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Position description: NDIA CEO

It's seen as one of the most complex and controversial roles in the public sector- and for good reason!

By Todd Winther

Updated 15 Apr 20249 Aug 2022
Illustration of magnifying glass over multiple CVs

When Martin Hoffman resigned as the Chief Executive Officer of the NDIA, he left one of the most demanding jobs in the federal public service. Whoever succeeds him faces a challenging brief because of the sheer complexities of the role.

The job description is neither a typical CEO appointment nor the head of a federal government department. Instead, it’s a strange combination of these senior positions that requires a very specific skill set.

When a new CEO is appointed to head the Agency, it significantly changes how the Scheme operates. The National Disability Insurance Scheme Act 2013, the legislation that frames the Scheme and defines its scope, makes the CEO a tremendously powerful actor, but the role still has limits. Understanding the CEO’s power and its limits is the key to comprehending how decisions are made in the Agency. In addition, a greater understanding of the CEO role can lead to more targeted advocacy, which could create a more robust culture of accountability at the Agency to ensure that the successes and failures of the Scheme are accurately attributed to the right people.

To determine the kind of person who should become the next CEO, we must understand the role and the skills required for a candidate to succeed.

A challenging role

The Agency defines the CEO’s role in a short sentence that dramatically underplays its significance. While the NDIA website states that “The Chief Executive Officer is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the National Disability Insurance Agency”. However, the position description in the advertisement for the job gets to the heart of the role and why it is so complicated.

The ideal candidate will be an experienced leader with a demonstrated ability to run a major organisation with a significant budget, someone who is an astute connector and relationship manager, especially in dealing with Commonwealth and state and territory Ministers, who collectively have policy and funding responsibility for the NDIS.

An important activity for the CEO will be building and managing relationships with the Disability Sector at all levels. Experience in working with a diverse group of organisations which includes peak bodies, advocates, service providers and participants in co-design initiatives will be important to success in this role. They will support these qualities with an experience profile with similar dynamics to the NDIS, scale, scope, cost and complexity.

The person will have been a board reporting CEO or equivalent, experienced in dealing with complex stakeholder needs in an environment where outcomes change people’s lives.

What a monumental task!

“A reporting CEO”

Given the above, you’d think that the CEO is responsible for strategic decision-making, but that is not the case.

The NDIS Minister sets the strategic direction for how the Scheme operates by defining the Agency’s policy agenda. As the CEO is the public face of the Scheme, he or she can get caught in the political crossfire. Immediately after the 2022 federal election results, it was clear that Hoffman was going to leave because the Morrison government appointed him – it was just a matter of when. There was little doubt on this point because the new NDIS Minister, Bill Shorten, had labelled Hoffman a partisan public servant in 2019.

So, if the CEO doesn’t set the strategic direction, is he or she in charge of implementing the agenda set by the minister? Well, not really. Unlike other federal government departments, the NDIA has a board of political appointees approved by the minister. The board’s mandate is to ensure that the strategic direction set by the minister is implemented.

“The astute connector”

We haven’t even come to the Scheme’s most crucial stakeholders: the participants. Ultimately, a CEO who does the job well answers to participants, respects and addresses their feedback, and is in constant contact with them and the organisations that address their concerns. Though the Act makes the CEO the final arbiter in determining who can access the Scheme and whether plans can be varied or reassessed, the reality is vastly different. No one person can possibly make that many decisions in a day, so the CEO delegates that authority to planners. However, the CEO determines how those planners make decisions by implementing policy changes and directing how the Scheme operates.

The Morrison government may have formulated the idea of Independent Assessments, but it was Hoffman who was ultimately tasked with implementing them. That meant he became the face of an ill-considered, rushed policy that was subsequently – and correctly – reversed, even if it wasn’t entirely his responsibility.

And what about providers? The CEO needs to take their concerns on board, address what matters to them, alleviate their problems, and make it easier for them to run their businesses. Agreeing to changes to the price guide and operational guidelines is the CEO’s responsibility. These decisions have an enormous impact on providers and directly affect their short- and long-term performance.

Therefore, one of the most complicated parts of being the CEO is balancing the needs of participants and providers, who often have the same objectives but are necessarily approaching those goals from different directions.

So which master does the CEO serve first? The minister, the board, participants, or providers? The perfect CEO, of course, balances all of them.

“An experienced CEO … dealing with complex needs”

The position description states that the prospective CEO must have the corporate experience necessary to understand the needs of providers, grasp the economic challenges of the Scheme, and guide the strategic direction established by the minister and the board. However, the CEO also must have extensive knowledge of working with participants, empathise with their concerns, and recognise that disability is an individual, subjective experience.

As the advertisement notes, the role goes far beyond that of a politician or an expert in public relations:

They will be experienced in or have an appreciation of the way in which a large scale national, multibillion dollar service organisation like the NDIA which delivers services to over 500,000 participants through a collective work force of over 250,000, and interfaces with a range of mainstream services, such as health, education, transport, and aged care.

Critical competencies will include; deep empathetic leadership, executing for results, leading teams through change, building relationships and using influence, strategic orientation, and prioritisation, financial acumen, and knowledge of the NDIS philosophy and Government processes.

The successful applicant will have the future of 750,000 people in their hands, which requires the CEO to establish a culture inside the Agency that sets the direction for all delegates to follow. Creating this culture requires skill in articulating the Scheme’s objectives and establishing clear decision-making structures in the many corners of the Agency’s organisational chart. Therefore, the CEO must be a people person.

The CEO also has to have “financial acumen”, and this is arguably where a CEO will come in for the most criticism. Acumen does not mean simply cutting the budget or sacrificing funding to ensure a sustainable Scheme. It is the ability to justify decisions to participants, providers, and the government while understanding the insurance principles that are the bedrock of the Scheme.

Significant experience with government service is also essential. “Health, education transport and aged care” were used as examples in the advertisement, and they were chosen for a specific reason. While it is true that all these departments are interrelated with the Scheme, they are also areas in which responsibility is divided between state and federal governments. So, in addition to being a people person, the CEO also needs to be a bureaucratic person who understands how decisions get made, knows how to develop public policy, and recognises how complex decisions can create or alleviate practical problems for the Scheme’s stakeholders.

In 2022, that’s how a new CEO will “execute for results”. The CEO must respect budget realities, be all things to all people inside and outside the Agency, and avoid causing conflict with and for the government. Can you imagine applying for that job?

No matter who ends up in the position, it is a complicated role with many moving parts. The incoming CEO will have to hit the ground running to ensure that the complex challenges facing the Scheme are addressed for all stakeholders in a way that can be readily understood.

Authors

Todd Winther

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