NDIS News & Analysis
Changes ahead for LACs and ECEI partners
The old adage tells us the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but anybody working on Planet NDIS will also list a third: change.
On March 15th, the NDIA published a new tender for their Partners in the Community (PITC) program, which encompasses Local Area Coordinators (LAC) and Early Childhood Partners (ECP). The tender documents make it clear that the PITC program, for better or for worse, is going to look very different in the future.
There’s no pretending that reading tenders is anybody’s idea of fun; if it was, then you’d really want to introduce them to the game-changer which is Netflix. However, if you make it past the first page without calling it quits and seeking comfort in season 2 of Bridgerton, your efforts will be rewarded with an insight into the future of the Scheme.
Partners Not Developing Budgets
Strap yourselves in for some big news: the NDIA wants LACs and ECPs to stop doing budget development! This represents a major reimagining of what the heck it is Partners actually do. For LACs in particular, budget development has taken up the bulk of their time to date. At DSC, we’ve always felt giving Partners the planning role was the original sin of the NDIS. It diverted precious resources away from the Productivity Commission’s initial vision for the PITC program - creating more inclusive communities for all Australians with disability (those interested in the original intent might want to check out our interview with LAC pioneer Eddie Bartnik).
That being said, the thing about budget development is that someone has gotta do it. So if not the Partners, who is it going to be? The plan laid out in the tender suggests the answer may be less a case of who and more a case of what. The tender states “plan budget development activities will transition to NDIA Delegates leveraging IT system enhancements.” Unless the NDIA’s staffing cap is lifted to allow for the hiring of some newbie Delegates, we can assume the reliance on the IT systems will be substantial. All this begs the question: can budget development be person centred if it’s not even done by a person?
To be fair, we have only been given titbits of information, not really enough to form a clear judgement about the future budget development process. As for when these changes will happen, that’s also a bit of an open-ended question. In a recent webinar for tender applicants, the Agency said the changes might have already come into effect by the time the new tenders begin in July 2023, though it’s no secret that the NDIA doesn’t have the strongest relationship with deadlines. In the meantime, the new tender allows the NDIA to rely on PITC for planning throughout the tender period, with the provision the role will be phased out.
Early Childhood Age Increased to Nine
The tender lays out the NDIA’s plan to increase the age limit of children with disability supported through the Early Childhood Approach from 6 to 9. For children with developmental delays, however, the maximum age will remain 6. The Agency told the Saturday Paper that the change was to ensure children continue to receive early childhood support while transitioning into school and to align more closely with the World Health Organisation’s definition of young children (0-8). A more sceptical analysis would be that the NDIA hopes to address some of its well-publicised concerns about the shortage of children ‘exiting’ the Scheme, by delaying access to the full NDIS.
Independent Assessments (IAs) 2.0?
Under the new model outlined in the tender, one of the functions of Partners will be “Assessment and Information Gathering.” Part of fulfilling this role will be supporting people to gather the evidence they need for NDIS Planning or Access processes. This type of support could be a real value add for people overwhelmed by the NDIS. However, more concerningly, the tender also says:
“LAC Partners will conduct functional assessments / tools, as directed by the NDIA, to assist the NDIA to determine reasonable and necessary funded supports to be included in [a participant’s] NDIS Plan.”
It could be argued that this has always been part of the LAC role. Planners have their list of questions they typically ask, and sometimes also ask parts of the WHODAS questionnaire. By some definitions, these could be considered functional assessments. However, what is not clear from the tender is how much the NDIA intends to rely on LACs to perform assessments and under which circumstances. Will this be a process most participants have to go through, or will LACs only conduct assessments when the participant has been unable to gather evidence through other channels? More broadly, it’s also worth questioning how appropriate it is for LACs to perform this role. While ECPs are required to have some Allied Health Professionals on staff, the same cannot be said for LACs. And nobody’s objection to IAs was that they were over qualified.
The NDIA has rejected the notion that PITC will perform a role similar to the proposed IA model. Once again, we need more information before we can conclude anything for sure.
Reading through the tender documents, it’s hard to miss the NDIA’s emphasis on the importance of Partners helping people connect to mainstream services. On one level, this is a good thing. We don’t want a world of segregated services for people with disability, and frankly, other areas of government need to do a better job ensuring they are delivering inclusive services. However, wishing alone does not make it so. Until there is a whole of government approach to developing more inclusive communities, many more people will depend on disability specific supports. But the tenders give you the distinct impression that NDIS funded plans should be considered the absolute last resort.
Remote and Very Remote
The new tenders confirm that the PITC program will not cover remote and very remote areas apart from Alice Springs, Geraldton and the Eastern and Lower Eyre Peninsula. Remote and very remote areas are currently the responsibility of the NDIA, but in a recent webinar, the Agency promised to release a separate tender process for these regions. It’s encouraging that these areas will not be neglected under a one-size-fits-all model and we’re sure our remote friends are eager to see the plan intended for their regions.
Payment for Partners just got complicated
The tender also announced significant changes in how Partners will be paid. The current system of agreeing to a fixed payment in advance just wasn’t really complicated enough for our NDIS. Going forward, for many of the functions Partners perform, they will be paid 80% of their forecasted workload in advance. At the end of the month, the NDIA will reconcile the difference between the amount already paid and the actual workload.
KPIs gone MIA
Notably absent from the tender were any Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Instead, we are treated to a Performance Management Framework, which doesn’t include set targets for Partners. In previous PITC grants, KPIs have been available to the public. We’re not here to speculate which KPIs might be in the final contracts- we’ll leave that to your imaginations. All this to say, in an environment where people trust the NDIA about as much as a used car salesman, not making the KPIs public could become a real issue for the Agency.
Wait, isn’t there an election coming?
By this time next week, an election will most likely have been called and the government will be operating in caretaker mode. When this happens, the government will be prohibited from engaging in major tenders. All this begs the question of timing. This tender was released on March 15th, when anybody with access to a newspaper could have told you the election was weeks away from being called. For tenders worth millions of dollars that reshape the future of the PITC program, wouldn’t it be worth waiting till the dust has settled? As it stands, tender applicants and the community at large have no guarantee that this tender will proceed if there is a change in government.
If all does go to the government’s plan, the new tender winners will begin transitioning into the PITC role over three months from April 2023. You can find the full tender documentation here, but remember- there’s always Netflix.