NCOSS Says: Working Together for NSW?
With the launch of the National Compact, Working Together, it is timely to remember that there is also a Compact in NSW, Working Together for NSW (WTFNSW). The NSW Compact was entered into in June 2006 between FONGA (on behalf of the sector) and the NSW Government. It recognises the importance of an independent, robust and diverse non-government sector as an “essential component of a democratic, socially inclusive society”.

WTFNSW identifies broad principles as the basis for building and maintaining a strong relationship. These are:

  • Evidence based approach to policy and program development and service delivery.
  • Decisions informed by real outcomes for people and communities.
  • Accountability and transparency.
  • Respect, including an acknowledgment that there will be differences of opinion around particular issues.
  • Priority given to open communication and consultation, particularly where changes to policies, programs and services are being considered.
  • Independence of NGOs.
  • Inclusiveness where the Government needs to balance the interests of all people and communities in the state.

WTFNSW also sets out some principles for the funding relationship, including:

  • Value for money.
  • Fairness, integrity and transparency so that funding processes are seen to be accessible, appropriate and fair.
  • Cooperation.
  • Recognising diversity in the community.
  • Consistency of procedures across government.
  • Probity in administration through an environment of integrity, honesty and scrutiny.
  • Coordination and better alignment of planning, program design and service delivery.

These principles are ones that, as a sector, we continue to support and arguably reflect what we would want to see in any future compact with Government in this state.

However, it is fair to say, that despite the good words embodied in the document, and despite the good intentions of many in the sector and in Government, WTFNSW has not achieved a more effective and robust relationship.

In some cases good work has been done under the banner of WTFNSW, such as the Reducing Red Tape project. This work has often been quite limited however, and tends to reflect the priorities of Government rather than the priorities of the sector. In other cases relationships have been built and progress has been made but this has happened almost in spite of WTFNSW where relationships were good because individuals were already working in accordance with the WTFNSW princi-ples because these reflect good practice and make sense. Overall though, the Compact is not known, not well under-stood, generally forgotten or ignored.

Part of the problem lies with the implementation process which was finalised after WTFNSW was formally signed. Matters of implementation were delegated to bureaucrats rather than Ministers and proceeded on the basis of “within existing resources” to determine priorities and projects. This meant that Government priorities took precedence over sector priorities and that there was no formal accountability with politicians – who were the signatories to the Compact. In other words, it was “business as usual” rather than the building of a strong and robust relationship.

Our expectations were rightly high that WTFNSW would herald a better way of working with Government. It was unrealistic, however, to think it would resolve all of our issues. Like any relationship, there are ups and downs and times when we must agree to disagree. What’s important is the strength of the relationship, so that despite differences of opinion, we continue talking, looking for common ground and solutions to the issues we are confronting. What is also important is that, like any relationship, it is a healthy and resilient one, based on dignity and respect rather than abuse and neglect.

So how is the relationship in NSW between Government and the community sector? In recent times we have experienced numerous examples where Government has talked about our “partnership” and then proceeded to implement decisions and processes about which we have not been consulted or which have not properly acknowledged our concerns. Consultants have been engaged and projects undertaken to develop plans for the sector, but without our input. In some cases these projects have been similar to ones suggested by us but it is not contemplated that we be the ones carrying out the work. Where consultation does occur it is often too little or too late. In some cases we are asked for input but without the option of consulting our own networks for their views. There is inconsistency in how projects, programs and services are procured across and within Government agencies and despite the worthwhile initiatives in the Reducing Red Tape project there is still far too much unnecessary paperwork.

There has been far too few resources, people, time and money, devoted to building the capacity of both Government and the sector to properly implement WTFNSW and to build strong robust relationships and processes that will deliver better outcomes for people and communities. The Joint COSS Submission on the National Compact in September 2009 said:

“Lessons from the NSW agreement point to the need for Government structures that not only support but actively enable the implementation of the Compact at Cabinet level. ...even then, effective implementation and strong outcomes require time and specified resources attached to them to ensure the Compact is successful. More broadly, practical issues should be as central to the agreement as principles. These include funding policy, indexation and regulatory frameworks.”

While there is a tendency to be cynical about WTFNSW and its worth we must not forget that any agreement has two (or more) parties. While we can point to numerous examples of where “Government” has not treated the sector as it should under the principles of WTFNSW, we must also take responsibility for our own inaction in not holding Government properly to account when this happens.

This is why NCOSS is calling for a new and effective compact and revitalised relationship between Government and the sector as part of our election platform, Vote 1 Fairness in NSW . This would require a review of WTFNSW and the collaborative development of a new Compact that includes:

  • Clear measurable outcomes.
  • A focus on practical issues (as well as principles).
  • Resources to enable implementation.
  • Review mechanisms.
  • The direct engagement of relevant Ministers.

NCOSS is also advocating that there be greater collaboration between the NSW Government and the sector in the development and implementation of social policy and recognition and utilisation by Government of the networks, intelligence and experience of the sector in addressing the many significant issues negatively affecting far too many people.

The current Compact is not working. It’s time to revitalise and renew the way the sector and the Government intend working together for NSW.

NCOSS 2011 State Election Website

This article was originally published in NCOSS News (May issue - #4, vol 37) - the monthly newsletter of the Council of Social Service of NSW dsitributed to our membership and to members of parliament.