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Can we improve Local Area Coordination?

Todd reviews a book by Eddie Bartnik & Ralph Broad sparking necessary debate in the interest of the Scheme's future.

By Todd Winther

Updated 15 Apr 20248 Feb 2022
hands of a diverse group of people putting together

Local Area Coordinators (LACs) have become a fundamental part of how the Scheme operates. Most of us know what they do, but many of us have little understanding of the initial intent of the role. A new book charting the development and evolution of LACs by Eddie Bartnik and Ralph Broad, who were on the team that first implemented the concept in Western Australia, provides a much-needed history lesson that helps us understand the role as it was designed.

Their book, Power and Connection: The International Development of Local Area Coordination, argues that LACs fulfil a vital role in implementing disability policy, particularly on an individual level. The book articulates the role that LACs can play so that people with disabilities can achieve their goals and establish strong connections with their local community. Essentially, the book builds a case for why LACs should remain an essential component in the Scheme by reminding the reader of the role’s purpose.

Defining Successful Local Area Coordination

The strength of this book is its ability to define the LAC concept and how it can be applied to the lives of people with disabilities. The first chapters cover the history of the LAC concept and its initial development in Western Australia during the 1980s.

Bartnik and Broad define the notion of local area coordination as

about people and the communities in which they live. Its about understanding, celebrating and nurturing the strengths, aspirations, valued contribution, choices and rights of all people in our communities and the power, connections and possibilities of the communities in which they live.

This definition reads like an ideal role for people in the disability sector. And, as the first few chapters point out, local area coordination worked well in Western Australia before it was transferred into the NDIS a decade ago. The role thrived in WA primarily because of the state’s size and its large number of regional hubs outside of Perth, such as the Wheatbelt, the mining centres, and the northern part of the state. These regional hubs were established communities, allowing LACs to use resources that were already embedded in those regions. As a Queenslander whose state shares similar demographic characteristics with WA, I was left wondering why the LAC model had not been tried there before the NDIS.

LAC programs have also prospered beyond WA, after being developed internationally. Evidence from overseas shows that the more significant the interaction between local communities and LACs and participants, the more likely the model is to succeed. The case studies in the United Kingdom and Singapore used throughout Bartnik and Broad’s book highlight how local governments have played a vital role in the success of LACs. These partnerships have allowed LACs to foster more secure connections with local communities and create collaborative relationships with people developing public policy for shire councils. This process is ideal when crafting public policy for people with disabilities, who are not considered a specifically targeted interest group but are instead integrated seamlessly.

Do LACs fit into the NDIS?

Bartnik and Broad acknowledge that the LAC concept was explored in the ground-breaking Productivity Commission report. But they note further that there are critical differences between how the model works in other nations and the role that LACs play in the NDIS. For example, they highlight that LAC services in Australia are contracted out to a few service providers, which is antithetical to the intended concept of the role, as described in the initial chapters.

The most apparent difference between the successful implementation of LACs worldwide and the NDIS structure is that decision-making power in Australia lies within a federal, complex bureaucratic system. This method directly contrasts with those mentioned above, which thrive on partnerships with local government.

The planning process embedded in the NDIS may have initially acknowledged the need for participants to interact with their local community, but this has changed as the Scheme has developed. As the role of LACs has evolved, there is an inherent disconnect between Bartnik and Broad’s definition of the role and the realities of how the role of the LAC now works within the Scheme.

The Future of LACs

Readers who operate in the Scheme will inevitably conclude that the role of LACs should be reviewed by the Agency. It is time to ask some questions about how LACs should operate in the future, such as:

  • Given the Scheme’s structure, does the LAC role have a place in it?
  • If so, is it possible for the LAC role to return to its original principles?
  • Is there an alternative to the LAC role that would better suit participants’ needs?
  • Does that alternative also serve the needs of the NDIA?

The debates sparked by this book’s content make it essential reading for any and all interested in the Scheme’s long-term future. Furthermore, Bartnik and Broad demonstrate that how we develop or reimagine the LAC role will play a significant part in defining the Scheme’s long-term success.   

Authors

Todd Winther

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