What NDIA’s complaints tell us about outsourcing administration

By Eleanor Malbon & Gemma Carey

Monday May 21, 2018

The National Disability Insurance Scheme’s coordinating agency didn’t predict one factor about its participants — and hoped it would solve itself over time. That’s unlikely, say researchers Eleanor Malbon and Gemma Carey, who have been watching how outsourcing is remoulding the agency.

A recent report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman on the administration of the NDIS reveals a backlog of complaints about the plan review process.

Participants of the NDIS are entitled to request for their support plan to be reviewed outside the yearly scheduled review. The support plan details the amount of money that NDIS participants have to spend on their care, with support options covering a wide range of care and infrastructure. For example; from daily support to prepare for work or daytime activities, to one off supports such as the installation of wheelchair ramps in a home. Typically, plan reviews are requested when a decision is considered to be inadequate or incorrect, and most often these errors have a significant effect on the daily lives of people with disability.

The scope of complaints is significant. Of around 1200 complaints made to the ombudsman about the administration of the NDIS, two thirds (400) related at least in part to plan reviews. The National Disability Insurance Agency reported having 8100 plan reviews on the table, as well as receiving around 620 new requests per week in February 2018.

The ombudsman linked the backlog of complaints and requests for reviews of NDIS support plans to under-resourcing of the NDIA, as well as pressures to deliver the scheme on time and in budget. Specifically, requests for reviews of plans could go unanswered for months, leaving NDIS participants in the dark. The ombudsman identified that processes for updating NDIS participants about the progress of their plan reviews were ad hoc. This is consistent with other research which identified that outsourcing thousands of NDIA positions has had implications for the capacity of the agency to fulfil its implementation job.

According to the report, the NDIA did allow for some time and resources for unscheduled plan reviews, however the demand was around three times the expected amount. The NDIA reported to the ombudsman that achieving bilateral targets, plan approvals and schedules plan reviews have been prioritised over unscheduled plan reviews. It seems apparent that pressure on the NDIA to meet its various administrative demands has left little time for dealing with plan reviews of unexpected problems, considered by the NDIA to be “unplanned work” and not given high priority.

The ombudsman’s report provides 20 recommendations for the NDIA to improve internal processes relating to the plan review process. Of these recommendations, six relate to communication from the NDIA to participants, including set timeframes for contacting participants about the progress of their review.

In their article reporting the Ombudsman’s report, the Guardian suggested that Labor will latch onto the report and argue that the NDIA is under-resourced and under-staffed — we would argue the same. Our research examines the outsourcing of the local area coordinator function and the transformation into a planning function which can limit the ability of the implementers to achieve the vision of the scheme.

In our research policymakers have described such complaints as “teething issues” that will be resolved down the track as implementation progresses. However, public policy research indicates that once practices are in place they often become intractable. This means that it is critical to address complaints issues now, rather than assuming they will resolve over time as the scheme reaches maturity.

Further, there is the danger that the scheme will be considered untrustworthy or unreliable by participants, effecting the relationship between the NDIA and people with disability who will have to interact with the scheme for decades to come. This danger is highlighted in the ombudsman’s report which identifies the “risk that participants’ right to review will be undermined and the review process will continue to be unwieldy, unapproachable and the driver of substantial complaint volumes.” (section 6.3).

The NDIA is accepting the recommendations, with Social Services Minister Dan Tehan telling 2GB radio that: “This was something that was identified some months ago and special teams have been put in place to address this issue.”

We would add to these recommendations that more resources need to go into the administration of the scheme, particularly the NDIA. The current cap on public servants and the recently announced review of the Australian Public Service is a threat to the vision of the scheme.

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