Earlier in the year I had the privilege of responding to a SACOSS conference address by Christopher Stone, Research Director of the Public Service Program at the Centre for Policy Development. His address was about the false economies of across-the-board cuts to public spending, among other things.#
One of the themes of the session was along the lines of: when public institutions cannot do what they promise, public trust in the institution falters and, as a consequence, the public’s willingness to comply with laws and regulations falls. This is typically considered a breach of the social contract.
The ‘state’ supports families in numerous ways: paying for or subsidising education, health care, public transport, childcare, libraries, parks, courts and police. When it comes to helping when the going gets really tough, ambivalence creeps in. Understandably there is a strong element of judgement about who gets help, for how long and at what cost. There are consequences though when the state fails to meet its end of the bargain.
We (the state) have a mandate to provide family services and we encourage expectations of support. Indeed, people get blamed if they do not take up offers of support. Take for example a hypothetical Family Q. Family Q has a reunification or safety plan which has half a dozen things they must do for the safety of their children.
Expenditure on family services though is rationed and, in real terms, sometimes cut. Family Q are overwhelmed because of ordinary and extraordinary demands and crises. They have a schedule of appointments to keep, only some of which they think will help them. The family support worker has more families and engages less with Family Q for lack of time.
When Family Q misses repayments, appointments and phone calls we think that Family Q is not really serious about doing the right thing. There is disappointment, disillusion and possibly even disrespect on both sides. The relationship with Family Q is now tense, highly emotional, with a heap of shared anxiety and possibly resentment.
The communication from the agency becomes more impersonal and directive. Family Q starts to receive letters of warning, missed calls on their phones, and sometimes more referrals to services they don’t want. Their resistance and resentment grows.
The family services department documents it all and prepares to report on non-compliance.
Family Q makes a complaint that they were not given a chance to prove they could safely care for their children. The court makes a decision that the child is better off in out of home care than living with ongoing uncertainty and chaos.
Trust has gone and all contact with the family services department is avoided, or if it can’t be avoided, is contested.
This story is over-simplified but it illustrates how a public institution that is potentially supportive, cooperative and helpful can shift to one that is controlling and scrutinising. Rule compliance becomes the currency between bureaucrat and client. Managing disagreements in the form of complaints becomes a major part of the business.
The reform underway in our child protection agency is the start of a transformation which needs to be matched with legislative change, family services planning and financial backing.
# See https://cpd.org.au/author/christopher-stone/ The reference for this letter is primarily in MacDermott, K and Stone, C (August 2013) Occasional Paper: Death by a Thousand Cuts: How governments undermine their own productivity, CPD Australia.