There has been intense political debate over the NDIS through 2021. We have heard minister Reynolds describe inequality in the size of NDIS plans by postcode, where she suggested that participants in richer postcodes get larger packages.
There are certainly inequities in the NDIS, with some groups faring better than others. Recently, my colleagues Eleanor Malbon, James Blackwell and I conducted a systematic review of participant experiences of the NDIS, looking at all published literature on the scheme to date. We found that the scheme is administratively complex – an observation most anyone involved in the NDIS could tell you.
But that complexity, and the amount of administrative burden that the scheme creates as a result, falls unevenly – or hits harder – across population groups and individuals. Our review found that administrative burdens are exacerbated for CALD and Indigenous communities. The inequalities experienced by these participants are in fact likely much greater, and more complex, than concerns over NDIS package size. Our review found that they also leave many completely disengaged from the scheme.
After examining the experiences of diverse groups accessing the NDIS captured in other research, we then theorised why some fared better than others. It is often temping when confronted with the observation that minority populations are not doing as well as others because of something intrinsic to them. That there are attributes or characteristics of the groups struggling to engage with, or draw benefit, from policies. From here, we often then design specific strategies to target those groups (and indeed, the NDIS has launched a strategy into engaging Indigenous communities).
But what if we flipped the question, and ask why is it that white people, and rich people, did not show up in our review as struggling to navigate the NDIS?
There is a growing body of work – both related to the NDIS and social policy more broadly – showing there is often a fundamental disconnect between the policies and services we create, and many of the groups who need them most. And that, when we dig deeper into this phenomenon, we can see that this is because the social policy systems we create reflect those who created them. In the case of the NDIS, and no doubt other areas, these systems and services are created by educated middle class predominately white people.
This is not to say that consultations and other efforts to reach CALD or Indigenous groups aren’t undertaken, but rather that when it comes to making key decisions those groups are not at the table. And, as a result, the systems we design are discordant with their needs, their experiences, and how they live their lives.
Using a range of sociological tools and thinking, our review concluded that unless services like the NDIS hired people from community groups currently excluded or overwhelmingly burdened by the complexity of scheme, it would continue to entrench existing inequalities. Participants will not catch up to those doing well under the scheme through targeted policies and outreach strategies alone.
This is because our systems reflect those who design them. If we want to create an NDIS that is for everyone, not a system by middle class white people for middle class white people, we need to look to inclusive hiring practices, in addition to co-design, at the highest levels. We need diversity around the tables where decisions about system design are made.
Too often, that diversity can only be found at the other end – delivering services to communities and individuals that they were never properly designed to meet the needs of. Patching the gaps between design and the lived reality of people’s lives.