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Mark Bagshaw
A new NDIA Board? A litmus test for the NDIS
Announcements, News Watch

People with lived experience of disability must be at the core of every aspect of the management, design and delivery of the NDIS if it is going to deliver the support people need to participate in every aspect of our society. Proposed changes to the composition of the National Disability Insurance Agency Board will show just how far we've come in believing in the capacity of people with disability.


We recently outlined failures in the traditional approach to addressing poverty and social disadvantage in Move over folks, you've had your go  (yes, on that infamous Q&A). We asked a simple but we believe profoundly important question: will we ever close the participation gap for people who are socially disadvantaged when all the key decisions are being made by people at the privileged end of the social spectrum? It’s a question based on simple business logic – an effective business needs people who understand the nature and complexity of the business to be making all the key decisions. You wouldn’t ask a banker to run a car company.

Just this week we are reminded yet again that disability reform seems to be treated as an exception to this proven logical approach to effective governance and management. Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Mitch Fifield, announced a planned shakeup of the National Disability Insurance Agency Board, replacing existing board members with senior executives from ASX 50 companies. The logic, it would seem, is that the NDIS is really just an insurance scheme, and therefore it should be run by people who know about managing big bucks. “Successful” people. People who “know what they’re doing”. Maybe we should just fill the Board with insurance wonks.

Just an insurance scheme? Seriously? Ask people with disability how important they think the insurance-based approach to funding the Scheme is in the grand scheme of things and you’ll hear a very different perspective. They’ll tell you that they really don’t care how the thing is funded, as long as it results in them getting the support they need to participate in education, employment, to live independently, and so on.

Those who have thought about it will often acknowledge the merits of an insurance-based approach that should, in theory at least, ensure that the NDIS is able to continue to fund disability support in perpetuity. But many of them will also point out that, unless we spend the money on the things that are most likely to lead to participatory outcomes, particularly in employment – which will in turn will reduce welfare costs and increase GDP – the NDIS fund itself will be under severe financial pressure.

Pundits of the insurance-based approach argue that actuarial predictions of future funding needs will ensure that the money we need in future will be there when we need it. Scott Morrison and Mitch Fifield have been particularly impressed by the New Zealand example which has adopted a similar approach for a few years now. This may all be true, but we also have to be critically aware of the old “garbage in, garbage out” syndrome. Actuarial predictions will only be as good as the assumptions that are made at the outset, and hardly surprisingly given the fact that there has been no improvement in education or workforce participation for people with disability since records began, current assumptions about the potential for increased participation are lacklustre to say the least.

The Productivity Commission report that led to the establishment of the NDIS was unusually upbeat in its predictions, suggesting that the NDIS will more than pay for itself. A breath of fresh air indeed, but the most likely explanation for that is that John Walsh, Associate Commissioner and the driving force behind the report, is both an actuary and a person with disability (John is currently a member of the NDIA Board). John understands disability and the transformative impact of appropriate and timely disability support.

The current NDIA board consists of 8 members, two of whom have disabilities (including Deputy Chair, Rhonda Galbally) and two who have children with disability (including Chair, Bruce Bonyhady). The remaining board members have professional experience in the disability or similar sectors. It would seem that the Board has a wealth of disability experience, so surely people with disability are happy?

At the time the current Board was appointed, many people with disability and the organisations that directly represent them expressed significant concerns, not about the individual appointments, but about the way the appointments were made. And herein lies the problem. These were political appointments made by the Federal, State and Territory governments. And they were made under the previous Labor government. People with disability were justifiably incensed that they had virtually no role in determining who would oversee this massive reform that would have a huge impact on their lives.

How did this happen? How did the rhetoric surrounding the NDIS end up so out of whack with the direction it has taken so far, with Governments still firmly in control? How could the Abbott Government consider moving even further down the old welfare paradigm that thinks privileged people know more about social disadvantage than those living with social disadvantage?

Hasn’t anybody been listening? That’s 19th century thinking. It simply doesn’t work. Never has. Never will.

The NDIS has been promising a new approach. It’s been promising to “put people with disability in the driver’s seat”. A system based on “user choice and control”. A “market-driven system” under which empowered people with disability will create demand for the products and services that they decide they need to be part of our society. A system under which the suppliers of those services focus not on delivering what governments think is needed, but on what people with disability know is needed.

So what sort of board do we need to oversee this $22 billion business, this human development business, whose sole objective is to help create a smooth pathway from the beginning to the end of every day for every individual with disability? What are the key attributes, skills and experience we need in those charged with responsibility for ensuring the NDIS delivers on its promise? And just as importantly, how do we select those people?

The Able Movement believes that, just like any other large and complex enterprise, the Board of the NDIA needs a range of skills and experiences to ensure that all of the key decisions that are made take into account the often diverse perspectives of the key stakeholders of this enormous enterprise. It needs people who understand finance and investment and, yes, its funding model is insurance-based so it needs people who understand insurance. It’s an enterprise whose investors are the Australian people who look to governments to ensure their taxes are wisely invested, so it needs people who understand politics and government. It’s a market-driven system, so it needs people who understand markets. It’s a fundamentally new approach to disability support, so it needs people who understand and embrace strategic change.

All of these things are important, but three things are absolutely critical. First, every member of the Board must be driven by an aspirational view of the capacity of people with disability. Old school thinking simply won’t cut it. Second, the Board must have a deep understanding, not just of the “disability support system”, but of the entire life experience of people with disability. As big as it is, the NDIS can’t and won’t address all of the challenges faced by people with disability (access to public transport, discrimination in the workplace, etc), and therefore it needs to be understood in this broader "whole of life" context. And third, the Board needs to be trusted by people with disability to understand their aspirations and needs, and to fight for their right to control their own lives.

We don’t believe that the only people who can understand disability are people with disability themselves. We also acknowledge and respect the value that “successful” people in our society can bring to the challenging task of building the world’s best disability support system. But we also believe that there are people with disability all around our nation who possess all the skills that are required by the NDIA Board – yes, there are many “successful” people with disability out there! They could potentially be filling every Board position and every executive and management position within the Agency itself.

And how should those appointments be made? We believe half of the Board should be directly elected by people with disability and the other half by government. And we also question why the State and Territory governments should have any role in appointing the Board – under the NDIS they are handing over their traditional responsibility for disability support to the Federal Government!

The outcome of all of this will be a true test of our nation’s resolve to create a truly empowering system of disability support that unlocks the potential of people with disability for the benefit of us all. Let’s show the world that we truly believe that people with disability are just as capable in every respect as anyone else. Let’s put them in the driver’s seat.

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