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Family Support Program

Estimates & Committees
Rachel Siewert 24 Feb 2011

Community Affairs 24 February 2011

Senator SIEWERT—With respect to the family relationship area in the Family Support Program, I have a number of questions, and I do have online questions. As I understand it, contracts for the FSP expire on 30 June, and Minister Macklin at the conference at the end of last year outlined some directions for the programs, and also said that there would be no major retendering process. Is that correct?

Dr Harmer—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—As I understand it, a lot of the providers are unsure as to where things are up to, so they have had the big picture commitment but it is not happening on the ground as yet. Can you outline the time frame? What will happen by 30 June to ensure that we are not getting any break in services?

Ms Carroll—Before I hand over to my colleagues, I will begin by saying that during November and December the department held about 21 meetings across 18 different locations with national, state and territory stakeholders to outline the things as you describe that Minister Macklin had already outlined about the program design, and also to address what might be implementation issues and to communicate timing and those sorts of things. From there, we are now moving into having some discussions with some specific different organisations about where we might want them to slightly shift the kind of work they do, to align it to the new program directions. In that process, we are obviously getting into when we would actually start the new tendering. As to those exact details, my colleagues can provide a bit more detail.

Ms Stehr—We are just in the process of finalising some of the required government processes around the Commonwealth grants processes of getting the new program guidelines approved and also of finalising the templates, if you like, for the funding agreements. We have been working closely with the sector on doing those guidelines to determine what the funding agreements will look like. We have a working group meeting scheduled for tomorrow to do that next step of the funding agreements. I think there are about 12 organisations from the sector represented on that working group, along with FaHCSIA’s national, state and territory office staff. Once those processes about getting approval of the guidelines have been ticked off, we expect to start making the formal funding offers to service providers in March. We have all of our state and territory office colleagues meeting with national office just to be very clear on the program parameters and what the issues are. Obviously, as you would know, they have already started to hear from stakeholders about when we will have those formal offers.

Senator SIEWERT—You will be letting them know?

Ms Stehr—Within about a month. Also, within the next week I would expect we will send out an e-newsletter to service providers giving them an update on where things are at.

Senator SIEWERT—That leads me to a bit of an overarching question around contracts. I appreciate that you are trying to move quickly to get this done. It certainly seems that way. In view of the national compact where there are details around contracts, which I think is six months—and I do understand that the announcements were only made in November—what is the department doing in terms of trying to meet that six-months requirement? You know as well as I do what happens to providers when they do not know if they are going to get a contract signed; they start losing their staff.

Ms Carroll—There is a range of things more generally that we do across the department in terms of contracting. Obviously we try to meet the commitment around the six months. Having the minister being able to make the announcement of the broad directions—such as broadly we are going to be doing a massive different kind of tender process, et cetera—is part of working towards that commitment. Where things are a little more difficult generally, such as when things are dependent on the upcoming budget, that creates a bit of discomfort for service providers. Obviously we cannot enter into contracts if we do not have additional funding. Where we do have the funding amount ongoing but it is about retendering, we are certainly working hard at trying to make sure we meet those timelines. We are also working on the other areas of the compact like good consultation and good engagement with service providers.

In particular—and I think the Family Support Program is a good example—where there might only be a small number of service providers with whom you need to work more closely, trying to get that sorted so that they do not feel insecure when you are kind of going out with broader funding offers is obviously a challenge. Most contracts finish at the end of June, and the six months takes you back to December, and you have that kind of Christmas hiccup in the middle. That is something we are conscious of and working towards. We are certainly trying to encourage all areas of the department to think about that.

Senator SIEWERT—One of the new stronger focuses is on vulnerable families. At the same time—and we started having this discussion last estimates—you have got the Attorney-General’s Department changing the focus and doing some fund-cutting in their program and seeming to be focusing more on post-separation; yet when the program first started a lot of it was about strengthening families. Has there been a conscious decision to move away from that—the focus on building resilience in families and keeping people together? We seem to have shifted a bit. The original focus was on keeping families together.
Mr Lye—In relation to vulnerability, most of the providers would argue that they already service people who are vulnerable. I suppose what we are saying now is that you need to make sure that that is the case. A lot of providers provide services to families in different circumstances, including those who are vulnerable, and we are not telling them to stop doing that. We are saying that they need to have particular attention to families who are vulnerable because of our multiple policy objectives, including trying to provide a bit of assistance to prevent people finding themselves in the child protection system.

We are asking services really to be accountable about that vulnerability rather than asking them to do something that they are not already doing. Certainly, I know in the consultations I have had with some of the big providers that they would argue that they are already well and truly meeting those objectives. So they do not see it as any kind of great hurdle to jump over.

In relation to the other part of your question, about whether there has been a shift and where the program is going, one of our objectives in this exercise has been to make sure that we have comprehensive services across the country that are able to provide a response to a whole range of family life events, not just relating to relationship breakdown, and not just around families who might be in crisis. Over and above that, what we have tried to do is have a look and say: how well placed are we in remote Indigenous communities or in communities where there is significant disadvantage, and do we have an extra layer of capacity there, principally through the Communities for Children and Communities for Children Plus program to really kind of provide an additional response? That additional response is both a strengthening and resilience-building exercise as well as responding to people who might have chaotic or difficult circumstances.

Senator SIEWERT—In terms of the specific communities you have just mentioned, there would obviously be a lot stronger focus on vulnerable families; is that the idea?

Mr Lye—I might ask Lee to speak, but I suppose the general principle is that we would say: in those communities, an individualised response is not enough; you need to be thinking about the community and the community strength.

Senator SIEWERT—There will be enough flexibility in their contracts to enable them to do that; is that a correct understanding?

Ms Emerson—We are trying to build that sort of flexibility into the new funding arrangements, very deliberately. That is exactly the sort of flexibility providers have said they want and need, and it does vary very much, depending on the community in which they are actually operating. So it is giving them some capacity to respond appropriately.

Senator SIEWERT—When you are looking at the way you write contracts and fund organisations, do you look at what they are also providing under the A-G’s program?

Ms Emerson—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—In areas, for example, that we have just been talking about, where there is quite a different focus in terms of whole of community support, et cetera, do you take that into account when you are making funding decisions and drafting up contracts?

Ms Emerson—The current situation we are in is one of renewing funding arrangements, so we are not actually making a large number of funding decisions per se. We are encouraging services to provide a much more integrated suite of programs. If they have a specific capacity—perhaps already providing a number of FaHCSIA funded services, a number of A-GD funded services—we are also asking them to think about those as a whole and to link with others in the community. So it is an increased emphasis on collaboration and networking—that is the real emphasis here—and that is reflected in what we are proposing for our new funding arrangements.

Mr Lye—It is a challenge working across those boundaries, and it is a similar one that we face with the state and territory governments, who are obviously big players in this space as well. This collaboration kind of emphasis in what we are doing from 1 July is really designed to get providers to think about those linkages, not only with A-GD services but also particularly with state and territory services. Most providers do a good job on this already.

Senator SIEWERT—With respect to the wage equity case for community service workers, have you been looking at what the potential of the case means for the delivery of services and wage equity for people working in these particular services? I realise that you deal with a lot of service providers, not just in this area, so I suppose it is a more general issue.

Ms Carroll—In relation to the SACS award, broadly the department has been involved in a whole-ofgovernment activity. Obviously DEEWR is the agency that is actually the lead in the case, but we certainly have been looking at what might be broad implications et cetera across the board. That is part of our role. Until all of those things are finalised and government has a position, it is a work in progress. We are certainly aware of the issues. We are aware that, in this program and in a number of other programs, the decisions will have some impacts down the line. We have been working in a whole-of-government IDC to try to put some of that advice to government as time goes on.

Senator SIEWERT—Moving now to online issues, there have been some ongoing problems with data accuracy. Are they resolved yet?

Ms Emerson—There are no outstanding technical issues now. We did have a bad run a bit earlier. The actual data issues were resolved back in early October. We had to modify some of the online reports, for example, so there were issues around the reporting portal not working for some time. That has now been addressed. Four reports have since been restored and are currently available on a self-serve basis through the online system, and other reports can now be requested on an ad hoc basis. So it is up and functioning, really.

Senator SIEWERT—I understand that some of the services in Victoria commissioned someone to have a look at how they were sharing data across the FRC centres. Are you aware of that?

Ms Emerson—I am not personally, no. I would have to ask my staff.

Senator SIEWERT—Could you take on notice if you are aware of that, if in fact a report was produced, and if so, do you have a copy? If there was anything coming out of it, what was your response or what will it be?


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