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New year, new National Disability Insurance Agency board

Businesswoman Helen Nugent was confirmed as the new chair of an expanded and National Disability Insurance Agency board by Minister for Social Services Christian Porter in a statement on New Year’s Eve.

The appointments have drawn criticism from the disability sector and confirmed fears that were expressed by disability advocates when full details of the looming board reshuffle was first reported in The Australian newspaper back in October.

Days before Porter’s statement, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services Jenny Macklin said founding chair Bruce Bonyhady deserved to be re-appointed and that Porter had “made no argument” as to why he should be replaced. She argued the NDIS needed “stability” and “above all … people with a lived experience of disability” on the agency’s board:

“More than thirty representative organisations of people with disability, disability advocacy organisations and disability peak bodies are calling for strong representation of people with disability on the NDIS Board.”

According to Porter, the replacement of Bonyhady with Nugent and the addition of seven new board members to sit alongside four continuing members would provide the right mix of “disability service, financial management, corporate governance and insurance-based expertise” as the scheme expands over the next three years:

“We need to ensure that the board has the skills and expertise needed to carefully manage the significant scale, cost and potential risks in delivering the best possible scheme for participants, their families and carers.

“The fact that the new board provides the right blend of skills and experience is evidenced by the fact that four of the board members have lived experience of disability whilst other members have long involvement in the disability sector.

“While broadening the skills base of the board is essential to manage the $22 billion scheme, it’s also important to maintain the valuable continuity provided by the four continuing board members who have experience of the NDIS.”

Helen Nugent
Helen Nugent

The minister expects the full scheme will be in effect some time in the 2019-20 financial year and the approximate number of NDIS participants to swell from 30,000 to 460,000. Porter is expected to announce a new inquiry by the Productivity Commission, the original architect of the NDIS, aimed mainly at controlling costs.

A recent report from the Commonwealth auditor-general’s office found some serious problems in many aspects of the complex national roll-out, and some academics are worried about how the scheme is impacting on networking and professional collaboration in the disability support sector.

Bonyhady’s 10-page final “summary report” to Porter, published by the ABC, details the “key foundation strategies” put in place so far and sets out his view of the scheme’s goals and the major challenges that lie ahead, of which the potential for cost overruns is but one of many.

He told Porter sustainability was the board’s most important objective and said “cost pressures” that had begun to emerge in latter stages of the trial period were to be expected.

By 2018-19, the NDIA would need to approve about 850 new support plans per day and review around 1100 existing plans, a figure that will rise to 2000 a day in the following year, according to Bonyhady:

“The path to fully implementing the NDIS represents a balance between meeting the desires of people with disability and their families and carers to join the NDIS as soon as possible and to have individual needs met in an appropriately personal way, because implementing the NDIS requires provision of tailored funding.

It is a high volume, high engagement business in which highly effective ICT systems with single point of data entry, high data integrity and comprehensive management information must be at hand so that the NDIS is delivered efficiently, effectively and in ways in which participants and their families feel empowered.”

Bruce Bonyhady
Bruce Bonyhady

Bonyhady says the scale-down or total withdrawal of disability services directly provided by some state governments must be managed so as to increase the growth of supply, and that the Department of Social Services will need to manage the massive workforce growth required for the NDIS carefully and in co-ordination with the NDIA:

“Going forward it will be important that actions by DSS draw on the Agency’s more direct knowledge of the market and are coordinated with the Agency, given its responsibilities for pricing and other aspects of market stewardship.”

The former chair warns insufficient funding has been allocated to Information, Linkages and Capacity-building, a measure to control medium and longer-term costs he says is “a critical foundation stone” of the NDIS, and that a limit on the NDIA’s administrative operating costs is unsustainable and “threatens a blowout in package costs”.

He tells the minister the agency’s ICT system that was “supplied and controlled” by the Department of Human Services continues to have “deficiencies” to work out and reminds Porter the agency believes in-kind arrangements should already have been discontinued:

“In-kind arrangements are not consistent with control and choice and participants ensuring that services are value for money. They therefore have the potential to undermine Scheme sustainability. It is therefore imperative that this matter is resolved as a matter of priority and that during transition progress is monitored and checked regularly as has been agreed.”

Bonyhady also says the agency’s work on quality and safeguards indicates a need for a separate independent regulator that “reports directly to Parliament, has own-motion investigative powers, has a comprehensive data collection and analysis capability, monitors and systematically investigates critical incidents and has the powers to sanction and deregister service providers and exclude care-workers with a history of abuse from working with people with disability”.

He has high praise for the NDIA’s management and staff, and the foundational board which he led.

Meet the new board

Nugent brings strong experience mainly in the banking and financial services sector, currently chairs the Australian Rail Track Corporation board as well as the National Portrait Gallery, and has also held various governance positions in education and the arts.

The seven new board members who join her include chartered accountant Sandra Birkensleigh, who is also from financial services and brings extensive experience in audit and risk oversight committees, as well as career public servant Robyn Kruk, a former head of the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet and the federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, who currently chairs Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

John Langoulant, the senior public sector adviser with the Western Australian arm of Deloitte and former head of WA’s Treasury, also brings financial management and governance expertise as a senior executive, director and chair in the private sector and the public service.

Other new members include Singtel Optus chair Paul O’Sullivan, actuary Estelle Pearson, airline executive turned professional non-executive director Andrea Stains, and Jim Minto, a chartered accountant from the insurance industry.

Those who survived the cut include Rhonda Galbally, the principal member of the NDIA’s Independent Advisory Group and another one of the key figures in the development of the NDIS, as well as Catholic Health Australia CEO Martin Laverty and actuary John Walsh, who did initial work on the feasibility of the scheme for the Productivity Commission. Aspen Medical CEO Glenn Keys, the father of a child with an intellectual disability who founded Project Independence to help people with disabilities into home ownership, also retains his seat.

Each have had their term extended for a further year.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.