Disability Services

Most institutions and government bodies loathe complaints. Many interpret complaints as a personal affront and attack on their integrity. We do not have a strong government culture of managing complaints. Departments and government agencies perceive complaints as a political wrecking ball leveraged to bring into question the competence of departments. Complaints and compliance regimes are not perceived as opportunities to discover deficiencies in services and avenues to continually improve government services.

Disability service is an area where the response to complaints can make or break a person’s human rights in a most profound way. Deficiencies in service provision transform into barriers that prevent social inclusion and community participation. It denies the right of people with disabilities to achieve their full potential and live fulfilling lives. With the stakes so high we cannot afford to have anything less than a world-class complaints and compliance framework to drive service improvements in the disability sector. It is evident from the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues inquiry that there is a noticeable level of dissatisfaction with Ageing, Disability and Home Care [ADHC] services.

The causes of dissatisfaction are complex and varied. Deficiency in funding causing unmet and undermet need, poor management and governance systems in Ageing, Disability and Home Care and inflexibility in service programs to deliver person-centred service are some of the root causes of dissatisfaction with the organisation. In other instances there are systemic issues in compliance with disability service standards. The Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues considered the issue of complaints and compliance mechanisms in the inquiry into services funded and provided by Ageing, Disability and Home Care. The committee made three key recommendations relating to complaints, complaints monitoring and advocacy services: recommendation 46, Review of Ageing, Disability and Home Care complaints process; recommendation 47, establishment of an independent organisation to review complaints and compliance; and recommendation 48, funding of advocacy services outside of Ageing, Disability and Home Care services.

When one looks at the framework for complaints and compliance monitoring for disability services one sees that we have a fractured and inconsistent system without sufficient transparency and accountability measures. Improving and resolving breaches of policies in disability services based upon user feedback and complaints becomes fraught without a consistent complaints mechanism. Our current system of complaints and compliance in the disability sector is a maze that leaves those trying to navigate it disempowered and disheartened. The different complaint processes, reporting regimes and management obligations for Ageing, Disability and Home Care service providers and non-government service creates confusion that will only intensify with more flexible service provision. Isolation in data collection arising from the different complaint mechanisms means obtaining a full picture of deficiencies in service delivery is not attainable.

Understanding the broader picture of grievances and compliance in the disability sector is further complicated by the reporting of complaints by the Ombudsman and issues picked up by the Official Community Visitor Programs. Ability to seek judicial review of the provision of disability services in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal is far too constrained by section 20 of the Disability Services Act, leaving people with disabilities, their families and carers, and disability advocates without appropriate recourse to challenge decisions about disability services. There are some really simple options for improving complaints management. The first thing we need is to centralise complaint data.

The Disability Services Act and the Community Services (Complaints, Reviews and Monitoring) Act can be easily amended to require all non-government organisation providers and Ageing, Disability and Home Care services to forward all complaint data, excluding personal information, to the New South Wales Ombudsman. This way we can get the whole sector-wide picture of potential service deficiencies. I understand the Victorian Ombudsman operates in this way. Seeing the big picture in complaints will help address systemic problems. In terms of actual complaints management bodies it is clear that some complaints cannot be left up to the service provider. Some complaints are serious enough to warrant independent assessment and investigation. Maybe we need to investigate whether a model similar to the New Zealand Health and Disability Commissioner would be appropriate to manage complaints about disability services. It is clear we need to explore these options through a consultative process.

As The Greens spokesperson for disability services I believe we need a better compliance and complaint system. Without appropriate mechanisms we deny people with disabilities a voice in shaping the services that enable participation in society, personal development and social inclusion. We all remain in the dark about where our service system is failing without a coherent and robust system. Over the coming months I am meeting with people with disabilities, carers, disability advocates, service providers and people with experience in complaint systems. I am committed to working with stakeholders to find a better way to manage complaints and compliance in the disability sector so New South Wales can learn from its mistakes and start building innovative and compassionate disability services.