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Community sector sickened by managerial mindset


Man with a box on his headAround election times much is spoken about the future directions of society. But the decisions that make the most significant changes to society often seem purely administrative, are tacitly approved by all parties, and so receive little attention. One of the most significant of these has been to the provision of community services, especially to disadvantaged groups, like prisoners, asylum seekers, and recipients of public health care and welfare.

Over the last 30 years governments have reduced their role in the provision of services, contracting them mainly to community and for-profit organisations. Most recently they have sought single contractors that can tender for all the services. Some of these have been large charitable organisations, particularly in health care. But many have been multinational corporations which tender for a wide variety of services. So, a visitor to immigration detention centres may be surprised to find people in Serco uniforms mowing their nature strips and also staffing the centre.

One result of this change is that in order to continue to serve the disadvantaged, smaller community agencies, which once tendered for relatively small projects, will be forced to combine with one another or to enter partnerships with for-profit groups.

The preference for large service providers is attractive to governments which choose to acquiesce in a narrowing revenue base and also face the higher costs of an ageing population. Large corporations can promise economy of scale and so save costs. The government public service has only to establish and monitor the regulatory framework within which the service is provided.

Outsourcing also offers political advantages. Governments can sheet home to corporations failures in delivering public services in prisons, mental health, and even public transport. Ministers can divert public anger against the service providers from whom they then demand answers and improvements. Contracts signed by the governments with corporations, too, can be kept secret for commercial reasons, so hindering public scrutiny. The employment contracts of the providers can also include confidentiality provisions.

What is at issue for society in these developments? Services provided by large corporations are certainly not necessarily worse than those provided directly by the state. In my experience in detention centres the quality of service depends on the attention given to detail in the rules of operation and to the culture of the organisation and its local leadership. The decisive test lies in how those who use the service experience it.

The risk to society and to the quality of service is longer term and more subtle. It lies in the managerial culture that these changes encourage. The interest of government will focus almost exclusively on financial efficiency, and the regulatory framework generally measures the delivery of services by only quantitative criteria.

The quality of the relationships on which effective service rests and other intangible factors that are central to human growth are easily ignored. As a result the care of the most vulnerable and needy will increasingly be neglected by the large providers. They will be blamed for not meeting benchmarks, and responsibility for their care abandoned to charities.

Within this culture the health of community organisations will be vital. But it will also be under threat. Community organisations are generally inspired by a vision of the human dignity of the less fortunate in society, and a commitment to them as persons. They represent community groups such as churches. Generally, too, they privilege the building of relationships as the path to growth in those they work with, and so insist on the quality of the relationship between worker and client.

This emphasis on the personal quality of service is important in making services effective. It emphasises the fact, otherwise forgotten in the focus on what is economically effective, that service to people cannot be commodified.

Although community organisations are often a burr in the saddle of a managerially minded government, they are important because they represent a humane vision and because they can reflect back to government an intimate experience of what is happening to the people whom they serve. Their advocacy, even when unwanted, keeps governments in touch with human needs.

But small organisations are also at risk, first of the loss of funding to support their work. They will be victims of the preference for larger organisations, whether community based or for-profit.

Even if they find partners in larger organisations, they will constantly need to assert their spirit and values in the face of the purely managerial and financial criteria of the prevailing culture. Their capacity to innovate and to go the extra mile for their clients will inevitably come under pressure.

Their ability to advocate for their clients and to protest against misguided practice will also be put at risk. That will be to the detriment of society.

The health of society is dependent on a real and hands-on responsibility of government for the good of all citizens. It cannot shuffle off that responsibility to corporate bodies. But governments need also to encourage a lively civil society in which community organisations offer a personal service and present a critical and evidence based critique of current practice, both their own and others'.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Box head image by Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, welfare, Election 2013, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, asylum seekers, public health, jails



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Existing comments

I do voluntary work for a community transport organisation which will be impacted with the implementation of the National Insurance Disability Scheme. There are only a few paid employees, the rest volunteers. We've had meetings about the future and, because the people we serve are important to us, we're trying to find the best way forward. Small community organisations are certainly little fish - but with big hearts. And, hopefully, clever strategies.

Pam | 14 August 2013  

Like Pam, I am involved in a disability organisation which is not for profit. The trend here in Tasmania is to provide "clients" with control of their funding package which does return some control back to the recipient of care but leaves organisations with a costs burden if a "client" changes service provider on a whim. Wouldn't it be great if asylum seekers could chose their service provider.

Kim | 15 August 2013  

Thanks for this thorough piece of reflection, Andrew. An informed knowledge of, and sensitive and sustained response to this issue is crucial if we are to maintain and foster the decency of our society and our care for the wellbeing of the marginalised and the disadvantaged..

Joe Castley | 15 August 2013  

Thanks for raising this issue Andrew. Is it an impossible dream that denominational church agencies might cease to be competitors in the provision of services and work together ecumenically to implement a Christian vision for a more equitable society?

Rod | 15 August 2013  

Thanks, Andrew. Once again, you have nailed it! I have great empathy with the situations and comments of Pam and Kim, but I see that your comments point to a much deeper malaise that is likely to gather momentum and pass the point of no return, and therein lies a major problem for the effectiveness of the service of our community, especially the disadvantaged, the sick, and those without a voice. There are certain things that in my view governments should never outsource; these include taxation, prisons, and of course defence. The appropriate ole for governments in education and health is perhaps less clear-cut, but the moves that you describe, Andrew, are cause for great concern. This is because (a) they reduce transparency, (b) they massively hinder accountability of government ( blame the provider, not us!), and (c) the "regulation" of outsourced service will be done more and more by quantified performance measures. You have touched on one of the drawbacks of this last point, in that many aspects of good performance in health & disability services simply cannot be quantified or reduced to monetary measures. Even more important, in my opinion, is the secondary effect of this. That is, the longer that approach persists, the less aware will the regulators be of what really constitutes good performance, in human terms, for the simple reason that the regulatory staff and decision-makers will become fewer than before (in the name of "efficiency") and - what is worse- further removed from the "coal face", where they might be able to see the tragic consequences of the managerial approach.

Dennis Green | 15 August 2013  

The idea of community organisations working with other such organisations and government is an image of what the organs and limbs do in the human body, for the good of the whole. It took about 2 billion years for the single-cell life forms on earth to evolve the specialist activities such as would enable them to produce the complex multi-cell multi-organ life forms such as ourselves, who are the exemplars. It will probably take a long time for us individuals to fashion adequate community models of such cooperation, but now that the ideal is conceptualised, it should gather strength and purpose

Robert Liddy | 15 August 2013  

Agree with the essence of the article. What is missing is that while "functions and operations" may be offloaded or delegated, responsibility and accountability cannot. There needs to be a wider public debate on this. Surely whenever service delivery is contracted out there needs to effective monitoring. The cost of which should be taken into account in the economic evaluation to offload the function.

Daniel | 15 August 2013  

Andrew's 2nd para, "last 30 years.." As a Victorian, have witnessed this process of changing roles of government for the provision of all services to the public. Reckon Jeff Kennett nailed the coffin of 'government by the people for the people', and gave full voice to 'government of the people for the survival of the public administration'. But political colour seems distant from this movement. Counter to this administrative way is an older system of govt that flows from 'the commons' - the root of the humanitarian objectives of older liberal policy makers. 'The commons' - physical resources to be shared by community. A present day logical extension is 'the digital commons'. Life sustaining and essential elements to our existence have been commercialised. Care of the societies' most vulnerable is also being commercialised. Andrew's alerting us to societies' greatest peril, complacency. Greed's been impoverishing our moral and ethical human scape since the 'efficiencies' of the industrial revolution. Corporate government and governance of corporate entities to financially streamline 'services' gained traction under Thatcherite thinking. We seem to be moving towards an Orwellian type of society, as I feel that our self imposed censorship will continue to deprive us of human dignity, unless we SPEAK UP! WE'RE BEING MADE PART OF THE BUREAUCRATIC MACHINE. Suggest radicalised last para - "The health of society is dependent on a real and hands-on responsibility of government INVOLVED CITIZENS for the good of all citizens. It THEY cannot shuffle off that responsibility to corporate bodies."

Mich Cook | 16 August 2013  

The focus on the quality of relationships between service providers and those receiving services is the hallmark of service provision that respects dignity and fosters human healing, even human flourishing. Governments and corporations usually place their focus on "measurables" and the idea is common that if you can't measure it then you can't manage it or know it's happening. Numbers, especially financial, caseload numbers, statistics, etc., have the appeal of being concrete yet lots of numbers have so many arguable assumptions in them that the data might have a "garbage in, garbage out" quality to them. Relationships are not easy to measure, so whether it's the government, community organisations or large corporates who are providing services, their importance can easily be overlooked. As Andrew Hamilton points out, relationships co-exist with the culture of the organisation, and this is tricky to measure too, except we all know when we're in a place that's life-giving or a place that's toxic to the soul. Small agencies can more easily stay close to the client's needs and their small size virtually necessitates honesty in their relationships. The challenge is to transfer this focus on the individual and hosest relationships to all and any organisation charged with providing services to the vulnerable.

Carmel Ross | 16 August 2013  

Mnnn. Strike-through doesn't work. Applied to [bracketed] words, capitalised substituted. As follows - Suggest radicalised last para - "The health of society is dependent on a real and hands-on responsibility of [government] INVOLVED CITIZENS for the good of all citizens. [It] THEY cannot shuffle off that responsibility to corporate bodies."

Mich Cook | 16 August 2013  

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