Concerns regarding DSS tender for social services – volunteering
On behalf of the NSW Volunteer Centre network and the 2000-plus member organisations in NSW we represent, I write to convey The Centre for Volunteering’s extreme disappointment with the recent Department of Social Services’ (DSS) tender for social services.
The Centre for Volunteering is the peak body for volunteering in NSW. We support volunteers, not-for-profit (NFP) and other organisations that involve volunteers, and the Volunteer Centre Network organisations (VCN) that promote and develop volunteering in their local communities. We alone comprise of more than 400 member organisations, and represent the interests of volunteering across all sectors in our State. The VCN comprises more than 2000 organisations involving volunteers.
We wish to directly express our concerns about the process and outcomes to date, and the long term impact on the volunteering sector, people experiencing disadvantage, the broader community, and the NFP organisations that support those people and their communities.
The value of volunteering
In 2010, over 36% of Australian adults (6.1 million people) participated in formal volunteering (through an organisation) and 49% provided informal assistance to people outside their own household. Volunteers freely give their time to support the community and the people who need them. Volunteers are the people who step up and fill the gaps in the system – due to resource limitations, emergencies or otherwise.
The volunteering sector is critical to civil society. Volunteering underpins the delivery of social and community services in our nation, and without volunteers many services (such as those funded by DSS) simply could not function. In 2006, volunteers provided 623 million hours of work to the NFP sector (equivalent to 317,000 full-time positions). Around two-thirds of these volunteers worked for small NFPs that do not have any paid employees.
In 2010, formal volunteering was estimated to be worth $25.4 billion to the Australian economy and informal assistance was valued at $59.3 billion. However, even these impressive numbers undersell the real value of volunteering – volunteering has a far greater social value and impact than just the notional cost of paying for that time.
Volunteering plays a key role in strengthening communities by creating networks between people who generate a range of positive social practices. It also has significant benefits for volunteers – it mitigates the negative psychological effects of disadvantage, and is important for connecting people to social and economic participation, career paths and labour markets.
We believe the Government, which receives so much benefit from the contribution of volunteers in supporting social services, has a responsibility to make a fair contribution to supporting the infrastructure that underpins productive, safe and sustainable volunteering. Failure to do so is a false economy. It not only undermines the effectiveness of the nation’s volunteer effort, but it also disrespects volunteers and volunteering (discouraging future volunteering effort). In other words, a failure to invest in volunteering will result in people doing less of it and doing it less well.
Concerns about the DSS tender process and outcomes
The tender model called ‘A New Way of Working’ promised to cut red tape, streamline the application process and provide longer term funding agreements to enable the social services sector to maintain stability, certainty and efficiency.
It did not live up to any of these promises.
Our key concerns about the tender process and outcomes for the volunteering sector are:
1. Greater administrative burden in applying for grants
The administrative burden of applying for grants was very high. Volunteer centres had to do a lot of work to prepare their applications (DSS collected information about the number of hours spent). All centres had to divert scarce resources away from the core business of service delivery, to complete the funding applications, and some had to pay staff to work additional hours or engage contractors to assist. The tender specifically stated that grants are not provided for the costs incurred in preparation of a grant application.
2. Short time allowed to apply for grants (4 weeks)
The time allowed to apply for grants was too short. Little detail was provided until the tender opened, then under-resourced volunteer centres were only given 4 weeks to digest all the information and complete the complex application process. Information sessions provided by DSS prior to the opening of the application process were notable for the number of questions raised, compared to the number of questions answered.
It was particularly difficult to research and design new projects for the innovative project grants in such a short period of time. It was impossible to develop collaborative partnership or consortium arrangements in the timeframe given, even though this was clearly a desired outcome of the new process.
3. Confusing grant application process
The process for applying for grants was confusing. Information about the process came out in a piecemeal manner, right up until the application deadline. There were delays by DSS staff in answering questions throughout the process, and some of the information provided was inconsistent with earlier information. The online templates were difficult to edit and read. The online portal crashed in the final days as the submission deadline approached.
4. Length of time to make decisions about grants (6 months)
The period between applying for grants through to the grant announcements and provision of details of grant offers was overly long (six months from July 2014 to January 2015). This created great uncertainty about the future for many volunteer centres, especially because only two-month funding extensions were given, despite announcements being delayed by at least three months.
While centres were told at the end of December which grants they would get (when most staff were on leave), they were not told until the end of January 2015 exactly how much money that would entail.
Volunteer centres need much longer lead times between grant funding decisions and the expiry of previous grants to enable them to make decisions about whether to recruit new staff, extend or terminate existing staff, renew leases and make other types of legal agreements (e.g. with other funders). There is a real risk that centres may lose staff, clients and funders in light of the uncertainty about whether their services will continue.
5. Grants are short-term (only for 12-15 months), hampering strategic programs
Centres will not receive payment until around mid-July for new programs, which makes resourcing program planning and delivery before then very difficult. Centres cannot do appropriate long-term strategic and business planning with such short funding terms. Centres find it difficult to attract and retain good staff with such short funding terms. Centres cannot develop and implement new programs in light of such short funding terms, especially when many of these programs need to be redesigned due to the reduced funding received and/or extended territories they were allocated to service (generally without consultation).
6. Funding generally reduced and excluded altogether for some activities
While most volunteer centres who were previously funded received grants, as far as we are aware most received less funding than requested and/or previously received and/or for larger areas.
As far as we are aware, few innovative projects were funded for the volunteering sector in NSW, and many projects that had a genuine national application were unsuccessful.
We are also aware that in Tasmania, a Queensland-based service provider was successful in displacing an established VIO with strong community connections. This provider has plans to expand to other parts of the country, which is a potential threat to future funding for existing place-based VIOs and is at odds with the Government’s stated objective of providing ‘a foundation for integrated, community-led program delivery that understands and meets local needs.’
Funding was specifically excluded for services and projects with a state focus, such as our peak body services, despite these services supporting activities that the grants were designed to foster. This fails to recognise the collaborative role that the national and state peaks play in supporting community-based organisations and a healthy volunteering sector across Australia.
Long term impact on the volunteering sector and community
We recognise that, as in any sector, there is always room for improvement. However, at no stage was the volunteering sector consulted about what was working well, any areas for improvement or work underway to enhance volunteering services – despite correspondence requesting consultation being sent to then Minister Andrews and to DSS.
What eventuated from the Australian Government via DSS was an inefficient and disappointing process. The process has had a direct negative impact on volunteering, and on the vital contribution volunteers make to providing social services to disadvantaged Australians (the very people the grants were designed to support).
We also believe the process will have a broader indirect impact on volunteering and people experiencing disadvantage, arising from the flow-on effect of reduced funding to social service providers. This will result in a greater reliance by those providers on volunteers (as their workforce), at the same time as funding for volunteering support is being reduced. This additional (underfunded) need for volunteering support is compounded by other policies that rely at least in part on significant inputs from the volunteering sector, like Work for the Dole.
Our disappointment in this process and the outcomes is profound – not least because an opportunity for the DSS to work collaboratively with the volunteering sector to achieve excellence in funding and service delivery arrangements was missed.
In addition to being costly and wasteful, the combination of these impacts threaten to undermine the strong network of community-based volunteer centres across the country – a volunteer support network with a proven track record of collaboration and enterprise, cost-effectiveness and grass-roots innovation.
The volunteering situation across Australia will worsen shortly as all the centres funded through the HACC program to provide volunteer recruitment, referral and training support to HACC services are only funded until October this year. Beyond that, there is no current information about how these vital services for frail aged are to be supported in this role.
This lack of investment in the sector by the Australian Government will result in Australians doing less volunteering, less effectively. The impact of this will be felt by the social service providers who rely on volunteers to do what they do, and ultimately (and most importantly) by the disadvantaged people who need the services they provide.
What we want from the Government
We request the following:
1. Appropriate funding
The volunteering sector needs longer funding terms that provide greater certainty, and a realistic funding quantum, which takes into account the complexity and scope of services to be delivered. This is essential so we can plan and deliver sustainable services that meet the needs of our local communities and people experiencing disadvantage. Without funding continuity, programs (especially new ones) have less chance of succeeding because there is insufficient time to build partnerships, consolidate practices, conduct evaluations and implement quality improvements.
If, as the limited funding agreements suggest, it is the intent of the Government to undertake a review of funding for volunteering before the end of June 2016, we request that this review commence as soon as possible and include extensive consultation with the volunteering sector. The sector deserves to be treated with respect and it makes sense that it be consulted on matters about which it is knowledgeable and experienced.
3. Explanation of need, decision processes and cost
The volunteering sector seeks a full and detailed explanation as to how the new process was designed, and how the evaluation and decision-making process was undertaken.
4. Commitment to deliver a better process
The volunteering sector wants the Government to carefully consider the feedback it receives and the recommendations of the Senate Committee Inquiry, so that a better process is used for future funding rounds. In particular, we want a process that reduces the administrative burden for the sector – by providing clear information, simple procedures for documentation, reasonable time-frames for applications and prompt decision-making.
We look forward to receiving your response to the issues and questions raised in this letter as soon as possible. In the meantime, we strongly support the Volunteering Australia and Volunteering Victoria submissions to the Senate Committee Inquiry. We will be providing our members and colleagues in the volunteering sector with access to this letter as we know they share our concerns, and are very keen to hear your response and the Committee’s recommendations.
We request a meeting with you to discuss these and related matters at your earliest convenience – we will be in touch with your office to arrange a suitable time. Meanwhile, if you wish to discuss these issues, please contact me directly on 02 8295 7002 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief Executive Officer