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NDIS red tape and confusion — it’s the new normal

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

NDIS red tape and confusion — it’s the new normal
MRC Executive Director: Nick Cater

Nick Cater writes in The Australian

It is only a matter of time before they give it a name. NDIS frustration syndrome, perhaps.

The good news is that help is at hand. An online guide produced by an autism advocacy body in Victoria coaches applicants in the art of putting a compelling case for assistance to the bureaucrats who decide their fate.

“There is a lot of anxiety about getting on to the NDIS,” one parent told Leader Community News, “and I think if you can alleviate some of that stress and make it easier for parents … it’s going to be a good thing.”

The National Disability Insurance Scheme was intended to relieve stress, not create it. It was supposed to make things simpler by putting the applicant’s needs ahead of red tape and official intransigence. But it’s a bureaucracy, for heaven’s sake, so what did we expect?

In a position paper published last week, the Productivity Commission hints at the growing chaos behind the scenes as the National Disability Insurance Agency scrambles for clients.

The agency’s staff is pushing 800 a week through the approval process but even that is less than half the rate required to meet their target of 475,000 recipients by 2020.

The paper speaks of confusion, cursory assessments over the phone, pricing problems, poor communication and inexperienced staff.

Beware the bureaucrat charged with dispensing large amounts of public money in a hurry. The NDIS, like much of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s bequest, was imperfectly conceived, politically compromised and is growing less perfect by the day.

Yet political correctness puts empathy ahead of empiricism and dictates that we measure success by intentions rather than results.

When Angela Shanahan broke that rule on these pages last year by questioning why the milder forms of autism were covered by the NDIS, she received dozens of reproachful responses.

Shanahan was seeking “a ­superior moral justification for selfishness”, claimed one.

“This is a genuine open invitation to you, Angela,” wrote another. “Come spend 24hrs with my son.”

Yet Shanahan’s concerns are given substance by the commission, which reports that 35 per cent of NDIS recipients are children diagnosed with autism or intellectual disability including devel­opmental delay.

The inclusion of these broad categories was the subject of considerable discussion when the NDIS legislation was formed. The decision was announced months ahead of an election, as Gillard was befriending the so-called mummy bloggers, a vocal and articulate group of upper-middle-class parents united in their support for the benevolent state.

The risks of including broadly defined conditions was foreseen by many, including disability charities such as Deaf Children Australia, which feared the scheme would be distorted to the detriment of more specific and more profound disablement.

That is exactly what has happened. Fewer low-functioning adults have joined the scheme than was expected and their average package of $120,000 is less than forecast.

The gap has been filled by medium and high-functioning autistic and intellectually disabled children, who have received much larger packages than the modelling assumed. Medium-level participants have been receiving an average package of $56,000 a year instead of the expected $41,000. Those with mild disabilities are receiving more than 2½ times above what was expected, $29,000 instead of $11,000.

The logic of including these children in the early childhood intervention category is that proactive care can improve their ability to cope with their disability. If only. The commission says lower numbers than expected are leaving the scheme. But the level of support tends to increase as they move to their second and third plans.

Politely, the commission refrains from suggesting some parents may be gaming the system or the NDIS is seen as just another entitlement for families with unruly kids. It notes, however, that four out of 10 children in the scheme have no identified deficits compared with the normal range for their age.

“The entry pathway may not be sufficiently robust,” the commission says coyly. The inclusion of non-biologically determined illnesses “can also affect incentives, and can represent an overly generous entry gateway if set too expansively”.

Bureaucracies have never been particularly good at learning from their mistakes. Inefficient and ineffective spending gets locked in the system like ancient crustaceans in sedimentary rock.

The commission’s plea for better screening will probably go unanswered while an ill-equipped, inexperienced team of NDIA assessors tries to process more than a half-million new applicants during the next two years. The noble ideal of assessing each applicant’s ability to function, rather than rely simply on a diagnosis, seems all but dead. Disabled Australians will be denied the individual assistance they were promised as planners are reduced to ticking boxes.
At the very least it seems prudent to slow the pace of implementation, allowing proper consid­eration of trials and allowing the NDIA to build the capacity to do the job properly.

That the proclaimed advan­tages of the scheme — choice and opportunity, empowerment, community participation and employment — should have been so diluted adds weight to Gary Banks’s dispiriting theory that policy dysfunction is the new normal.

It suggests a singular lack of rigour in the ministerial offices where the NDIS was shaped and a public service that has lost its analytical firepower.

The ministries are staffed by young political aspirants focused on “issues management”. Two ABC television series, The Hollowmen and Utopia, seem more documentary than fictional, the former commission chairman told a gathering at Infrastructure Partners Australia recently.

“The displacement of policy grunt with tactical flair has unfortunately coincided with this youthful cohort having a bigger say in what passes for policy development itself,” said Banks.

None of this has been helped by a pusillanimous public debate in which possession of the moral high ground is seen as a greater prize than possession of the facts.

Who but a selfish, money-grubbing conservative would question a scheme that everyone knows is a good thing to do? So good, in fact, that it’s worth doing badly.

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