The New Business of Human Services

Thursday, May 04, 2006

NCOSS Conference

The New Business of Human Services
10th April 2006
Carlton Crest Hotel, Sydney
Chris Dodds

Approximately 350 delegates from all areas of the welfare sector gathered to hear the thoughts of representatives from for profit and not for profit organisations and give their views on the present and future of Human Services in Australia.

The Conference was opened by Chris Dodds, President of the Council of Social Services (NSW), Dodds said that the significant changes in the Human Services has some concerned and stated the object of today’s conference was to see how the sector can facilitate these changes, while still not losing sight of their primary goal, that is, being effective in helping those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society.

"Fast Eddie" is too fast
for some

Eddie Groves

Eddie Groves, co-founder of ABC Learning Centres, faced a sceptical audience of welfare sector delegates at a conference looking at the future of Human Services. His attempts to sell his message that the ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’ sector can effectively work together was often met with sniggering and outright disbelief.

The NCOSS sponsored conference titled “The New Business of Human Services” was held on the 10th April, at the Carlton Crest Hotel in Ultimo and in front of a packed audience of delegates from the welfare sector. In recent times, there has been considerable concern from some in the sector that the push towards privatisation and outsourcing of services is seeing many small NGO’s slowly disappear or be swallowed up by large NGO’s and private providers. Their belief is that the almighty dollar and the notion that “bigger is better”, is being placed above the needs of those most disadvantaged in our society. To them, Eddie Groves is a perfect example of this. His company now controls 25 percent of the childcare sector and it’s on track to be operating 930 childcare centres in Australia and New Zealand by the middle of the year, with around 1205 centres by mid-2007.

Mr Groves, who shunned the lectern, expressively used his hands and the width of the stage to sell his message that there was room for everybody in the sector. He strongly believed any government of a country with a population of 20 million could only deliver the services required through a "cohabitation" between the “for profit” and “not for profit” sectors. He added he that had seen a huge shift in the last decade in the way government and society thought human services could be delivered, that is, away from total government control to the acceptance of private players.Link

“Who would have ever thought that the CES (now centrelink) would eventually be privatised; that is, not for profit and for profit. And I’m sure that they cohabitate beautifully”. The last comment brought considerable laughter from delegates.

Delegates at Conference................ Greg Ashmead & Eddie Groves

Mr Groves said the lack of data and the inability to measure outcomes has meant his business have been misrepresented in the media.

"Misrepresentation builds fear," he said. "I understand the fear from the community sector (access to capital), but I'm not to blame for it. For me, being publicly listed in this industry is the best thing that's ever happened to us and ABC".

He told delegates that reducing turnover and reinvesting in facilities has been about doing what is best for the customer. “If you added up our profits for the last four years it would be about $100 million; re-investment back into the child centres; $100 million. We're not-for-profit too". This claim was met with derision by the majority of delegates and many found likening his company to a “not for profit” provider disingenuous.

In contrast to the public spin by ABC, there have been some rumblings about how it conducts its operations. In 2004, there were complaints that ABC had been underpaying its staff and forcing them to clean toilets, buy their own uniforms and bring in their own music to play to children. The Queensland branch of the union that represents child-care workers, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, handed parents pamphlets which Groves said portrayed him as "mean and greedy" and implied he was "trying to drive down low wages of child-care workers to line his own pockets.

Mr Groves added that although part of his responsibility was to his shareholders, his main concern was in doing what was best for “kids and parents” and that his business was more than just his livelihood, but also “a labour of love”.

Related Articles

$600m for ABC Learning - By Christopher Webb, The Age
Reality and expectations in child care - The Age

Welfare Sector is "unnaccountable and paternalistic"

Dr Gary Johns

One could immediately sense the antagonism directed towards former Keating government minister Gary Johns as he stepped up to the lectern to give his views on the current state and possible future of the Human Services sector. Johns was well aware he wasn’t preaching to the converted and said he knew he was “in the can” with many delegates.

Unlike most at the forum, Gary Johns believed the new buzzword of being “holistic” smacked of paternalism and in fact hindered rather than helped people. NGO’s he felt, were unrepresentative, unaccountable and often more concerned with their professional advancement than actually helping people.

Dr Johns is presently consultant with ACIL Tasman, an independent body that advises corporate and government clients in social policy analysis and it is in the area of Aboriginal affairs where Johns believes the sector has got it wrong and continues to do so. The thinking in government and the welfare sector falls according to Johns, into the “romantic” and “realistic” camps. The former believing that existing programs are working and that funding needs to be increased to communities, and the latter, who are of the opinion that the individual behaviour of people needs to change and that government and NGO’s are better advised to focus their energies and resources in achieving this goal. Johns is very much a “realist”.

“We have spent a lot of time and money trying to help Aboriginal people and they are now radically disempowered because we do so much for them”.

He added that the sector has separated them from their ability to help themselves and that those Aborigines who are doing well, don’t live the idealised life of the Aborigine (in the remote north), because those areas don’t provide a living.

“We (the sector) are all trying to do good, but it doesn’t always work out”.

Dr Johns was previously Head of an NGO Watch Unit, formed by the IPA, an independent, neo-liberal think tank. The IPA and other similar organisations, like The Centre for Independent Studies, are suspicious of the power of modern NGO’s and advocacy groups such as ACOSS. They believe these groups are politically motivated and have infiltrated government, yet are totally unaccountable to donors and benefit financially from their tax-free status. Johns agrees with this view.

“I think there are those out there (working in NGO’s), who are more concerned with writing policy than delivering outcomes for people in need”.

He also added that he was aware of the concern in the sector over the radical change in the way services were being delivered, but this must be tempered by the fact that the sector, over the past generation, has moved beyond mere lobbying to become, in many instances, official advisers to government, heavily funded from the public purse. .

“Your sector is being squeezed by both government and the market, but your values have infiltrated both of those sectors”.

Lynette Thornstensen

Johns also had a bone to pick with fellow panelist Lynette Thornstensen, Head of Community and Environment at Insurance Group IAG and their recently released report on climate change, ‘The Business Case for Early Action’. He believed that some corporations “just want to be loved” and that IAG was using the data on the greenhouse issue to scare people to take out insurance. In other words, IAG is using the cover of being a “good corporate citizen”, in order to win customers.

Overall, Johns felt the sector needed to become considerably more accountable to government and the public and what was urgently required were modals to ensure its transparency so that donors knew its money was going to those who needed it most, and not to prop up some bureaucratic machine.

Related Articles

When charity really means lobbyist, by Gary Johns: The Age
Climate right to start talking, Simon Mann: The Age
Companies urge action on warning, by Tim Colebatch & Rod Myer: The Age

Small NGO’s being “squeezed out of existence”

Tirrania Suhood

In the brave new world of the welfare sector where the three dreaded O’s rule, that is; outcomes, outputs and outsourcing, small to medium non profit organisations feel they are in danger of being “squeezed out” or “swallowed up” by large NGO’s and private providers.

Tirrania Suhood is Chair of Voice for SONG (Small Organisations Non Government),
a statewide network that promotes the recognition of the value of small community organisations. The diminutive but fiery Suhood is a strong advocate for small NGO’s and believes they are not consulted sufficiently in decision making processes which affect the sector.

“Small organisations need to be more equitably included in forums like this”, said Ms Suhood, in reference to the fact that she was the only representative from a small organisation at the conference. This received hearty applause from delegates, many of whom are struggling to deal with government policy, which they believe favours private providers and large NGO’s, both of whom have more capital and resources to commit to the tendering process for contracts.

Sheridan Dudley, CEO of Job Futures, a medium sized NGO in the Job Network agrees with Suhood that the current modal of operation discriminates against smaller NGO’s. Dudley feels that the boundaries between the three legs of society: government, business and the community, have become blurred, along with community, social and commercial enterprise. The outcome being is that it has made life more difficult for not for profit organisations and that outsourcing is a good example of this.

“Outsourcing has lost its way”, said Dudley. She believes that tenders today are too long and focus on inputs and processes rather than the effects on people’s lives. “The result is that there is no room for innovation and flexibility. It’s very costly to tender and it favours the big providers”.

Sheridan Dudley

Suhood said SONG came about 6 years age due to the perception that inadequate funding and unrealistic accountability requirements were making small community groups unsustainable. “I’m passionate about effecting big picture change from the position of small organisations”, said Suhood. “We (small NGO’s) can not agree to a vision that results from trends away from small organisations”.

Suhood believes government has a view that small groups are somehow less efficient than large ones, but often external factors, such as temporary project funding, lack of visibility and status, inappropriate accountability requirements, and lack of inclusion in key decision making, are primarily to blame for this.

She conceded that large organisations may be more efficient in terms of economies of scale and coordination of services, but not so when it comes to cooperation with other organisations and being responsive on ground.
“We tend to think that bigger is better, but that not always the case. The bigger you get sometimes means that people fall between the cracks and I’m fearful that the push to market forces and outcomes may mean that those who are most disadvantaged in our society may lose out”.

Suhood was very enthusiastic about a model for small organizations called the BRIDGES strategy, which is coordinated by BADFS (Blacktown Alcohol & Other Drugs and Family Services). “It’s a model that can be used for many issues. It addresses both direct service issues and systemic change…it’s potentially large scale”, said Suhood.

“There is amazing innovation in small organisations and I urge policy makers to consider workers in small organisations and invite them in as equal players in the sector.

Related Articles

Emerging VOICE and Survival of Small Not-for-Profit Organisations, by Tirriana Suhood
Not just any job...the right job in a sustainable community, by Sheridan Dudley

After Conference Drinks