OUTCOMES FOR THE MOST DISADVANTAGED: Competition verses co-operation?

The Harper Review proposed increased competition in the social services sector. Below, Vin Martin & Dennis Fitzgerald from Catholic Social Services Australia respond.

In a competitive market, winners receive more than they give. In a culture of co-operation, everyone’s a winner who gives more than they get. If economics is about choice then as a society we can choose co-operation over competition. The Australian Government’s Harper Competition Policy Review had limited choice. The Review’s task was to consider the merits of applying competition across the economy. In Chapter 10 of its draft report, the Review examined the scope for applying competition to the delivery of human services.

In the social services sector, there is a rich tradition of co-operation between willing volunteers and trained specialists selflessly working and striving to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged in society. Do we want to build upon this tradition? Or do we want a cut-throat competitive sector where cost-conscious organisations limit services, use volunteers sparingly and cherry pick clients?

The services delivered by the sector to the most vulnerable in our community are outcomes of relationships between service providers and the people they serve. While competition policy may have important insights for the community sector, hasty implementation has damaged the delivery of services and affected clients and institutions. Competition policy should complement not replace the way in which the sector works. Collaboration not competition is the wellspring of on-going innovation in social services.

The idea of governments tendering services is nothing new. No-one doubts the wisdom of applying market disciplines to the choices individuals make between private schools, private hospitals and aged care. Potential buyers in these markets are well-endowed and exercising choice adds to their welfare. When people have no capacity-to-pay or experience severe disadvantage, choice is limited and a different paradigm is required.

Many disadvantaged people are unable to equip themselves with the knowledge or financial means to make optimal market choices. They survive and thrive only because of long-term relationships with dedicated and expert service providers, often particular individuals. The rapid introduction of commissioning in recent times has caused needless destruction of many such relationships.

There is an urgent need to evaluate the recent experience of commissioning and tendering Government services. The focus on best outcomes for all vulnerable people demands it. Where competition policy is introduced there is also a need to allow time and resources for institutions to adjust. Governments need to develop sector adjustment policies so that the professional capability of the sector is not jeopardised by the introduction of competition policy.

And what lessons are there from the Federal Government’s Competition Policy Review for the incoming Andrews Labor Government? The election theme of “Putting People First”, all people, reflects a traditional focus on health, education and welfare. If the Andrews Labor Government supports the critical role of on-going relationships between hardworking volunteers, qualified professionals and the most disadvantaged in society, there will be better outcomes for individuals and society alike.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As a member of the Policy and Advocacy Committee of Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV), Vin Martin helped to prepare CSSV’s submission to the Competition Policy Review, which can be viewed at http://www.css.org.au/ .