In late 2016, the then-Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison, delivered the first of his promised “economic headland” speeches. It traversed tax and spending issues, protectionism and the challenges of budget repair.
But buried deep within the address was this:
“Customers demand better standards of services at lower costs. Citizens are no different. We have to work together to find better and more innovative ways of delivering our services.”
Mr Morrison also recently instructed the Productivity Commission to think about how “principles of competition” might be introduced into areas like health, education and community services.
On the surface, this is nothing new. Australians already choose their doctor and which child care centre their kids attend. “Choice and control” has also been placed at the centre of the new (and widely lauded) National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Governments have long favoured ‘competition’ in the belief it drives service providers to become more responsive, to operate more efficiently and to shakeup existing practices.
So why are alarms bells sounding in some quarters?
The central reason is because “human services” are essentially about how we as a society support each other. It’s a bureaucratic term that has a great bearing on how you live your life, how healthy you are and how you and your family are supported in times of need.
The shift to competition and “contestability” in human services therefore has inherent risks. If Australia gets this wrong the results could be devastating.
In a submission to the Productivity Commission, ACOSS recently warned competition could undermine the very foundations of an effective and efficient human services sector.
The submission warns competition could erode the high-trust and collaboration amongst social service providers, diminish the existing focus on early intervention and prevention and discourage service providers from sharing information or engaging in coordinated advocacy to achieve positive change.
After all, who wants to be too close to their competition?
The shift to competition and “contestability” in human services has inherent risks. If Australia gets this wrong the results could be devastating.
The notion of a more competitive social service sector also raises important questions about the guaranteed access to essential services that Australians currently enjoy.
What happens when the best interests of an individual don’t align with the service providers’ new competitive imperatives? Or if somebody on a low income simply can’t afford to pay what’s being asked?
Markets don’t have a great track record of looking after vulnerable people needing support or care. Take for instance the scandals involving vocational education: enrolling vulnerable people in courses they could neither afford, nor lead them to jobs. The provision of greater choice in a poorly regulated market can lead to great public waste with little return.
With all this in mind, ACOSS has proposed 11 key principles for the government to consider if it persists down this path.
Only with an acknowledgement and adherence to these principles will everyday Australians be protected in the move to more competitive human services sector.
- People have a right to high quality human services wherever they live and whatever their income
- Competition cannot be assumed to improve the quality of service delivery or efficiency
- The uniqueness of human services must be recognised as well as the strengths of community-based non-profit providers
- Reform should facilitate cooperation and responsiveness to users and communities
- User control and service flexibility to individual need should be maximised
- Individual and systemic advocacy must be supported and resourced
- Services should be delivered cost-effectively
- The Government and community must know what services are provided by non-government providers they fund, as well as their impact
- Individualised services and innovation must be complemented by accountability
- Service must be affordable to all who require them and free for those who cannot afford to pay
- There must be universal access to essential services
The Productivity Commission will release an interim report in September 2016 and a final study report in November 2016.
— with Ryan Sheales
Header image: Scott Morrison/Twitter