The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in July 2013 will mark the beginning of vast and far-reaching reform to social services throughout Australia, the likes of which only occur once every twenty years at most.
Technology will play a major role in delivering more efficient and accurate social services, but the durability of their underlying business processes will ultimately determine whether reforms succeed or fail. A strong, consistent approach to social support – based on the fundamental goal of helping those who are truly in need – must inform how current and future governments use technology to improve the country’s overall welfare.
Nation-wide social reform
When the NDIS comes into effect later this year, disability services will become an acquired right under national law. That’s a significant change from the current system, in which services are largely contingent on state-level budget cycles and means testing: under the NDIS, any Australian who suffers a serious disability will be eligible for social support regardless of their location, income bracket, or the political party currently in power. Moving to a national standard will, of course, require radically different procedures for assessing how social support is allocated throughout the system – the success of which will undoubtedly impact how much funding and public approval is received by reforms to other areas of the social services.
Technology will play a crucial role in the NDIS and other nation-wide changes to social services, but its use needs to be justified by sound business processes that clearly account for the basic socio-economic outcomes at stake. Broadly speaking, government leaders need to meet three goals: deliver a higher quality of social services, in a faster and more cost-effective way, to more of the people who truly require it (and less of those who don’t). While investment in technology will make achieving these goals much easier, it needs to be done according to a rigorous model that can manage inevitable, ongoing changes to services and service providers in the long-term.
A very human revolution
Much of the technology which will sustain these reforms is already familiar to most Australians. IBM anticipates that within five years, social media will be a key element of the government’s social services delivery strategy, allowing service providers to connect more quickly and empathetically with beneficiaries by using already-familiar channels. Big Data may not be something many Australians discuss over dinner, but it already underpins day-to-day services from e-commerce to insurance, banking and healthcare; data analytics and modelling are already being touted as ways to more effectively predict and prevent recurrent social issues like inter-generational unemployment or geographic clusters of disability.
Any investment in these IT platforms and systems will come at significant cost to taxpayers and governments. Durable and flexible business models are needed to ensure that these investments deliver the most appropriate technologies in their most appropriate forms. That need is made even greater by potential for service accessibility to extend to far more individuals under an acquired-rights model than ever before. Without business models that map to these decisions, the costs to current and future generations – in terms of both finances and opportunity – could grow exponentially year by year.
What would such a business model look like? Following interviews and workshops conducted with Australian human service organisations and international multilateral agencies, the IBM Cúram Research Institute developed ‘RightServicing’, a model focused specifically on yielding quantifiable human outcomes from social program transformation. Out of RightServicing’s nine recommended characteristics for social programs, the following are of particular importance:
- Segmenting, or grouping together people with similar needs and wants;
- Managing Risk dynamically, with a focus on improved service and compliance; and
- Micro Programs, which support innovation as a means to solve complex or interlinked problems.
These three characteristics are essential to meeting the goals of social services reform, regardless of the technology being deployed. A technology platform must be able to effectively enable the segmentation of individuals according to a host of factors which impact on their eligibility for different benefits. Government social media channels must aim for measurable targets around faster response times and higher rates of ‘customer’ satisfaction, within best-practice policies for communication and escalation.
Social services agencies and organisations will inevitably deploy multiple layers of technology to enact reforms both within and co-ordinating between their areas of operation. As these levels of complexity grow, a set of consistent and outcome-orientated processes becomes even more critical to ensuring that both technologies and the people who operate them can work together in the most cohesive way possible. Doing so is the only way to ensure that the fundamental socio-economic goals that drive social services reform are not only remembered, but also met within the resultant periods of sweeping change.
Advancing Australia’s welfare
Without an innovative approach to the assessment and delivery of services, such as that embodied in the NDIS’ legislation before the Parliament, Australia’s level of care will fall behind the standards of other nations. The impacts of such a scenario – from loss of opportunity from leveraging the human capital of all Australians, to unsustainable costs in areas like healthcare – affect all Australians, not just those in direct need of social support.
Government leaders need to first put in place rigorous processes which correlate to improved service levels and cost efficiencies. Then they need to construct IT strategies which can adjust and scale to support these processes in the long-term. Finally, they need to ensure that social services agencies adopt models and technologies which allow for seamless collaboration between one another. Doing so from the beginning will give current social services reforms the best chance of success over the coming years.
Brian Archer-Lee is the director of IBM's Cúram Research Institute