The market in social services-does motivation matter?

Antony McMullen of Catholic Social Services Victoria (@CathSocServVic) outlines some of the implications of competitive social service markets for not-for-profit service providers, ahead of their Feb 2016 conference.

Competitive social service markets are being introduced in the social service sector and this is impacting on providers everywhere, faith-based or not.

It’s an increasingly controversial area. Beliefs about what money can and can’t buy are changing. Harvard Professor Michael J Sandel has cited prisoners purchasing cell upgrades and schoolkids being paid to read as extreme examples of market mechanisms corroding areas of life that were previously out of bounds. Competitive markets may work for a buying flat-screen TV but should they be uncritically applied to areas where people are the focus?

Traditionally government and not-for-profit charities have been seen as the natural place for the delivery of human services. However, government is moving out, and the programs that had been contracted to the community sector are in danger of being swept up in further marketised systems that are being created as an alternative.

The Productivity Commission found in 2010 that there were 59,000 economically significant NFPs in the system, contributing $43 billion to Australia's GDP, and 8 per cent of employment. There are potentially profitable business opportunities in this significant sector of the economy for private enterprise. Moving from such ‘human services’ as the prison and asylum-seeker detention systems, we will most likely see more international names like G4S, Serco and GEO competing against larger not-for-profits.

Commercial interest could outweigh program quality in some of these sector developments - "Would you like an iPad with your training course?" It’s no wonder that Commonwealth Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham has recently outlawed vocational education providers from offering inducements or incentives such as this to, in the words of the Minister, "get them to sign up to courses that they don’t need". Some people conned into paying for very expensive courses include students with intellectual disabilities who are vulnerable to exploitation.

This raises a question: does motivation for getting into social services provision matter? It certainly makes a difference in ability to mobilise community involvement. According to the Productivity Commission, around 4.6 million volunteers work with Australian not-for-profits (with a wage equivalent value of $15 billion) – much of this relating to faith-based work. Donations similarly underpin much of our work. Would Australians volunteer with, or make a donation to, Serco or G4S who are essentially high paid jailors of asylum seekers and refugees?

Some of this change may offer new opportunities; importantly, with personalised packages of support such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, program participants may be able to have more control over their own lives and hopefully enjoy life in the community more fully. What really matters is how these changes impact on people who are disadvantaged and can be vulnerable to exploitation as some of the excesses of the privatised vocational education market has clearly illustrated.

This is the time where we need to carefully evaluate where competitive markets work and where they don’t, by exploring the way they can shape or mis-shape our relationships and the broader community we live in. Rather than ‘circling the wagons’, Catholic social service providers want to engage with this key social challenge of our times, for the common good of all.  Our ‘REVIEW, REIMAGINE, RENEW: Mission making a difference in a changing world’ conference will include much needed discussion about how to find and manage funding in a challenging social sector environment, as well as analysing the practical impact of marketisation in the disability services sector under the NDIS.

Click here for more information on the ‘REVIEW, REIMAGINE, RENEW: Mission making a difference in a changing world’ conference (held February 2016).