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Eight years on, the Select Committee report into disability services

Sam Murray, our National Policy Coordinator, reports on progress made since the Social Services Select Committee report of 2008.

In 2008 there was a major report into services for disabled people. The report was by the Social Services Select Committee, which is a group of Members of Parliament. The Select Committee found that government departments struggled to coordinate on disability issues. They also found a lack of leadership and accountability in the disability sector. Disability support services were fragmented and difficult to access. That was eight years ago. Have things changed?

The Select Committee recommended either a lead agency be established or a stand-alone Disability Commission. The Government said no to both, due to cost concerns. Instead they established a committee of Ministers focused on disability issues. From the meeting summaries, mostly the Ministerial Committee on Disability Issues noted things. With the odd one agreeing to low cost, or no cost, initiatives.

From my time in government, I can confirm that Ministers are exceptional at noting things and appreciating concerns. If you need a concern appreciated or a matter noted, go to a Minister.

Disability Action Plans also started up in 2010. The plans aimed to coordinate disability initiatives that involved more than one government department. This was actually one of the aims of the 2001 New Zealand Disability Strategy too.

The Select Committee found, however, that the Disability Strategy had not been well implemented. To get around this, the Disability Action Plans focused on smaller actions, rather than the big objectives of the Disability Strategy. Senior officials and chief executives groups were formed to carry out the disability action plans. Later disabled person’s organisations would join offshoots of these groups.

Alongside this process, monitoring processes were set-up for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This involved the Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman and the newly formed Convention Coalition.  This group would produce independent monitoring reports and meet with the disability action plan groups. We now had more leadership and coordination than you could shake a stick at. Problem solved, right?

Trouble was, the actual ability of government to make changes had not improved. If anything, it had gotten worse. Officials were now tied up supporting these coordinating groups.  Officials were flying off to Geneva to report to the United Nations. This was on top of all the work just to keep everything running. The Putting People First report in 2013 noted that the Ministry of Health just did not have the time or resources to work on new initiatives and keep everything running smoothly.

All the monitoring, planning, long lists of actions and partnering with disabled person’s organisations became fairly ineffective, simply because there was hardly anyone to do the grunt-work to make changes. There were all the ingredients for a lot of noise, but little action. Wider changes in government made the problem worse. Spending restraint, meant there was little money to hire more staff or make big changes. The Government was also demanding better evidence to prove the case for change. The Social Investment approach, in particular, demanded the kind of evidence the disability sector had tended not to prioritise.

The solution is simple, at least to say, lots of hard work – hard work to come up with options to address issues and hard work to implement solutions.  All the leadership and coordination in the world cannot bypass the need for that hard work. Some of that hard work is going on, with Enabling Good Lives, Choice in Community Living, Local Area Coordination and A Good Start in Life, to name a few.

To be honest though, I suspect sometimes that the hard work is going on in spite of, rather than because of, the complex bureaucracy trying to coordinate everything.

Drawing on the expertise of the community is the best way for the government to increase its ability to make changes. This does sometimes require the community to move from pointing out issues to working on solutions. Solutions that take into account political and financial realities, while also not being afraid to switch back to being critical, if the government loses its way. Governments will tend to lose their way every now and then – some governments more often than others. Sounds like hard work and that is exactly what it is.