Human services revolution rumbles under the radar

How collaboration can keep the public policy ecosystem healthy’ was the theme of the 5th annual ‘Power to Persuade’ symposium held in Melbourne recently. The elephant in the room, however, was the current Productivity Commission investigation into the marketisation of human public services in Australia.  Potentially affecting the design of policy, means of delivery and pricing for every single public service we consume — from Medicare to prison ‘services’ — the investigation is the pointy end of a Australian human services revolution now underway, and one which we all should be watching more closely.

‘Power to Persuade’ is discussion community for people interested in, researching, practising or working in social policy, launched by Dr Gemma Carey (UNSW Canberra) and Dr Kathy Landvogt (WRAP, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand).  It aims to “improve understanding and communication between the main groups involved in the policy process: government, academics and the community sector.”  The network is simply structured — just a blog and an annual symposium. But the impact of this novel and slim vehicle is significant and increasing.

The single-day program delivered to a packed room in Melbourne comprised a hefty 18 presentations including Andrew Tongue, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, who spoke about the practicalities of influencing policy development at ‘the centre’ from ‘the outside’.  Michael Perusco, CEO of Yarra Community Housing, described how cross-sectoral collaboration with Infrastructure Partnerships Australia allowed a much more powerful pitch to government, succeeding with obtaining new funding for a grass roots social housing initiative. Professor Evelyne de Leeuw of the University of NSW talked about ‘shaping’ political will.

Probing competition in human service provision

But the drumbeat of the day was provided by the Productivity Commission’s current investigation into the introduction of competition, contestability and user choice into the delivery of Australian human services, and many speakers referred to it.  The Commission’s Issues Paper was released in June 2016, and the first round of consultations closed in July, drowned in the noise of the recent federal election. Anecdotally, it appears that many in the community sector are still unaware that the process is afoot. This is a little alarming, considering the breadth of the terms of reference, and the depth of its potential impact on services.

The terms of reference ask the Commission to identify human services areas where ‘marketisation’ would improve efficiency and effectiveness, and then to recommend how competition, contestability, user choice and ‘alternative pricing and funding models’ might be introduced in those areas.  The ‘not exhaustive’ list of services up for examination include those in “health, education, community services, job services, social housing, prisons, aged care and disability services’. Now, if that is not an utterly exhaustive list, it is certainly difficult to imagine what else could possibly be added.

Does productivity equal human benefit?

In answer to the Productivity Commission paper, the Power to Persuade network responded with a Social Services Futures Dialogue, a report containing 14 papers by academics, policy practitioners and not-for-profit leaders addressing problematic aspects of the Productivity Commission’s brief. The writers’ perspectives vary. The overarching message, however, is that market models don’t work in social services: that appropriate evaluation and rational user choice are often impossible, and that the aims of competitive service providers don’t necessarily map over outcomes that users value. The rorts and failures of the recent competitive experiments in the employment services and vocational training sectors are repeatedly cited as examples.

Efficient v effective

There have been other commentators in the middle-ground of this so-far quiet debate. Dr Nicholas Gruen, a senior economist and government adviser and founding director at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and Chris Vanstone, TACSI’s chief innovation officer, agree that competition could improve the efficiency of the delivery of services in a number of areas, but warn that competition and user choice are not magic bullets. TACSI suggests serious attention should be given to design of the ‘brains’ of the new system, the “systems of intelligence gathering, judgement, market experimentation, evaluation, judgement, knowhow and market shaping that are likely to sit within government.”

Three sectors in partnership

Another long-standing commentator is the now-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, Professor Peter Shergold, previously head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Shergold has long advocated the leveraging of market dynamics to improve the delivery of public services.  But, like Gruen’s, his vision — the three-sector solution—also focusses on the vital importance of a major overhaul to the machinery of government in the social sphere.  He says the community sector and business should be full partners with government — not only in the delivery of human services, but in the design of policy, programmes, forms of evaluation, oversight and accountability.

Public participation matters now

The Productivity Commission’s preliminary findings, on service targets appropriate for marketisation, is due very soon — in September, 2016. There will be an opportunity for comments and then a second round of consultation. It’s time for the community sector to get thinking, talking and writing.  Citizen involvement is an important lever in this debate.  Is competition and user pays/user choice in social services what we need, what we want? And if so, what sort of process and principles should govern it?

by Maree Livermore

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