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Platform providers at the Disability Royal Commission

Are platforms the manifestation of choice and control or a safeguarding risk? Rob explores what happened when the Disability Royal Commission dived into these questions

By Rob Woolley

Updated 15 Apr 202410 May 2023
Screen with 4 peoples profiles and a finger pointing at one

Platforms, platforms everyone. This new (well, relatively new) way of connecting workers with NDIS participants is the ideal manifestation of choice and control for some and controversial for others. Recently, the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) held a hearing covering what the platform model means for the future of disability support services.

Platform providers have been on top of the news cycle for many months, and they’ve been dissected from different angles and perspectives. The role of platform providers touches on vital elements of our Scheme: quality and safeguarding, choice and control, industrial relations, self-direction and financially sustainable models of support. All these aspects are essential to the success of the NDIS and for people to live a good life. Here, we unpack the details that came out of that DRC hearing.

What is the sector saying about platform providers?

This DRC session was subtitled ‘service providers revisited’. The DRC received a handful of submissions relating to digital platforms and their implications for the safety and wellbeing of people with disability. These submissions covered a range of areas that have been well discussed over the last 12 months as well as some newer topics.

In summary, the DRC heard about:

  • Risks of platform providers engaging workers as contractors, particularly the lack of clarity around responsibilities for Workplace Health and Safety, supervision and quality control.
  • Issues concerning direct employment and safeguarding, specifically, how platform providers offer choice for people ready to control their own service delivery.
  • Concerns that platforms can erode job security and skill development. However, contributors acknowledged that there has been very little research on the impact of this on workers in direct service relationships. Expect more research to come.
  • How the emergence of platforms changes the strategies of traditional providers. Noting that the platform model does not automatically mean the end of other types of providers.

The DRC also heard that workers using platforms felt pressure to present a version of themselves as caring, likable, and fun in order to be selected by participants. I’m unclear about how this is pressure is significantly different from more traditional employment relationships. However, the condensed way in which workers on platforms can be selected based on very brief point-in-time presentations might be a new phenomenon. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that making a successful career out of support work should be based on more than your ability to sell yourself in a couple of sentences and a snazzy profile picture. 

A juicy hearing

In March 2023, the DRC held a public hearing where the platform model was one of the key topics discussed. Held across five days, these sessions heard from several representatives from digital platform providers.

The DRC Chair stated that Day 5 would look at innovation, including hearing from two of the largest platform providers in the sector - HireUp and Mable. This was an interesting statement in itself about where platforms sit in the sector’s consciousness right now - when does an innovation just become an accepted part of the sector? Both HireUp and Mable are approaching their 10th birthdays.

This hearing also revealed much about the approaches and models of the different platforms:

  • Mable and HireUp support around 20,000 NDIS participants in total, so we’re talking about a fair chunk of the sector. We heard that they are not simply two versions of the same thing—Mable and HireUp have different models, systems, structures, etc.
  • Whether it’s Mable or HireUp, the platform model is very much a person-to-worker one. Submissions by HireUp showed that most participants on the platform come directly to them rather than through a third party like a Support Coordinator. Mable was clear that the model is best suited for people who can and want to self-direct their support.
  • There are high levels of workforce churn on platforms. However, there are also high levels of ‘resuming’. This is when a worker stops working through a platform but returns within a number of months. The resuming rate currently sits at 40% on HireUp, meaning almost half the workers who have left the platform will resume their employment within the next three months.

The DRC hearing and submissions captured some of the benefits of platforms for workers, particularly the opportunity to scale work based on their priorities. When operating effectively, platforms allow workers to make the work fit their lives, rather than the other way around. Many workers on platforms use them for a side hustle. HireUp, for example, reported that 55% of its active support workers use it as a secondary source of income.

A 21st Century approach to safeguarding

Submissions also discussed how platforms ensure the safety of participants, which was probably what everyone was waiting to hear about. These submissions debunked traditional notions of safety; for example, most in-home support delivery, even by traditional providers, happens away from the eyes of a Manager or Team Leader. Relying solely on a person with a more senior job title to stop abuse from happening is inappropriate as a contemporary, long-term, dignified and effective safeguard.

The hearing also pointed to some new ways of safeguarding people used by platform models. These include algorithms that monitor communications and support notes to identify terms associated with incidents and potential abuse, additional accessibility for some Support Coordinators and frequent reviews of negative feedback submitted by participants at the point of service delivery. These safeguards are in addition to from the central concept that self-direction is the ultimate safeguard, which is a fundamental component of how platforms keep people safe. Interesting times!

A (potential) national registration for disability support workers

The idea of a national registration scheme for disability support workers was discussed throughout the week of public hearings. In fact, it’s been gathering momentum for a while now. Such a scheme would involve setting up a national database that all workers delivering any NDIS-funded support must sign up to. This would allow participants to make informed decisions about who they purchase supports from and monitors workers currently delivering supports. This could also a central repository for training and development records.

The details of how this would apply to sole traders and unregistered providers (including those on platforms) are still to be thrashed out. Opinion was split among attendees at the DRC: some welcomed the idea, others thought it was solid but needed to be voluntary, while still others thought that it had the potential to erode choice and control and reduce the workforce pool. There were also questions about whether it would actually stop abuse or neglect.

‘Hold the phone!’ I hear you cry, ‘Don’t we already have one of those in the NDIS National Worker Screening Check? It’s not exactly the same thing. The NDIS National Worker Screening Check is only mandatory for workers in registered providers. Extensive work would need to be done to establish how any scheme could extend to unregistered providers and contractors. And there are various state- and territory-based background checks that may already apply to unregistered providers, depending on where you live.

If you’re reading this from Victoria, you are probably doubly crying out, ‘We already have this!’ Yes, you do—the Disability Worker Registration Board—but it’s a voluntary arrangement for everyone, contractor or employee, registered or unregistered.

In her evidence, Tracy Mackey (NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner) indicated broad support for the idea, noting that the Commonwealth government would need to legislate it. There are significant complexities to work through, particularly the overlap with other arrangements, and the Commission is already pretty stretched so resourcing would be a key factor.

The Commissioner’s Own Motion Enquiry into Platform Providers

When giving evidence, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner mentioned the Own Motion Inquiry into Platform Providers. An Own Motion Inquiry is an investigation a regulator can conduct under their own steam and not necessarily in direct response to any specific complaint or compliance issue. The Commission has recently completed their Own Motion Inquiry into SIL services (Rebecca’s awesome writeup is here). The Commissioner acknowledged that platform providers have both offered more choice to many participants and brought a regulatory challenge for the already stretched NDIS Commission.

The Terms of Reference are here. Consultation closed on 28 April 2023. The Inquiry has a wide-ranging scope, and will consider:

  • Participants’ access, experience and engagement
  • Supports and services accessed and delivered.
  • Quality and safeguarding arrangements aligned with the NDIS Code of Conduct, spanning quality improvement and assurance
  • Trends, patterns and insights from data and feedback
  • Relationship between platform providers , workers and participants, including contractor and billing arrangements
  • Differing business models, assurances and governance structures

When anything makes it to the DRC, it’s a serious topic. Platform providers can offer participants choice and control as well as bring regulatory and safeguarding challenges about how the sector responds to new models of service delivery. The DRC chair grouped platform providers under the umbrella term innovation, and innovation always compounds in the way it builds on the progress made to date. So, whatever platform models may look like in the future, we’ve turned the corner, and the landscape has changed forever.

Stay tuned for our summary of the commission’s Own Motion Inquiry.

Our 2023 conference will also be discussing new platform models. Tickets available here!

Authors

Rob Woolley

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