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The second NDIS shock absorber: The disability workforce

This article was first published in Pro Bono Magazine on Tuesday 11th February.


The NDIS has fundamentally changed the nature of work in this sector, and the reality is that the current funding model is failing to attract and retain a qualified, motivated and suitably compensated workforce.


There are now approximately 65 separate reports, focused on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, written since 2013 and relating to problems presented by this reform and providing recommendations to solve those problems.


Understandably, the focus of most of these reports is on the issues affecting people with disabilities. A recent, must-read white paper from the University of Western Australia, Six Years and Counting: The NDIS and the Australian Disability Services System rightly refers to people with disabilities as “the shock absorbers for any volatility caused by poor policy and practice.”


From first-hand experience, I believe there is a second “shock absorber” in this sector – and in many places it is at a critical breaking point. It is the disability workforce itself.


The NDIS has fundamentally changed the nature of work in this sector. As a result of the new funding model, disability organisations are expected to deliver a quality customer experience within the framework of a transactional business model geared towards fast delivery.


The reality is that the disability customer or NDIS participant is not looking for a transaction. The NDIS is not Medicare. They are simply looking for someone they can trust to deliver a quality, personal service. However, the new funding model is, in effect, “pauperising” the people and service providers it relies on to deliver that promised service.


As Michael Chester, head of service operations at UnitingCareWest, remarked in his interview for my book, Workplace Culture and the NDIS:


“I believe that we have an obligation to keep the issue of the working poor on the radar for everybody… for politicians, the NDIA and every provider in the sector. If the current trend continues, we have the possibility of a new working poor emerging in the ranks of disability providers around the country.”

Disability support workers need rosters that offer continuity of work so they can earn a decent wage, raise a family and set aside some savings.


The shift from the traditional block funding in advance model to individualised funding, coupled with the NDIA’s “unit prices”, has created irregular income for frontline staff and wiped out the funding for training, supervision, mentoring and professional development so critical for a quality outcome.


In practice, the NDIS business model is fundamentally at odds with the nature of the support service its customers were promised: a high quality, individualised support service that offers choice and control. Trying to extract a consistently high quality human experience from a transactional, high volume, low touch business model is almost impossible.


A report released last September from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, Precarity and Job Instability on the Frontlines of NDIS Support Work, found significant stress, instability and lack of support for frontline workers:


“A disability services program that organises support in the same manner as digital platforms organise fast food delivery or taxi services, is not likely to achieve the high standards of respectful, individualised support that the NDIS’s architects hoped for.”

It’s not just frontline workers.


In the course of my own research for the book, I found on a number of occasions that dedicated frontline team leaders and service managers would actually breakdown when asked the question, “What’s the greatest personal challenge in your work on a daily basis?”


To expect a consistent, high quality customer experience within this business model is not only unrealistic, it’s also unfair to the hundreds of passionate support workers who genuinely want to make a meaningful difference in their work.

Regular hours, a reliable income, access to the necessary skills training and quality on the job support should be an easy business case. Particularly when you consider two compelling facts:


The sector needs to attract another 90,000 full-time employees in order to meet the increased demand generated by the NDIS. 71 per cent of these are expected to be support workers.The Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is already underway.


However, the NDIS pricing model actively works against attracting new, high calibre talent into the sector and delivering a quality service.


The Australia Institute’s report concluded: “It is unrealistic to expect that agencies can provide the critical infrastructure essential to the development and maintenance of a high quality workforce, on the basis of tiny ‘margins’ built into NDIS unit prices.”


The reality of the NDIS is that the current funding model does not make any provision for adequate skills training, professional development or on the job mentoring. This is not simply because of the NDIA’s price guide. It is exacerbated by the fact that disability organisations are spending unpaid time helping anxious families and individuals navigate a bureaucratic transactional model implemented by people who very often lack sufficient training or first-hand disability experience.


All this in a sector where the financial stability of providers is extremely fragile. Only 49 per cent of organisations reported making a profit of only 3 per cent or more in 2019.


In the Australian disability sector the frontline is at breaking point and it is people with disabilities, their families and their support workers who are suffering the consequences.


The Australia Institute’s report said: “It is impossible to envision the delivery of high-quality, respectful, and responsive disability services, if the people employed to deliver those services are treated merely as disposable productive ‘inputs’. And the promise of dignity and individual program design that was so central to the rationale for the NDIS will be betrayed, without urgent and systematic investments in the quality, skills, and stability of disability services work.”


I could go on and attempt to list every report (of the 65) that have cited inadequacies in attracting and retaining a qualified, motivated and suitably compensated workforce. But there is by now sufficient evidence to justify a re-think of this transactional business model.


How many more reports do we need before action is taken?




[1] Gilchrist, D.J., P. A. Knight, C. A. Edmonds and T. J. Emery, 2019, Six Years and Counting: The NDIS and the Australian Disability Services System - A White Paper, a Report of Not-for-profits UWA, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Australia.

[2] F. Connelley, 2020, Workplace Culture & the NDIS, www.fcmarketing.com.au

[3] Donna Baines, Fiona Macdonald, Jim Stanford, Jessie Moore (2019). Precarity and job instability on the frontlines of NDIS support work. Retrieved from Analysis and Policy Observatory Website: https://apo.org.au/node/268796

[4] The NDIS Plan, The Hon Stuart Robert MP’s speech to the National Press Club 14.11.19

[5] National Disability Services, State of the Disability Sector Report 2019

[6] Donna Baines, Fiona Macdonald, Jim Stanford, Jessie Moore (2019). Precarity and job instability on the frontlines of NDIS support work. Retrieved from Analysis and Policy Observatory Website: https://apo.org.au/node/268796