Decades of reform to service delivery across Australia has introduced a diversity of publicly and privately provided services, aimed at improving both access and quality. But the gaps between regions and metropolitan areas on many measures of service provision and socio-economic outcomes are persisting. The smaller and more remote the community, the greater these gaps are.
The reasons behind this lack of progress are not simply a lack of effort or money. There has been much of both. The reasons go to the heart of how we have sought to resolve problems and the incompatibility of those policy approaches to the challenges of small town Australia. Rigid program guidelines and accountability mechanisms, belief that applying programs consistently across Australia will deliver equitable outcomes, valuing economies of scale as the source of efficiencies everywhere, through to the relatively low value given to program design and delivery in contrast with the high value given to policy design. These examples of the context within which policies and programs are designed and delivered show how deeply embedded the sources of the problem are. Major changes are needed to turn the tide, and these are explored in this paper.
The dominant driver in reform of service delivery in recent decades has been outsourcing and the seeking of the economies of scale that work well in cities, rather than enabling the efficiency dividend from better economies of scope that are most effective in smaller communities. The consequence of this reform direction is poorer delivery and outcomes (see Box 1) and we are currently at great risk of repeating these mistakes with the NDIS.
Box 1. Withdrawal of training providers Changes made to the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (the key ‘train the trainer’ VET course) now mandate groups of a minimum of 8 and at least 1 face to face session per week. As a result, none of the 9 RTOs previously offering this course in Western NSW have applied to offer it in 2017.
The key to improvement is moving from a rigid system to a flexible system. Flexibility enables trials and innovation bounded by a set time and place – enabling piloting of innovative approaches within a designated ‘regulatory sandpit’. Flexibility is also possible in allocation of existing resources and exemption from regulations. Each jurisdiction already works directly with regional communities to help them prioritise and solve their unique issues. Tapping into local leadership capability and trialling solutions that match diverse local needs and challenges is crucial to progress. Enabling this local leadership to influence the design and delivery of programs is a critical factor in creating and supporting a more flexible system. It will also reduce the constant pressure on constrained government budgets to find new money for regional issues by getting better value from funds already committed to regional issues.