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The government's vision linking policies, programs and services: keynote speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia Conference.



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Minister for Family & Community Services  

 

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister 

for the Status of Women 

 

Senator Jocelyn Newman

 

 

 

SPEECH BY SENATOR THE HON JOCELYN NEWMAN  

MINISTER FOR FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES

Keynote Speech to the Institute of Public Administration Australia Conference,

 

THE GOVERNMENT'S VISION  

LINKING POLICIES, PROGRAMS AND SERVICES

 

INTRODUCTION  

Thank you Anthony (Goonan) (from Telstra) for your introduction. And thank you to both IPAA Tasmania Division and IPAA National for inviting me to be a keynote speaker at your conference. 

 

I only wish my programme allowed me to spend more time with you today. 

 

It may not surprise you that I was very pleased when I heard this conference was to go ahead in my home State of Tasmania. So before I begin, I want to acknowledge the generosity of Telstra as the conference's principal corporate sponsor. 

 

While two other principal sponsors Centrelink and the Tasmanian Government deserve special mention also, I must say I'm very impressed by the number of other corporate contributors businesses of all sizes. 

 

This is the kind of corporate support John Howard was talking about when he spoke recently at the ACOSS conference. Businesses can help ensure the health and well-being of people in their communities in many ways, not just through philanthropic donations. In sponsoring this conference, the many private sector sponsors are supporting an important public forum that promotes productive discussion and debate about significant issues that affect our society. 

 

The Institute always attracts high profile and influential speakers and participants, from many different backgrounds and political persuasions. There's little doubt your deliberations here will help influence and shape the way government programs and services are delivered. And your conference themes - which centre on service delivery relate directly to the challenges, we in government, now face in the transition to the new millenium. 

 

A COMMITMENT TO SERVICE DELIVERY  

I've chosen today to talk about the Government's commitment to better linking our policies, programs and services. 

 

In its first term, the Howard Government demonstrated its commitment to improved Commonwealth service delivery to the Australian community by creating Centrelink as a one-stop shop. I'll be discussing Centrelink in some detail later 

 

The formation of my new portfolio of Family and Community Services - or FaCS as it's already become known in Canberra represents an extension of this commitment. It brings together the major arms of Commonwealth administration that were involved in social and family policy and service delivery. This gives us a new opportunity to get a clearer focus and to establish linkages between policy, programs and services that are more in tune with the Government's vision for its second term. This vision is based on the principles of:

 

  • sound economic foundations
  • a democratic and fair society a fairer tax system
  • a strong and sustainable social safety net
  • sharing responsibility by government, the non-government sector, business and individuals, including the prin ciple of mutual obligation
  • the importance of the family as the basic unit of society
  • education and training
  • prevention as well as cure
  • providing opportunities for all Australians

 

Underpinning this vision is the full implementation of the Government's tax plan. And at the recent ACOSS conference, the Prime Minister made a very telling point about this. He said:

The fact is without our plan for a new tax system other governments would have to increase other tax rates without any compensation just to pro vide the same level of essential community services. ...Should tax reform not occur then the long term viability of these services will be called into question"

While this conference is not about politics, I just want to restate how crucial our tax reform will be to maintaining and improving the level of government services Australians quite rightly have come to expect. 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG FAMILIES  

This Government believes strong families are central to maintaining a stable, cohesive and compassionate society. And as the core social unit in our society, families are entitled to fair and equitable help from government  

 

No government can legislate to make families strong, but we can set up financial and community systems that positively support families. Indeed, the driving force behind this Government's social and economic policies is to boost this support and to simplify access to it. 

 

In this second term of government, I want family support and efforts to avoid family break-up redoubled. We will be doing this by easing the financial burden placed on families and by supporting families to help them stay together. 

 

Most of us rely on our families, both immediate and extended, to give us the strength and help we need to carry us through difficult times. And when we lose this link through family break-ups, our sense of belonging can be threatened as our supporting networks decrease. 

 

The breakdown of the family unit is one of the major contributors to poverty. The challenge for us all - governments, communities, families and individuals is to try, as much as possible, to prevent these breakdowns happening.  

 

THE PIVOTAL ROLE OF NON-GOVERNMENT SERVICE PROVIDERS  

In this second term, I also want to focus more attention on the pivotal role non-government providers play in providing services on behalf of the Government. We recognise that in some cases, it can be more effective for them to deliver services, rather than governments. 

 

My own department funds a variety of services like these particularly in family mediation, child care, community housing and help for people with disabilities. Non-government organisations, many with the help of committed volunteers, can be in a very good position to solve problems at the grass roots' level in their own communities. Most of them have special knowledge about local problems and can solve these in practical ways. 

 

This kind of community service delivery on behalf of government deserves increasing attention and development. However, there's certainly scope for some fine-tuning, particularly in skills development, performance measurement and accountability. 

 

THE NEW FAMILY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES PORTFOLIO  

In 'designing' the new FaCS portfolio, the Prime Minister's intention was quite specifically to better integrate our social policies and to design workable programs. The challenge then, is to deliver these programs through the variety of service delivery mechanisms available. 

 

The portfolio now has many responsibilities that had been not very logically spread across a number of Commonwealth departments. We believed family and community programs and support services were not always linked properly to achieve clear and consistent outcomes. 

 

Briefly, I'll give you some idea of the changes involved. Under the FaCS 'umbrella' we have  

· All of the former social security functions, as well as Centrelink and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal; 

· Family support services from across government, including the children's services program, the Child Support Agency, family relationships services, the Institute of Family Studies and support for homeless people; and the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement. 

· Disability services programs, and the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service; 

· The Department itself has over 5000 staff, with a large network of offices across the States and Territories. 

 

By creating the new portfolio, the Government is sending a message that a major priority for this term is holistic and integrated support for Australians.  

 

The new department is responsible for a wide range of programs and services covering family support, people with disabilities, child care, public housing and income security. It will also work with other departments in many areas that affect the living standards of Australians, such as health, education, taxation, superannuation, savings and industry (particularly employment policy). 

 

What it will mean in practice, for example, is that the one department will carry out most of the work on improving family policies and services. But at the same time we will work on wider government reforms - for example, we have a senior representative on the Treasury team, charged with implementing the government's tax plan. 

 

It gives us the opportunity, as I said before, to better integrate and link income support and services. In the disabilities area, for example, we cover income support, services delivered by the States, as well as accommodation, equipment and rehabilitation services, and specialised employment services.  

 

In child care, the tax package merges two child care payments the Childcare Rebate and Childcare Assistance into a single payment called 'Child Care Benefit'. This change will form one element of the wider project to simplify and streamline the full range of family payments. 

 

Underlying all this, will be a renewed emphasis on people living in rural and remote areas. And we'll aim to identify any duplication, anomalies and gaps. In future, this will mean change for government organisations, as we redefine and improve service delivery and introduce new technologies and find greater efficiencies. In other services, such as face-to-face family mediation and counselling, we may find we need to allocate more of the portfolio's resources to respond properly to the problems of families in crisis. 

 

In the new FaCS portoflio there are two Ministers. Broadly, I have responsibility for strategic and policy issues and I represent the portfolio in Cabinet. The appointment of Warren Truss as the Community Services Minister, with responsibility for service delivery, will give a greater focus to the effective delivery of programs. 

 

Good links within and beyond my portfolio are even more important now, given the size and scope of the new organisation. Warren and I will work very closely with our ministerial colleagues, and many others in business and the community, to ensure a 'whole-of-government' approach to policy and program design and service delivery.  

 

Overall, I believe, these new arrangements, will see social agendas at the Commonwealth level - both within the Government and within the bureaucracy enjoy a strengthened and renewed profile. 

 

DEVELOPING POLICIES FOR GOVERNMENT  

In talking about FaCS, and specifically about issues of service delivery, I want to examine how, from my view as a Minister, the new portfolio can work most effectively. 

 

The core of the department's work will be to develop social policy solutions for families and the community. Underlying this, will be the Government's commitment to an adequate social safety net, in a society which encourages independence, choice and self-reliance for individuals. 

 

The best way of achieving the Government's goals may be to look at the critical points in the lives of families and individuals, where access to support and advice has the greatest chance of success.  

 

The critical points we are talking about occur at particular life stages - for instance: marriage, birth of children, adolescence, leaving school, being ill or unemployed, death or separation from a partner or retiring from the workforce. 

 

The Government already provides funds and services directly related to some of these stages: 

· The Family Relationships Services that deliver pre-marriage education and preparation, and mediation in disputes to support family relationships. 

· The Maternity Allowance payments to help with the extra costs of a new baby with links to child immunisation. 

· The Carer Pension is paid if you look after someone in their own home who is sick, frail or aged. 

· And the Prime Minister is currently considering the report of his Taskforce into Youth Homelessness, convened by Captain David Eldridge of the Salvation Army. This will give us a good indication of where the community thinks we can better help families through the difficult transition period to adulthood. 

 

You have probably heard Sue Vardon speaking about Centrelink's new service delivery model. For Centrelink, it also makes sense to focus on real life situations for people, rather than placing the onus on the individual to know what combination of payments or services they might be entitled to.  

 

For this new approach to succeed on the ground, we must try to ensure that both our policies and programs and our services are developed with close co-operation from all the stakeholders. That is what the creation of the FaCS portfolio gives us the chance to do. 

 

DELIVERING SERVICES EFFECTIVELY AND EFFICIENTLY  

We all recognise policy advice and programs cannot be developed in a vacuum. Policies will only work if they match the capability of service providers to deliver them to people who need them most. The challenge will be to achieve real integration at the policy level and to reflect it in the administration by collaborating with Centrelink and other agencies.  

 

The bottom line is that the department is ultimately accountable to government, through me, for the efficient use of taxpayers' money. So it's in everyone's interests to construct realistic and deliverable programs. It's essential that, in separating policy and service delivery, the department works in collaborative partnership with a wide variety of service providers. This means that programs are more likely to be tailored and targeted properly and informed by practical experience in effective delivery. Assessment of best practice is going to be increasingly important if policy is to be translated into action. 

 

The new FaCS portfolio now encompasses a number of service delivery bodies and mechanisms. How the arrangements work varies. I want to discuss these briefly because our service providers now have a golden opportunity for close interaction and to learn best practice from each other through cross fertilisation and exchange of ideas. 

 

Centrelink  

I understand that Sue Vardon has already covered the scope of Centrelink's work and where they are headed. Lisa Paul, from FaCS, has given a detailed paper on the purchaser/provider relationship between the department and Centrelink. And Keith Bender from Centrelink talked about balancing customer, purchaser and government expectations. I won't go over this ground again. 

 

Most of you would know Centrelink was set up as a statutory agency to provide a 'one-stop' service to Australians who may need income support, as well as employment assistance and many of the community services offered by several departments. Essentially, Centrelink was set up not only to maintain, but improve, services to the Australian people. 

 

I want to say something about how well, from the Government's perspective, this major administrative change has been working. And I think it's important too, to respond to some of the unfortunate misrepresentations made recently about the issues facing the organisation 

 

Setting up Centrelink was one of the boldest decisions ever taken to improve Commonwealth Government service delivery. There was no culmination of events or crisis that forced the change. It was the result of long term public dissatisfaction with the existing arrangements. It simply had to be done. 

 

I'm the first to admit that, as one might expect with any such radical administrative reform, there have been a few teething problems. Inevitably these, rather than successes, are publicised. However, a very substantial cultural change is going on within Centrelink. It is turning into a much more customer-focused organisation than a traditional department could ever hope to be.  

 

To support this, we've put a lot of resources into training staff about the customer service ethic and into improving the computer and telephone systems. And the level of complaints to the Ombudsman has gone down significantly over the past year.  

 

We are increasing the range of ways that customers can do business with Centrelink. This will involve doing more business via the internet, by phone and fax and at electronic information kiosks around the country. These innovations are the direct result of the consultation with 8,000 customers that took place over the last year.  

 

There have been some very successful trials as well. The results of these will point to some future directions for service delivery. Here in Tasmania we've been sharing office sites with the State and local governments. 

 

There's also going to be a rural telephone network set up to answer calls from people living in rural areas. And there's a trial going on in Cairns where we are taking calls from Indigenous people and community agents from remote communities. And the new Family Assistance Office, that will deliver the new and simplified family assistance programs, is being set up as a joint venture involving Centrelink and the Tax Office  

 

Turning now to recent events. It's no secret that when the Government announced the creation of Centrelink, the need for an efficiency dividend was spelt out. After all, the service delivery networks of two very large government departments were amalgamating. We knew this must lead to efficiency gains. At the same time, the Government allocated very generous start-up funds to make sure Centrelink had enough resources to begin operation as a new, customer-focused agency. 

 

The Centrelink Board believes that the organisation can meet this efficiency dividend and that does mean cuts in total staff numbers, but only through natural attrition and voluntary redundancies and still meet the Government's and the public's expectations for improved service delivery.  

 

Centrelink says it can do this with increased productivity, new technologies, more (but smaller) offices and specialised customer service. Interestingly, even without these latest initiatives, around 50 Centrelink offices have already achieved the productivity target that's been set for the end of next year 1999! So the signs are very encouraging. 

 

Yet I understand that yesterday Michael Raper had some unkind comments to make about our new baby - Centrelink. 

 

The enormous challenge of turning around a huge public sector organisation of 24,000 people into a totally customer-focussed entity in 12 months, has perhaps not been recognised by Michael and others. 

 

The challenge facing Centrelink over the next year is to have all its 400 offices operating to the level of efficiency already achieved by the best 50 offices. 

 

I cannot believe that ACOSS would endorse inadequate or inefficient service to those in need. I don't. Our goal is to provide caring and very efficient service to those seeking help. 

 

Over time, Centrelink's critics will recognise its achievements in best practice government service delivery. In the longer term, Centrelink will take on extra work from other departments and different levels of government. And most likely they'll need more staff as this work comes on stream. There's no doubt in my mind, that we are going to have a system that will be the envy of public administrations across the world.  

 

CRS Australia  

Another body within the FaCS portfolio is CRS Australia (the old Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service). Each year, through its network of 160 offices, the CRS helps about 26,000 people with an injury or disability to return to work and to find jobs. 

 

The current relationship between the department and CRS Australia, is different from its relationship with Centrelink. Basically, the department's Disability Programs area purchases services from the CRS, which is another part of the department. 

 

We have said that the CRS should go down the contestability track and it should be exposed to competition from non-government service providers. This competition will achieve the best possible return on the substantial government resources available for rehabilitation services and provide customers with an increased choice of service provider. What we've also said is that the service will remain free of charge to those who are eligible, and that people in rural and remote areas will not be disadvantaged. 

 

Child Support Agency  

I think as with CRS Australia having the Child Support Agency join us, presents some very exciting opportunities for more flexible and responsive customer service right across the portfolio. 

 

Apart from some legislative housekeeping, its core operations will not be affected by the changes. Nor will the changes undermine the strong operational links the Agency has with the Tax Office. 

 

The agency has specialist expertise in compliance and recovery and much of its business is done by phone. At the customer contact level, however, there is scope for improved service and greater efficiencies. This could include co-locating with Centrelink or family relationships' services in some places and by providing targeted visiting services.  

 

In Gosford, we already have a pilot with Child Support staff working alongside Centrelink staff. This model is working well for people many of whom are experiencing family breakdown to get the help they need in one place. In Albury Centrelink and the CSA work out of the same building and customers are finding they get better service. 

 

Often, people are in contact with the Child Support Agency when their family relationships are in crisis. With our family counselling and mediation services we can bring in some preventative support at an early stage. There's also the issue of helping families to maintain good relationships, even after the family unit is no longer intact. I think there's great potential for the Child Support Agency to work much more closely with the people who provide these valuable support services. 

 

CONCLUSION  

Today, I've tried to give you some idea of the directions we are taking to better link-up our policies, programs and services in the family and community services portfolio.  

 

It makes good sense for the community, and importantly from a Minister's point of view, it's good use of taxpayers' money 

Finally, I want to acknowledge that for public servants, this integrated approach presents some substantial challenges. In some cases it involves massive reorganisation and change. It also means people are having to think more broadly about the inter-relationships between various programs and activities throughout their own, and other, agencies. 

 

Based on our experiences in the past two years particularly with the successful transition to Centrelink I'm very confident that people working in my portfolio, have the professionalism, creativity (and stamina) to meet those challenges. I'm very proud to be their Minister. 

 

Again, thank you for asking me to speak at your conference.

 

 

 

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