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NDIS News & Analysis

The digital future of the NDIS

Rob Woolley

The dust is settling on the release of the NDIS 10 Year Review, and all our minds turn to the upcoming government response. Out of all the 26 recommendations and 139 actions, the one word coming up again and again that snuck past the headline writers was ‘digital.’

After talking about it for almost a decade, in recent years the NDIA has made attempts to become a more technologically modern government agency. The 10 Year Review Final Report is the most concrete commitment to improving the digital foundation of the Scheme we’ve seen.

We should note that, like everything else in the Review’s Final Report, these are only recommendations at this stage. The Commonwealth Government has not formally responded to the recommendations and the final outcomes might look very different to what is being proposed.

What’s the context for the proposed digital changes?

As well as being Minister for the NDIS, Minister Shorten is also Minister for Government Services, so presumably is plugged in to broader plans to digitize other Commonwealth Government functions (like the Data and Digital Government Strategy). We already know many government agencies and systems are using advanced digital technology including chatbots, virtual assistants, image detection at border controls, data mapping and AI for fraud detection. And of course we have our favorite government system rollout, PACE. So, we shouldn’t expect that the NDIA keeps using Cold War-era technology to implement one of the most complex government service systems in history.

In December 2023, the updated Australian Government Digital Service Standard was released. This is a mandatory quality and accessibility standard for all government IT portals, that gives citizens access to multiple government services. Like something straight from the recycling bin of the Utopia writer’s room, it aims to “consolidate digital access for citizen facing services, into centralised secure, scalable, and reliable digital portals” to “provide easier access to digital government services and enable a consistent and predictable digital experience for Australians”.

On top of all of that, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission released their Data and Digital Roadmap in early 2023. This aligns with their 2022-27 Strategic Plan and aims to use digital solutions to improve outcomes for stakeholders and improve processes inside the Commission. It’s hard to pin down what this practically means – but there’s long been a view that the Commission is trying to do a sophisticated job with unsophisticated technology, so my guess would be digital solutions that record complaints, sytemic issues and connect teams, better than how it happens now.

So, although it feels like the focus on digital access and solutions has come out of the blue, it’s actually been slowly burning across different parts of the Scheme and broader government for a while.

What does the Review say?

The Review Final Report made several recommendations related to digital technology, centered around the broad aim that the NDIA should invest in digital infrastructure to enable accessible, timely and reliable information and streamlined processes.

This was then broken down into recommending:

  • The development of an easy-to-use centralised online platform that provides information on all locally available services and supports. I don’t know if anyone reading this has ever tried to manage and update an online directory of literally anything but good luck with that one, Bill. For providers, this might mean a rethinking of marketing approaches if this centralised online platform ends up being better than the current Provider Finder. Watch this space.

  • Better two-way information sharing between the NDIA, the new National Disability Supports Quality and Safeguards Commission and “third party online platforms” to encourage digital innovation, that builds on the above centralised platform. These ideas were also mentioned in some of the recommendations from the Royal Commission and also come with some significant privacy considerations to work through.

  • Investment in the underpinning digital infrastructure and capability needed to protect the integrity of the NDIS. Our assumption is that at the thick end of the wedge, this is using technology to make things like the registration process simpler and easier. And at the sharper end, it’s using technology to beef up fraud detection, funds misuse, safeguarding concerns, and non-compliance.

  • The development of a NDIS Digital Transformation Strategy to tie all of this together.

Reading the Final Report, it’s clear that these changes are partly about Scheme integrity and decision-making, but primarily are aimed at making the Scheme easier to navigate for participants and improving quality of supports. The Review emphasised that technology should support people to be informed consumers and keep people safe.

A new payment system, and the future of Plan Managers

Some of the most significant recommendations were related to electronic payments and the future of the Plan Management function (repeating, again, that none of these recommendations are set in stone and no action has commenced yet).

The Review recommended two significant changes:

  • A move to fully electronic payments, designed to create simpler processes for all providers, registered or not, to make claims. This is described as a ‘multi-channel digital payments approach’ to make it easier to pay any provider and enable participants to better monitor Plan spend. There are no further details in the recommendation on what a ‘multi-channel digital payments approach’ actually looks like in an NDIS context. In the non-NDIS world, if I owned a coffee shop this might mean customers can use cash, card, gift cards, or purchase some beans through my online shop, etc.

  • One aim of the new payment system will be the end of reimbursements. Participants will no longer need to pay for something out of their own pocket and then be reimbursed, as the provider will be able to seamlessly connect with the new payment system (in theory).

  • This would remove the need for the Plan Management function. Specifically, the Review Final Report recommends “the Australian Government should develop and implement a clear transition path for existing Plan Managers.”

The driver for this seems to be more visibility and transparency for the Agency on payments. Under the current Plan Management model, the NDIA has minimal visibility over payments. They have tried Band Aid solutions to address this in recent years, like requiring ABN information to be submitted by Plan Managers when claiming. However, the Review is suggesting a more fundamental redesign of the current system.

The Review did say that people choose Plan Management because it allows more choice (compared to Agency Management) and is administratively easier (compared to Self-Management).

No action has been taken on this recommendation, nor has a timeline or roadmap been created for implementing it. The Review is clear that any transition out of Plan Managers will need to take time and that Plan Managers “still have an important role to play in supporting prevention, detection and response to non-compliance, sharp practice and fraud”. And supporting participants to execute choice and control, of course.

Other mentions of digital solutions

There were a few other mentions of digital solutions and technology in the Final Report:

  • Workforce and technology came up a few times including re-stating ideas like a digital skills passport, micro-credentials and linking skills and qualifications to workers screening. A digital approach will be required for all of these. Consultation has just started on a National Skills Passport that would clearly have benefits for the disability sector workforce – that process is being led by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

  • It was acknowledged that the NDIS Commission has been hamstrung by inadequate information and communications technologies investment, leading to missed opportunities to reduce the regulatory burden on providers.

  • The Review recommends technology is tailored to individuals, rather than one-size-fits-all, highlighting things like digital experiences tailored to diverse needs (including people with an intellectual disability). There is very little information about what this might look like.

  • Data is the new oil, and the Review doesn’t shy away from highlighting the value of data - for market stewardship, for market monitoring, and for price setting.

The Review says that digital improvements won’t happen overnight. So, these changes – if they come to fruition – will take a long time to design, create and implement.

To read all the Review’s recommendations, check out the NDIS Review Final Report.

There are is also an Easy Read versions of the Final Report.

And NDIS Review fact sheets.

Author

Rob Woolley

Our very own Woolly Mammoth, pulls up last in the alphabetical rankings but always gets a place on the DSC podium for combining curiosity with smarts. He knows so much about the NDIS it is scary. Rob lives a personal commitment to sharing his knowledge with an endgame of people with disabi...

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