If you paid close attention to the saga that was the federal election then a) you have a higher tolerance for politicians than most Australians and should be commended for it, and b) you are probably somewhat familiar with the issue of NDIA’s staffing cap. The staffing cap is a controversy as old as the NDIS itself. In the last election, Labor promised to remove the Agency’s staffing restraints when they came into office. Well, we all know how that turned out. With that electoral promise the staffing cap took a foray into electoral politics. But the issue in itself does not have to be inherently partisan. Indeed, with all sides of politics promising to “fix the NDIS,” removing the staffing cap is really far more of a practical solution than an ideological position.
If you asked the average person connected to the disability sector to list what they see as the biggest problems facing the NDIS, the staffing cap would be unlikely to make it into the top 3. Who would pick that over Plan Review waiting times, thin markets, access inequalities, SDA, assistive technology, transport, etc.? But to fix any one of those issues, the NDIA would have to hire staff dedicated to finding and implementing a solution. But unfortunately they can’t do that, because they are constrained in how many staff they can employ. And for this reason, the staffing cap is so much more than just a political side-show, it is a central issue that we have all been ignoring for far too long.
How did we get here?
When the Productivity Commission envisioned the NDIA way back in 2011, they proposed an agency with a workforce of about 10,000 people. Sadly, however, wishing alone does not make it so. In the 2014 budget, the Abbott government placed a 3,000 person staffing cap on the Agency (at full Scheme). This forced the NDIA to enter into community partnership in order to implement the NDIS. And that is how LACs became responsible for the majority of the Planning workload. Originally, LACs were supposed to play a community development role and Planning was going to be left to the Agency.
In 2017, the Productivity Commission urged the government to remove the staffing cap in the only way that the federal bureaucracy knows how to make recommendations- as part of a 521 page report. Shockingly, that did not work. But last year, the government did raise the cap by 400 employees. So, yay (I guess?).
Is the staffing cap really such a bad idea?
The Productivity Commission were not just being Big Government Communists when they recommended releasing the Agency from its staffing shackles. They actually had some pretty good reasons (which you would find if you managed to get 412 pages into the report). Having a community partnership system has some advantages, but it prevents the NDIA from building the institutional expertise necessary in these early years. It could also hamper efforts to implement new programs that address some of the issues the NDIS is facing. The example the Productivity Commission actually gives is implementing the new Participant and Provider Pathways. This was back in 2017. And when was the last time you heard an update on that little promise?
Moreover, you know all those articles The Australian publishes about how much the NDIA spends on contractors and how we’re all like “What!?! So much?” Well, because of the staffing cap, they might not actually have much of a choice. Short of making their current staff work double the hours for the same pay, the Agency actually kind of needs to use contractors and consultants when work just has to get done. So really, the staffing cap may actually cost the taxpayer far more than it saves.
You could also argue that making LACs responsible for Planning was one of the great Big Mistakes of the NDIS. The Productivity Commission wanted LACs to play a community development role because they saw this as an essential function worthy of time and attention. It was an acknowledgement that individual funding cannot do everything, that sometimes markets fail and that the vast majority of people with disability will not be eligible for an NDIS Plan. In 2014 when they made this decision, DSC Executive Director Roland predicted that the community development role of LACs would be swallowed up by their huge Planning workload. And he wasn’t wrong. In 2019, the acronym ‘LAC’ has become synonymous with ‘Planners.’
Where to from here?
Labor’s election pledge for the NDIA, and indeed the whole public service, was that they would assign a budget and it would be up to the Agency to determine staffing within that. This would definitely go part of the way to addressing the constraints on the Agency’s performance. But it is by no means the whole story. At full Scheme, the NDIA’s operational budget will be capped at 7% of Plan expenditure. So for every $100 they commit to people’s Plans, they can spend no more than $7 on operational expenses. This second cap also has the potential to impede the Agency’s ability to make short-term investments that could improve long-term efficiency. It could also mean that even if the staffing cap was lifted, the NDIA might not actually be able to employ that many more people within their 7% operational budget.
We cannot give up on staffing or budgetary caps because of the result of the election. To do so would be disservice to the entire NDIS. And there is hope on the horizon. The Coalition has promised to fix up some of the issues in the Scheme, including addressing the ridiculously long waiting times around Planning, Reviews and eligibility. And, honestly, good luck doing that without employing more staff. Moreover, as long as the NDIA is forced to spend large amounts of money on contractors, there will always be pressure on the government to just let them hire some more staff. So, while the path to removing the staffing cap might be less clear than it was on 17th May, we cannot give up just yet. If the government is serious about its commitment to addressing problems in the NDIS, then the staffing cap will be an issue they just can’t ignore.