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Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit
National funding agreements

BAKER, Dr Ken, Chief Executive, National Disability Services


CHAIR: I welcome the witness from National Disability Services. Thank you for appearing today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and wants the same respect as the proceedings of the House and Senate. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Do you wish to make an opening statement before we proceed to questions?

Dr Baker : Thank you for the opportunity to meet with the committee. National Disability Services represents non-government disability service providers around Australia. We have around 700 organisational members. I would like to confine my comments to the National Disability Agreement, if I may. The National Disability Agreement does represent significant progress on its predecessor, the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement. Some of the ways in which that is true are: the explicit recognition it gives to the role of family carers which was absent from the previous agreement; a stronger emphasis on employment and on providing opportunities for people with a disability to work; the inclusion of aids and equipment which had been excluded from the previous Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement; a commitment to develop a national workforce strategy—again, workforce issues are critical to the quality of service provision, and there had been no recognition of that in the previous agreement; and the inclusion of performance indicators and performance benchmarks and a listing of priority areas with timelines. These are all, in our view, representative of progress.

The preceding agreement—the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement—was judged a failure by the sector, and I think there was quite a powerful report from the Senate standing committee on community affairs on the operation and funding of that agreement which judged it a failure as well. In 2005, the Australian National Audit Office reported on the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement and criticised it for its failure to include any meaningful or robust indicators that would enable anyone to test progress against the objective of the agreement. It said there were:

… no indicators of the quality of life of people with disabilities, their participation in the community, their value in the community, or any related parameters.

The preceding agreement lacked any of those important performance indicators. The new agreement includes performance indicators, but I think it is weak in two ways. The first is that although I would support the move away from focusing on inputs to focusing on outcomes because it is a reasonable move in policy terms, the adequacy of data to measure progress in relation to those outcomes is lacking. The COAG Reform Council, in its second annual report of the performance of this agreement which was just released this month, said:

In this second year report, the council finds that out-of-date data for some indicators, the lack of any data for a number of further indicators, and the absence of agreed measures for others, make it difficult to determine whether progress has been made toward meeting COAG’s overall objective.

The council noted in its 2008-09 baseline report that options for the provision of more frequent survey data are being explored and this should remain a priority. So I think there is recognition that the data to properly measure progress in this agreement is lacking, but at the same time there is no input data—that is, the minimum funding commitments from states and territories, which had been in the previous Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement, are absent from this agreement. So we are in a difficult situation where we have taken the focus away from inputs while having inadequate data to inform our monitoring of outcomes.

I think the larger point I would like to make is that the Commonwealth State Territory Disability Agreement was judged a failure. I think this agreement is a framework for piecemeal reform. The priorities it sets out I think are reasonable priorities. The objectives are reasonable objectives. But it is piecemeal reform of a system that really requires fundamental change. That has been recognised in a number of key national reports over the last few years, most prominently the Productivity Commission's recent draft report into disability care and support, which concluded that the current disability services system is underfunded, inequitable, fragmented, inefficient and provides people with disability, their families and carers with too little choice. It recommended the introduction of a national disability insurance scheme and, parallel to that, a national injury insurance scheme. So it made very strong statements about the failure of the current system and I do not think it is within the capacity of the current national disability agreement to fix those problems; it requires a more fundamental change.

CHAIR: I certainly appreciate the input. You have touched on something that seems to be emerging in a number of submissions we have received—that is, the issue of data collection and the question of what these very desirable outcomes are being reported against and how we can improve those. As far as you are concerned, in trying to take it from identifying this problem that the reform council and others are identifying in data collection, do you have suggestions for us on how that can be improved? What model, if there is one out there, can we look at as a good example of getting more timely data and substantive definitions? Are there examples out there that are the shining lights? In regards to areas where there are problems, are you aware of any work that is being done across agencies that is at least having a go in this area and which we can encourage as much as possible?

Dr Baker : I do not think I can point to an ideal model. I can say that I think there are two sets of problems with the data, one is timeliness. I think the standout case there is figures on workforce participation and employment. These are available at present only through one source, which is the Survey of Disability, Aging and Carers, and that occurs every six years. So the figures we have been relying on until the last couple of months, when the 2009 SDAC figures were available, were 2003 figures. In that area where the government has such a strong focus on increasing workforce participation, where workforce participation is such a key driver of the economy, it seems to me ludicrous to be relying on figures in this area that are six years out of date.

CHAIR: Just to clarify that: are ministers making decisions based on the same information or are they able to access more timely information that the sector is not able to access and, therefore, it is an unfair balance in a public policy discussion, or are you identifying something more systemic whereby all of us are really making decisions six years after the event?

Dr Baker : It is the latter: Ministers have no other source of data on that particular area of workforce participation and employment. So timeliness is the first area of difficulty and the second is just the meaningfulness of data. This is not an easy area in a disability environment or perhaps in human services overall. In public policy there is at present a strong and, I think, very laudatory emphasis on increasing the participation of people with disability in all domains of life, not just the economy but civil society. There is the National Disability Strategy, which has been endorsed by COAG, to promote that as a whole-of-government strategy. But our capacity to measure in a meaningful way what participation in non-economic terms means is not easy. But I think there is work underway in that area, and I would hope that we could develop some robust indicators. I think the COAG Reform Council has indicated some areas where that may occur.

There is within the agreement itself some commitments to improve the availability of data, in particular data in relation to the need, the demand, for services. That work has been occurring within governments, with the New South Wales government being the lead agency, but it is not available yet to the sector.

CHAIR: On a second point in regard to agencies themselves and their responsibilities for disability services and the implementation of them, are you satisfied with the broader point about cultural change taking place within agencies and then also the more specific point that we have just been talking about which is the reporting requirements within agencies that they are both establishing them and doing their best to try and meet them within agency and, hopefully, from that that cultural change is taking place?

Dr Baker : Do you mean government agencies or non-government agencies?

CHAIR: Government agencies—basically, government departments.

Dr Baker : There is widespread recognition in government agencies that we need more robust data in this area. I think that is accepted. I think the challenge ahead will lie particularly in measuring progress of the National Disability Strategy because that is a whole-of-government approach, which takes in not only Commonwealth government agencies but state, territory and local government agencies as well. That will remain a document sitting on somebody's shelf unless we have a robust, concrete implementation plan and some very meaningful measures of progress in relation to that. The objectives of the National Disability Strategy are quite compatible with the National Disability Agreement.

CHAIR: I imagine you would very much welcome a statement to parliament on the National Disability Agreement. What would be your view in line of individual departments forgoing any reporting requirements they may have now and allowing for that broader reporting to happen through a separate statement on the National Disability Agreement?

Dr Baker : As part of the National Disability Strategy, I understand it is now required that the review of all other national agreements take account of disability. I think this should be the mechanism or the lever to have other government agencies include disability relevant data in their own collections. We need to know more—for example, about how well children with disability are doing in the education system. We do not have enough information on that. We need to know how they are faring in the justice system.

Mrs D'ATH: The Productivity Commission has inquired into disabilities. Did they make any recommendations in relation to the collection of and the timeliness of data? Can you advise the committee what those recommendations are?

Dr Baker : Yes. They certainly believe that there should be improved data and, in fact, broader than that, they believe that there should be a greatly increased investment in research. The historic investment in research in the disability sector has been very low and that is a symptom of a highly rationed sector where every last dollar goes to service delivery rather than to training and research. To illustrate: under the Commonwealth, state and territory agreement, the collective commitment to research and development was $2 million over five years—$400,000 a year from all government. Under this agreement that has increased to $10 million, but it is still just $2 million a year over five years, a tiny amount of the $6 billion expended annually through that agreement. The Productivity Commission was particularly aware of the inadequacy of data because it had to do some very important calculations around the unmet need for services and the costs of delivering those services. So it has recommended increased investment in research, including data collection.

Mrs D'ATH: Your evidence before on the National Disability Strategy does outline the process whereby individual agencies should now be reporting at the government level. I am also interested in your views as to what approaches you think can be taken to data gathering without overburdening the service providers who are already under a lot of strain as far as their reporting is concerned.

Dr Baker : It is certainly true; they are experiencing quite a heavy compliance burden. I think as a broad statement, they would be willing to cooperate in data collections if they saw that the collections were meaningful, provided meaningful input in policy and contributed to enhancing life opportunities to people with disabilities. If that connection was clear to them, that this data would improve the operation of the disability services system, improve the way in which we could support people with disability, they would contribute. I know this from my own experience with their National Disability Services where we survey our members and we collect data from our members. If they can clearly see the benefit of providing that data, they will do that.

Mrs D'ATH: My last question is based on your comments just then. How often does your organisation collect the data and is that data publicly released?

Dr Baker : The collections are ad hoc, so they are collected for a particular purpose. In some cases, it would be publicly available and in other cases it would not be.

Mrs D'ATH: Thank you.

Ms BRODTMANN: I think your observations about the data collection and timeliness, or lack thereof, are interesting. I want to go back one step further, in terms of the reporting on performance. We are exploring ways in which we can better capture that at the federal level, but we are also very keen to get some idea about how we can get visibility of it throughout the chain of these agreements. We have the macro objectives. How does it work? The macro KPIs are set. How does it filter down to the various service levels and how does it work, in terms of reporting up? Is there a system in place or is it ad hoc?

Dr Baker : Calling it a system would be going too far. There is some flow in both directions, but the system as a whole does not function well, in the way you are describing it.

Ms BRODTMANN: How could we look at improvements? I am putting you on the spot here, but are there any improvements at the top of your mind that we could make in that area? I have cited this before. One delivery organisation in my electorate has someone working full-time on reporting. It is a straight admin reporting position, because they are getting grants from all over the place. So I do realise it is a significant burden on service delivery agencies, but it is about trying to get some sort of uniformity, in a way. I am trying to get a sense from you about what would work and what would not work.

Dr Baker : We have the same problems. We are currently interrogating the dataset in the survey on disability carers. It is quite difficult to extract some of it. The picture from the point of view of service providers is that they are often feeding into multiple data collections, some of which overlap and not all of which include meaningful data items. It seems to me that there would be sense in, if you like, auditing that and producing a reduced but more meaningful consolidated set which may have multiple purposes. The principle that the Productivity Commission has articulated, in terms of reporting to government, which is 'one report, many uses'—that is the ideal they put forward—could apply to data provision as well.

Ms BRODTMANN: This is a discussion we have had in my office. We get a uniform set of KPIs, but how do we make sure that they are tailored in a way where they reflect the reality of what is happening for each sector, realising that each sector has different outcomes and objectives? How do you balance that uniformity while, at the same time, acknowledging difference?

Dr Baker : I cannot give an easy answer to that. There are attempts at present to try to, in parallel to this, look at the different quality systems to which organisations have to comply and do a cross-check. So, if they have complied with one quality accreditation system, then they may have complied, in effect, with 90 per cent of another requirement. The same principle could apply to data as well. There will be some data required that is distinct to one particular program or sector and there will be some that will be common to many.

Ms BRODTMANN: To all, exactly.

Dr Baker : So that process through which a number of states are taking their quality systems through this cross-checking analysis, where you can identify the common elements and then the distinctive elements, could be done with data systems and data collections as well.

Ms BRODTMANN: So are the states and territories imposing this sort of quality assurance on service delivery agencies? Am I right in assuming that these are international quality standards that you have to—

Dr Baker : There are disability service standards with which all organisations who provide services under the National Disability Agreement have to comply. The compliance regimes that exist differ from state to state, and there is now a process through the National Disability Agreement to develop a common framework with some key elements with which all systems have to comply. So that is still work in progress.

Ms BRODTMANN: Is there a time line or deadline on that?

Dr Baker : There is a time line. I think that under the agreement it was due for completion in 2010. We are looking now towards 2012. That includes a review of the Disability Services Standards.

Ms BRODTMANN: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. We might conclude there if no-one has any other questions. Thank you, Dr Baker, for making the time to come and speak with the committee today. Please feel free, as we have said to everyone else, to feed in any additional information to the committee through the secretariat. We certainly appreciate your time today.

Dr Baker : Thanks for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Before I close today's public hearing, is it the wish of the committee that the committee authorise publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the proof of the transcript of the evidence given before it at the public hearing today? There being no objection, it is so ordered. Again, on behalf of the committee I would like to thank all the witnesses who have given evidence to the public hearing today. I would also like to thank Hansard and Broadcasting for their assistance.

Committee adjourned at 12:02