There is no doubt that the NDIS has transformed the lives of every Participant it’s touched, in some way or another. I’ve worked in either the Barwon, Hunter or ACT trial site since day one of the NDIS and speaking as a Provider, it’s given us a whole new set of challenges to work with. Every day is a learning experience working in and around the NDIS, and some of these lessons have been lightbulb moments while some have been hard-fought and ground out through lots of costly mistakes.
I am regularly asked “If you could wind back the clock and do something differently, what would it be?”. These are things I wish I had known three years ago:
The plane is being built in flight
This will come as no surprise to anyone working in NDIS today: the goalposts move on a weekly basis. Rules change, the Terms of Business don’t seem to align with the Act, the Portal works then doesn’t work, Planners and LACs give conflicting advice from one day to the next. The plane is being built in flight and sometimes it feels like nobody knows what it'll look like once it's finished. There is almost nothing that Providers can do about this, it’s just where we are in the rollout. Getting angry doesn’t help anyone. If I had my time again, I would get much less frustrated with the moving goalposts and try to approach everything with a good humour.
Everything I thought I knew, I needed to un-know
The rules of the game have changed completely. The people we need to keep happy, the people we need to align with, the organisations we thought were great operators: everything has shifted. I held on to some of those existing ways of thinking for too long. Being a Provider in the NDIS means getting comfortable with discomfort. I have a phrase that is the bane of my colleagues life but that fits the NDIS nicely: "If it isn't broken, screw it up and start again because it's too safe". If I had my time again, I would be much less shy about stopping doing things and work harder to change processes quicker.
Culture will get us through…but only if I invest in it
Culture doesn’t happen accidentally or even particularly naturally. It needs work and investment. It’s the anchor when the sea gets rough. It multiplies every good thing we do. But it needs work, and courage, and time set aside, and conscious thinking applied to everything we do to make sure we are growing and protecting culture. If I could pick anything to invest more in over the last three years, it wouldn’t be marketing or service design or consultation or IT. It would be culture. If If I had my time again, I would sacrifice almost everything else to get the culture right.
It’s ok to say no
One of the most freeing things I’ve learned in the last three years is that Choice And Control is for Providers as well as Participants. Previously the Department may have cut us a cheque every quarter and said “work with everyone with this diagnosis in this postcode”. In NDIS, it’s up to us as Providers on who we think we can deliver a gold standard service to. If we can’t deliver a high-quality service, we don’t – it’s NDIS suicide to try and be all things to all people. I’ve seen lots of Providers struggle with what they actually want to provide as a service. In Years 1 and 2 in ACT, we dabbled in everything: some Registered Nurse services, some Support Coordination, some Plan Management, some in-home services, some transport. It spread me too thin and took energy and enthusiasm away from the services I really wanted to deliver. If I had my time again, I would pick the services we could deliver (and wanted to deliver) much more critically, and I wouldn’t be afraid to own the fact that we can’t provide certain service types.
Shout the coffee
Partners in crime, aligned organisations, fellow Providers - we are all in this together. I’ve almost universally seen that organisations want to share their experiences and ideas – that Wolf Of Wall Street level of competition that everyone was concerned about just before rollout hasn’t eventuated. Partnering with other Providers has been one of the things that’s keep us sustainable in NDIS. We do A, B and C and a Partner Organisation can do X, Y and Z better than we ever could, and that’s ok. But those relationships and those partnerships need work. It’s much better to shout the coffee once a month rather than going through the stress and cost of finding another Provider to work with, or struggling to deliver the service yourself. If I had my time again, I would be much freer and more open with the partnerships I developed and worked harder to maintain them.
Demand was so much larger than I anticipated
I totally misjudged the demand. I was way off. On Day 1 of the trial site rollout in ACT, I thought that about 20, maybe 25 Participants would want to work with us. Today, if we were interested in empire building and would have said yes to every enquiry, we’d likely have almost 1000 Participants. I thought the big national Providers would hoover up most of the market, and that outside this there wouldn’t be much movement of clients between organisations. I was totally wrong. If I had my time again, I would be better prepared for huge increases in the number of enquiries we were receiving.
Providers have so much to learn from Participants, not the other way around
We have been through some enormous changes in how we work, what services we deliver, how we interact with the NDIA and with Participants, and I was steeled for backlash every time we went to Participants with these changes. And every time I was amazed by how empathetic, informed, understanding, up-to-date and reasonable Participants were (thinking back, there should not have been a reason why Participants wouldn’t be?). The view of participants as passive actors in their Plans ("what happens if they overspend!") couldn't be further from the truth. I got that one so wrong and could have saved lots of mental energy for my colleagues. If I had my time again, I would give Participants much more credit and let go of my ideas of who in the sector holds the knowledge.
There are no magic bullets to the workforce issue
We knew workforce would be a problem, and it’s proved that way. Staff of all levels are proving harder to find, especially those with knowledge of the NDIS and a commitment to it’s principles. There’s no easy fix for this, other than constantly refining what you do as a Provider and how you do it, and working on that becoming something that workers want to come to. It’s safer, more honest and better for everyone in the long run to say “no” to a client rather than start delivering services if you are unsure about whether you have the workforce, capacity or expertise to do it. If I had my time again, I would invest more emotion, effort and time into the great staff we already had rather than struggling for new ones.