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NDIS Commission inquiry into platform providers
In September, the NDIS Commission released the results of their Own Motion Inquiry into platform providers in the NDIS marketplace. This was the result of months of research and consultation by the Commission, following years of the strong opinions from fans and critics alike.
The results of the Inquiry are quite remarkable - in depth, breadth, detail and, frankly, in tone. The NDIS Commission brings it in this Report. I was shocked by how clear, strong, and well-researched the Report was, reflecting the methodology of the whole Inquiry. In parts it feels like the Commission is Beyonce and this is their Lemonade - enough of dancing around things, no more punches pulled, a fresh attitude, and some great pithy soundbites.
But firstly, what is an Own Motion Inquiry? Essentially the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner, like many regulators, has powers to look into matters without requiring a significant formal complaint. Usually, a complaint needs to be made or an incident needs to occur for a regulator to start an inquiry, but an Own Motion Inquiry does what it says on the tin - the regulator is using their own motion to look at an issue more closely. These powers are often used when there are indicators of a systemic problem or emerging issue that needs to be looked at closer.
In this case, the Commission initiated the Inquiry to establish and better understand the participant experience on platform providers, and examine the possible regulatory implications. Seeking to understand how platform providers operate, why participants choose them, and what needs to be done to improve service quality and safety.
One more important note: although many people hear platform provider and think ‘that’s only Mable and HireUp’, this part of the market is much more than just those two organisations. The Commission defined platform providers as ‘online platforms and online subscription services that connect workers with NDIS participants’, which is pretty broad. So, it’s bigger than just two major names (the Commission directly compared 13 platform providers for pricing transparency, for example. And there are others). And it’s growing.
Here are the key findings:
Scale of the Inquiry
The Commission stated that more than 1470 people contributed to the Inquiry. They provided all the data and summaries in a number of Data Supplements. Which is a fantastic move, being able to see the data that has led to the conclusions in the Report is a level of transparency I don't think I've ever seen from the Commission before.
This ain’t a kill job
One thing the Commission isn’t looking to do with this Inquiry is to kill the platform provider market entirely. The Commission states that ‘there is a place for Platform Providers in the NDIS market. Participants were clear about this.’ That’s a pretty strong statement from a regulator, that this model has a place in a diverse market of support services. The Commission was equally strong, though, on where it thinks platform providers aren’t meeting expectations. Statements like ‘from a safeguarding perspective, regardless of how uncertain or complex the service relationships may be, our regulatory position is simple’ make it clear that there is more to be done.
The platform provider market
In the period 1 July 2022 – 31 December 2022, over 13,000 participants engaged services and supports through a platform provider. The Report states that the NDIS Commission independently verified that of the 13,161 people who interacted with platform providers during that period, 98% of those people were active participants. This ‘independent verification’ is a level of detail I was surprised and delighted to see from the Commission. Maybe that says more about my expectations?
In terms of funds management types, 65% of participants who use platform providers are plan-managed and 17% are fully self-managed. The self-management figure was probably the most surprising, as it’s below the national average of 23% of participants. Additionally, from their own data the Commission has concluded that participants with a high level of reported function are less likely to use platform providers. So, we have what seems like a bit of an anomaly: platform providers offer extreme choice and self-direction, but self-managers and those with higher reported levels of functioning are using them less.
Nationally, 25% of participants who use platform providers are 18 and under, compared to more than half of all participants in the NDIS. Participants who self-identify as First Nations Australians and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse are less likely than other participants to use platform providers. The outlier for diversity seemed to be people who identified as LGBTQIA+. 11% of survey respondents were LGBTQIA+ and the Inquiry heard that these participants appreciated how platform providers allowed them to easily filter for workers who were inclusive, supportive, and respectful of their identity.
Few participants reported that they wanted to engage a platform provider specifically: most were focussed on finding service relationships that were a good fit and worked well for them. The self-direction of people using platform providers is reflected in 41% of survey respondents stating they do their own research to identify platform providers, rather than relying on Support Coordinators or Plan Managers (15%) or being driven by advertisements (4%). The Inquiry also heard that participants were less interested in formal qualifications and more in the attitudes of workers, and individualising the support being delivered so that it’s genuinely person-centred.
Finally, a theme echoed through the Inquiry was the ease of accessing supports through a platform provider while traveling. Participants highlighted the benefits of touching down in a new city and having potential workers at your fingertips, rather than going through a lengthy intake process with some traditional non-platform providers.
Employee vs contractor vs something else
The status of workers delivering the support was covered in detail in the Report. For example, is the person delivering the support an employee, a contractor, or something else? And how clear was that status to the participant? What did that status mean there was an incident? Though it’s important to remember that the NDIS Commission is not Fair Work Australia. The Commission has no control over broader Industrial Relations changes.
Overall, the Commission found that the relationship(s) between the participant, the platform provider and the worker was unclear. 70% of workers who engaged with the Inquiry considered themselves the employees of the platform provider, even if they technically weren’t. Participants had similar views, with 50% considering themselves the consumer and the platform provider as the employer. There has been a fear (I can’t say if it’s real or perceived) swirling around for a while now that participants are actually the employer and have a whole host of employer responsibilities and obligations that very few people are prepared for.
That gap between the employment status a worker has on a platform provider, and their actual employment status, is concerning. Whether employee or contractor, there was an expectation from participants that worker screening and probity checks would be managed by the platform provider. The Commission stated that the problem isn’t one engagement model or another, the problem is when the relationship isn’t clear.
Choice & control and personal safety
Front and centre in the report is the pretty strong statement that ‘exercising choice and control should never be at the cost of personal safety.’ The biggest fans of the platform model have always said that it’s about choice and control. This Inquiry also found that when asked about the benefits of working with platform providers, 40% of respondents said, ‘choice and control’.
The report doesn’t hold back when it talks about safety, describing unsafe experiences with engaging unsuitable workers, unmet expectations about how platform providers deal with and respond to safety concerns, poor consumer experiences, and platform providers applying safeguarding practices in a varied and often insufficient way. Many would say that these issues are also rife in other providers, but this wasn’t an exercise in comparison. What the Commission is clear on is that platform providers still have obligations in quality and safety even when the primary relationship is between the participant and the worker - and that platform providers can and should do more.
It’s hard to work out the role that quality and safety plays in people deciding to use a platform provider. The Commission stated that only 6% of participants identified quality and safety as a benefit to using a platform provider (but we don’t know whether that’s in line with how people pick other, non-platform providers). The whole sector certainly has work to do in communicating what individualised quality and safety looks like in practice, and making it work one person at a time.
But with platform providers specifically, the Commission aren’t pulling any punches - they state, ‘participants say more needs to be done on safety and quality – and they are right’. Some key findings in the report are:
Safeguarding practices are ‘varied and often insufficient’.
Background and probity checking practices are ‘variable’. And ‘any background or probity arrangements that do not build in independent verification and ongoing monitoring are, in our view, insufficient.’
‘Agreements that participants are required to complete to sign up to platforms are complex and onerous’, meaning there can be confusion about each party’s rights, responsibilities, and necessary next steps if things go wrong.
The Commission also heard ‘concerning accounts relating to complaints and grievance processes and the handling of personal information.’ Also, that ‘participants did not feel supported’ raising complaints. In fact, some people felt “demonised” when they made a complaint to the Platform Provider and were threatened with being “kicked off” of the platform if they showed they were unhappy with the service.’
When discussing why some platform providers aren’t making widespread use of the NDIS Worker Screening Scheme, the Commission theorized that ‘it is also possible that Platform Providers avoid promoting use of the NDIS Worker Screening scheme because it would increase the visibility the NDIS Commission has of all the individuals linked to their platform.’ Pass the after sun, what a burn!
It’s a really thorny, complex topic but the Commission seems to have started being more direct than ever before.
Follow up actions
This was a big, thoroughly researched piece of work that would have put some noses out of joint. So I’m delighted that the Commission completed it, as that’s what they are there to do, right? We want a provider regulator that is not afraid to make strong statements where they are needed, especially where they publicly publish data to illustrate the statements. And boy are there some strong statements in this Report.
The Commission also listed some follow-up actions it would take, including:
‘Undertake work to better support participants to make informed decisions as consumers of Platform Provider services’
‘Establish a consistent and best practice approach to safeguarding across all Platform Provider services’
‘Seek to increase transparency around Platform Provider activities, starting with pricing’. As part of the Inquiry the Commission attempted to assess and compare prices across 13 platform providers…and found that it’s complex and unclear, with a range of different pricing models and approaches.
‘Regulate more directly the workforce of NDIS providers which the Platform Provider market has created’
‘Address the privacy concerns identified’. It’s interesting that the Commission listed this as a follow up action, because the word ‘privacy’ is only mentioned four times in the report. There was reference to the sensitivity of data held by platform providers and how they collect and treat that data, including in things like chat logs between workers and participants and how that information is managed between the platform and the worker. The Commission committed to ‘explore the issues relating to use of personal and sensitive information by Platform Providers further’, also noting that these issues may apply to non-platform providers as well.
There is a role in the market for platform providers, just like there is a role for sole traders and traditional providers and partnerships and social enterprises and lots of other organisation types. This Report gets to the heart of some of the ideas and concerns that have been circulating for a while. Platform providers are not perfect, and they are not evil, but this Report gives a clear roadmap for where the model can improve as the NDIS market matures.
Artwork by David Steele