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Disability workers “undeniably angry” about Govt housing transition

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Disability workers feel “let down” and fear for their clients’ wellbeing as a result of a State Government decision to transition disability housing to the private sector, a Government-commissioned report says.

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The report, published on October 26 but only released to the public today, outlines feedback from more than 600 disability workers regarding the Marshall Government’s pre-election commitment to withdraw from the delivery of supported accommodation services.

Supported community accommodation provides public housing for people with disabilities to live as independently as possible through high support homes, group homes and individual living arrangements.

According to the Department of Human Services, supported community accommodation provides about 40 per cent of total disability accommodation services in metropolitan and country South Australia.

The former Labor Government established a government corporation in February last year to ensure supported community accommodation remained a government-controlled service under the transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But InDaily revealed in June that the Liberal Government had scrapped the corporation in line with its pre-election promise to transition the service to the private sector.

An email sent in June by Department of Human Services chief executive Tony Harrison to department staff said changes would be made “gradually and sensitively”, with staff and employee associations to be consulted on how best to transfer clients and services to the non-government sector.

The planned transition sparked anger from unions and Greens MLC Tammy Franks, who told InDaily in June that clients and their families were left “blindsided” by the announcement, despite the policy appearing in the Liberal Party’s “First 100 days” election platform.

The State Government announced later in June that it had begun consulting with residents and their families in supported community accommodation about the transition – two weeks after disability workers were first informed of the decision.

While the outcome of that consultation is yet to be published, a separate staff consultation also commissioned by the Government and conducted by consultancy firm OzTrain, reveals a scathing assessment of the Government’s ability to adequately transition services to the non-government sector.

According to OzTrain’s report – titled “Accommodation Services Employee Engagement Strategy” – morale across the service is “low” and staff feel “let down by the decision to drop the idea of forming a public corporation after so much work was put into preparing for that”.

It says staff believe that working for a non-government organisation will negatively impact their salary and working conditions.

Staff also expressed concern that their high-needs clients’ care would be compromised and they “fear that the special relationships they have formed with clients and families over many years are under threat”.

“Not surprisingly there is a wide range of views across the large, diverse staff body,” OzTrain’s report states.

“A broad, underlying sense of uncertainty, anxiety and in some instances anger is undeniable.

“Building and implementing an engagement plan when staff are positive about the direction of the organisation is one thing – doing so when the organisation is closing its services is quite a different matter.”

According to the report, staff are “searching for answers to both broad and very specific questions now”.

It says there are concerns among staff that the current change process is provoking staff to leave or move across services to cover gaps, meaning maintaining standards is “difficult”.

Staff also reported feeling that their views were not valued during the Government’s decision process and that “decisions are made behind closed doors and the subsequent consultation is generally tokenistic”.

“They think this consultation has been a ‘tick the box’ exercise and the way forward has already been determined,” the report states.

“(Staff) don’t believe OzTrain will necessarily represent staff views in their report – consultants will tell the Department what the Department wants to hear.”

OzTrain’s report outlines a 12-month “employee engagement” plan for high-up department managers to implement during the supported community accommodation transition process, but it says disability staff “don’t have the confidence” that the Department will act on the recommendations.

The report advises department staff to “watch your language” when explaining processes and decisions to disability workers.

“Whilst it is easy to drop into management-speak, particularly when communicating with multiple stakeholders for a variety of purposes, wherever possible translate messages into plain English,” the report states.

“For example, the term ‘business as usual’ was offered by management to both remind staff of the need to continue to provide support to clients, but also to reassure them that nothing would happen quickly and without their input. However, the term inflamed many staff who do not feel there is anything about this situation that feels ‘usual’.

“At one of the workshops staff asked if it was possible to change terms such as ‘materially affected’. As one man told us, ‘it makes me feel like a bit of old rag and I don’t know what it means’.”

The report also instructs department staff to be more transparent when sharing information about the future of supported community accommodation.

“Where questions can be answered, provide the answer,” the report instructs.

“Many staff have reached a point where their default assumption is that decisions have already been made, any input they are asked for is really just to tick a ‘consulted with staff’ box, and that important information is being withheld.

“The only way to change this is for senior leaders to address questions and concerns directly [and] where possible face-to-face.”

Other recommendations include hosting an “NGO expo” where staff can ask questions about organisations in “an informal, relaxed atmosphere” and to have regular phone interviews with staff to “check the temperature on the ground”.

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said she acknowledged the staff feedback.

She said the Government would continue to engage with employees and their representatives to “ensure the best outcomes for staff”.

“The Department has already started to develop responses to the feedback in the report and will be undertaking some important training and development and communication initiatives in the coming weeks,” she said.

“It is important for clients – and staff – to know that any change will be undertaken very gradually.”

Transitioning of supported community accommodation services to the private sector is expected to start early next year.

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