently have. It does not address nor allow for contemporary support models for PWD, and hampers all innovation.

So why didn't government run with a new model? My guess is the policing of “mutual obligations”. The number of DES participants with participation requirements continues to rise at a rapid pace with DSP becoming increasingly difficult to receive, and DSP reviews moving folk with work capacity to Newstart or Youth Allowance, or as it will be called, the Jobseeker Allowance. This means they are activity tested, a task that has been gifted to providers as an add-on to contractual compliance under the Deed.

Giving job seekers total choice and control could also give allow opportunities to avoid the compliance regime of job seeking, and government could not resolve this dilemma. How does a retailer force a customer to shop with them if they don’t want to?

Therefore, the current regime will continue but prettied up with a fresher look. The hopes for a new DES model provided optimism in the sector, which soon dissolved as it became obvious this was a fait accompli. 

Am I cynical? Just a little. Am I disappointed? Yup. Am I realistic? Hell yes. Government does what it needs to do and this is what they are doing.

DES can be an exciting place for changing the lives of job seekers and their supports, but also for those involved in service delivery. The new DES is not the disruption we all wanted but it will continue, and sadly, without improved outcomes for the country. 

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere buried deeply in the NDIS. The employment supports are pathetically under-utilised and could offer the hope that DES currently can’t. With SLES in the NDIS, school leavers now have an opportunity to capacity build before attempting open employment, and creative minds could even start supporting students before they finish school.

If students with disability are encouraged, supported and challenged from their mid-teens, this could be the start of the revolution that disability employment in Australia so desperately needs.


[1] DES Reform Discussion Paper, 2016, www.engage.dss.gov.au

Upcoming Workshop: Employment Supports & the NDIS

This workshop will provide a comprehensive overview of the emerging disability employment funding landscape, mapping where NDIS meets DES and exploring the emerging opportunities for truly innovative service design.