Why I Am Called Crazy By My Peers

Mickael Blanc – Chief Executive Officer

For people who work in the human services industry, to say that we live in an interesting time is certainly an understatement. With the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the disability sector is undertaking structural changes which are creating high levels of change and uncertainty. However, for those who are optimistic and strategically focused, this chaotic environment is teeming with opportunities.

Eighteen months ago, I took over the leadership of Focal, a 44 year old community support organisation in Ipswich.  Under the present environment, our journey has been a rich and bumpy one filled with steep learning experiences. What motivated me to write this article is the continuous bombardment of often conflictual information about the NDIS, and in particular, the impact that this has on our community. Recently, a couple of my staff sent me an article written by James Purtill, titled “Thousands of disability care jobs are coming, but don’t expect to go permanent”.

I must acknowledge that I profoundly disagree with the vision the author paints. Not only because it is my promise as a leader to provide permanent work to my employees (hence why I am called crazy by my peers), but also because I believe that it misinforms the public.

At Focal, we have been preparing for the NDIS for over 24 months. With 70 percent of our clients now fully transitioned, we have a good understanding of what is happening. I am not questioning the fantastic increase in supports available to our clients and customers. What I disagree with, is the NDIS being responsible for the casualisation of the sector’s workforce. Don’t get me wrong – I understand firsthand the financial burden that the fixed price scheme puts on the industry. I am hopeful that reports from the Productivity Commission, a change of the Board and CEO, and a review by independent consulting group McKenzie & Co, will nudge the scheme back on track.

What I am challenging, is that organisations are ultimately responsible for employing staff – not the NDIS.  It is very easy to blame government reforms for decisions which put pressure on employers, their staff and the community. I believe that many organisations have taken the easy path, and made short-term HR decisions without looking at the big picture.

Why casualization is the wrong answer to the wrong question.

In our industry, we all recognise the levels of uncertainty which have resulted due to different elements. One of the main contributors – the implementation of a totally new scheme – is well known, but one of the other unspoken issues seems to be cash-flow related. Indeed, the days of quarterly grant payments in advance are being replaced by the NDIS marketplace.

In this new environment, clients have full choice and control over who they pay to deliver their services. Clients are no longer forced into working with organisations where their funding is allocated. Moreover, clients now only pay for when a needed service is delivered. In addition, clients can now choose what types of supports they want, who their support worker is, and well… you get the picture.

My argument is that service providers need to change their mindset regarding cash flow and its impact on their workforce. Instead of focusing on cutting costs to support the organisation, they should focus on growing the organisation to support its workforce. I am not challenging the fact that the NDIS and its pricing structure is a catalyst to cash flow issues. Rather, I am challenging the perception that it is the cause of the issue.

It is important for everyone to remember that trust is built over time between clients and their workers. Consequently, client loyalty lies more with the person who delivers their service, rather than the organisation who is facilitating it.

Employee satisfaction then, which is highly correlated to having enough paid work, means that employees may be more inclined to leave without that security. Employee satisfaction also directly influences the quality of service that they deliver, which then affects overall client satisfaction. Keeping a dissatisfied workforce is counter-productive in the long run, especially when you consider the potential loss of income from clients leaving the organisation.

Another argument to be made is the cost of training and investment made for each employee to deliver excellent service. When you consider the level of investment in terms of time, training and supervision, losing employees to other organisations could be classified as asset impairment and therefore, a loss.

What is the incentive of having casual workers?

If you redirect the workforce debate to where it should be, (i.e. finding the right composition of your workforce to deliver value to your clients under NDIS), a compelling debate remains to work with casuals. Indeed, clients can leave your organisation at leisure, thus putting pressure on your ability to pay your whole workforce. A casual workforce does offer more flexibility in a market facing structural changes.

What is important to remember though, is that all factors need to be considered by leaders to ensure that they make the right decisions. The real issue here is that the NDIS is not the culprit for workforce casualisation, rather, that is the choice of employers in the industry. Leaders should consider the composition of their workforce to maximise quality of service, while they deliver intended surplus back to the organisation.

I recognise that the above does not solve systemic issues, such as unadapted pricing or implementation issues with the NDIS. Those elements will need to be addressed as a matter of priority, if government and stakeholders want to ensure the sustainability of the NDIS.

The good news for organisations like Focal, is they now have much more flexibility to better their support for clients, staff and the wider community. You can call me crazy, but it certainly feels good to work in an environment full of opportunities.