The federal government has appointed six commissioners, including some who live with disability, to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. To be led by former Federal Court judge Ronald Sackville AO, QC, the Brisbane-based inquiry will last three years and report finally by the end of April 2022, with an interim report due in October next year. The draft terms of reference have attracted 3,700 responses. Here Fiona Payne, GAICD, chair of WA therapy provider Therapy Focus, who sits on the AICD NFP Chairs Forum, examines the issues behind the inquiry.

    The government announced substantial funding of $527 million for the Disability Royal Commission in the federal Budget. Does this reflect the wide scope of the inquiry?

    I understand the inquiry will be conducted over three years and that funds have been allocated to enable people with disability to participate, which includes funding for things like communication support and counselling. The inclusion of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will also add complexity to the work as this significant reform is complex and still being implemented.

    What do you hope the inquiry will achieve?

    I hope the royal commission will provide an opportunity for people with disability to be heard and their experiences of violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation to be acknowledged. This will hopefully help with healing, and moving forward. I also hope the inquiry provides recommendations that will build safeguards into our services and our communities that uphold the rights of people with disability to feel safe and respected.

    How should not-for-profits (NFPs) working in disability prepare to meet the challenges of a royal commission?

    As a director of a not-for-profit working with people with disability, I think it’s important to understand the different ways the organisation gathers information about service quality. This might include accreditation, audits, feedback from people using the service, staff surveys, site visits and social media sentiment. I then want to have visibility of this information, both at a point in time and as trending data. I want to know what the organisation is doing in response to the information, and importantly, what difference this is making.

    It is vital that the voice of the person using the service is heard. How this happens is different in every organisation, and can be more difficult in larger organisations where the connection to the services on the ground involves multiple layers.

    Some not-for-profits will find these processes challenging as they may have trouble sourcing data because of limited resources, manual data collection and limited historical record keeping. If they are already collecting and using this information to inform their service delivery, they will be better positioned to respond to the royal commission.

    Last week’s Budget was criticised for its NDIS under-funding. What was your reaction to this under-funding news and what do you see as the cause?

    It does not surprise me that the NDIS is underspent as there have been many challenges during its implementation, including the cap on National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) employee numbers, the compressed timeframes for implementation, recruiting sufficiently qualified planners, timeliness of reviews, access to appropriate services and limited ability to utilise funds within plans.

    Given the significance and complexity of the (NDIS) reform, and its potential to grow the social and economic participation of people with disability, it’s important that the scheme is given every chance to succeed. There is an inherent tension between taking the time to “get it right” and providing funds to support people with disability to ‘get on with their lives’ right now.

    An increasing use of co-design, both with participants and providers, is an important part of addressing many of the problems.

    In your view, have there been problems with the rollout of the NDIS?

    There have been many challenges along the way, not least being the challenging rollout schedule and the ability to recruit a sufficiently qualified workforce in the face of competing demand from other sectors.

    For many people with disability, being able to fully participate in the process to determine the supports they need to live the life they choose involves developing new skills. For many providers, changing their business model to one with the customer at the centre involves massive cultural, practice and systems change.

    As mentioned above, implementation of a reform of such social and economic significance to our community is a huge responsibility and a challenge.

    In terms of governance, in what ways does the disability sector need to improve to protect people better?

    Many service providers are exploring different ways to involve people with disability in the governance of their organisations, including via positions on boards, establishing consumer groups that contribute to governance in various ways and forums where people who use the services can share ideas, ask questions and discuss various matters with board members.

    Do you think it’s important that some commissioners appointed were people with a disability?

    I am pleased to see that amongst the commissioners there are people with lived experience of disability. I know this is important to people with disability. I think it’s important that the commissioners as a group have the requisite skills, knowledge and experience to discharge their duties. Like an effective board, diversity is an important consideration.

    At the recent Australian Governance Summit (AGS), I heard two previous Commissioners speak of their roles in the previous Royal Commissions. I had such admiration for their wisdom, their empathy, and most noticeably, their incredible humanity. These same attributes will be required for this new inquiry.

    Mr Sackville will be assisted by five other commissioners, who are: Barbara Bennett PSM, Dr Rhonda Galbally AC, Andrea Mason OAM, Alistair McEwin and John Ryan AM.

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