Sunday, September 19, 2010

A view from within the WA human services sector: Critique by an experienced manager

"The dominant story is of a corporatised, economics-driven sector, where leaders are promoted on their ability to run businesses that happen to be charities"
Lucy Morris
Just been reading Lucy Morris's excellent article The Economics of Charity: Who Cares  in the Australian journal Third Sector Review.  Lucy is an academic at the Notre Dame University in Fremantle and an experienced CEO in the human services sector in Western Australia. Her critique is even more important because it is made by an experienced and long serving manager in the human services industry in this state.

Lucy's piece is an important and scathing critique of the dominant pro market (neoliberal) policy agenda that has dominated public policy making for the human services and not- for- profit sector in Australia over the last two decades.

Market driven policies have fundamentally transformed the human services sector and contributed to many of the problems that the sector now faces. For example, Lucy Morris shows how the application of market led, neoliberal policies combined with the gendered nature of the human services workforce and the sector's religious, social and ethical underpinnings have created oppressive employment practices. 

Furthermore, she argues that these market led approaches have transformed and repackaged service users into "consumers" and created hierarchies of need which disadvantage the vulnerable and the most needy. The consequence is often care that is illusory and discriminatory. Morris sees that these market led approaches have distanced managers from service recipients who have become dehumanized, scapegoated and objectified.

Morris writes that increasingly not- for- profits are economically pressured to seek clients that bring in money and don't require intensive support. Governments seek to drive down the price of services to the most vulnerable and needy (the uneconomic clients). So agencies are continually under pressure to get large client numbers and to chase more contracts.  The difference between the business/corporate sector and the not-for-profit sector has become less clear.

Her argument is that these market led and corporatised approaches have largely benefited governments, the funding body or business, rather than improved the quality of care and the lives of service recipients.

Morris is no less critical of managers in the human services sector:
"Charitable corporate governance discussions are focused on strategic planning, financial projections, bottom line decisions, returns on investments and tax breaks. Large charities employ corporate minded CEO's and staff, whose salaries soak up surpluses that used to sustain non-profitable client services. These costs are accepted because CEO's promise to update, professionalise and make the charity more accountable, as it is portrayed as needing economic and governance makeovers. These assumptions seem unquestioned"
In my view Morris is spot on. Hers is an important and accurate critique. I share her concerns and have argued for many  years that the market- led and business approaches imposed on and adopted by the human services and not- for profit sector are a major cause of the fundamental crises that affect many parts of the industry.

What is particularly troubling is that so many in the sector hope that the implementation of the recommendations of the Barnett Government's Economic Audit Committee Report will be the solution. But it is shaped by and reflects the same discredited market led and corporate/business  ideology.The EAC report has just cleverly repacked that ideology into a more acceptable and attractive package- that of social enterprise, enterprising not- for- profits and citizen driven services.

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