This article appeared in the Australian 14 February 1988
Inside the Department of Disorganisation
It happened after Helen Bauer took over as director-general of the beleaguered NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS) last year.
With the evident idea of instilling discipline in the troops, Bauer's executive director, Kerryn Boland, informed staff that, in future, ministerial briefing notes had to be on pink paper and follow the format set out in the new ring-bound style guide.
Whoever sends briefing notes is probably trying to get information to the minister or head office in a hurry but, to teach people a lesson, Boland sent back those that did not meet her standards.
One such note was returned to the sender four times in four days.
The briefing notes may look better these days, but the Department of Community Services could not look worse.
Only this week it was in the news again after the alleged bashing of a girl, 7, who a magistrate had placed in the care of a man with a history of criminal assault. The man has been charged with beating the girl with horse hobbles (leather straps with brass buckles). Her mother, who failed in a 1995 custody bid, says DOCS did not act on her warnings her daughter was being abused.
As an inquiry began, Community Services Minister Faye Lo Po' lashed out at management, complaining that "in some parts of the department...people have just not been used to being open and honest". As if to add to the sense of frenzy, Lo Po, who is rumoured not to get along with her director-general, a rumour she denies, dispatched her to the North Coast, to fill out the report of what had happened.
Others numbly waited for the next catastrophe.
Often blamed for failing to act on reports of abuse or neglect, the department seems to stagger from one crisis to the next. A consultant who has worked in the department's head office says management lives in fear of the headlines which follow the deaths of small children on its lists.
"If the place is in constant crisis you keep marshalling whatever is needed to fend off or support the minister," says a very senior official."Helen Bauer spends 90 per cent of her time managing upwards, instead of down."
But behind the headlines it seems the organisation is falling apart, like the broken furniture kicked into corners of its ramshackle children's homes.
Last month the representatives of 70 welfare agencies and unions said after a crisis meeting the department desperately needed an infusion of an additional $100 million.Lo Po instead set up an expert task force. It didn't mollify critics such as John Jacobson of the in NSW Council on Intellectual Disability.
"What we'll hear in the next year is 'Oh, we'll refer it to the task forc,e'" Mr Jacobson says.
Other states have experienced comparable crises, particularly in the child protection area, says Gary Moore of the NSW Council of Social Service.
Throughout Australia, State welfare organisations hhave ad to deal with the havoc wreaked by long-term unemployment, from domestic violence and family breakdown to youth homelessness.
Government officers were swamped with notifications of child abuse, which trebled in NSW this decade, as the organisations that dealt with them were subject to cutbacks and almost constant restructuring.
Other government departments had to contend with microeconomic reforms which decimated whole divisions.
But if there was a time the public sector needed drastic restructuring, that time never seemed to end for community services. In most States, in fact, the department's work restructured again and again to save money.
In Queensland, the State welfare department was restructured five times in rapid succession, and then, after a lull, twice more in nine months (before and after the election of the Borbidge government).
Queensland spends least on social services and has the highest number of repeat child-abuse offences, a fact observers like Peter Walsh, director of the Queensland Council of Social Service relate to what they regard as the dismal performance of the Queensland Department of Families, Youth and Community Care.
"A massive deceit goes through every piece of the restructuring," says Stuart Rees, the professor of Social Work at Sydney University.
"They get rid of people. Then they claim they're doing it to give the public a better service."
In in NSW the department has been restructured seven times in 10 years. That means the management has been uprooted every 17 months on average. And the next restructure is in the works, with head office awash in the plans and flowcharts.
The frenzied outbreaks of managerialism could serve as an object lesson in how not to run a government department.
The restructure early in the 1990s, the second while the Greiner government was in office, involved 1000 voluntary redundancies. Naturally it was those assured of getting a job elsewhere who flew out the door.
To stop it happening when the department was restructured again a year or two later, people were actually selected for redundancies on a random basis.
"Many of the best and most loyal people lost their jobs," says Community Services Commissioner Roger West.
"The process has continued. The loss of skilled, experienced people has left the department without sufficient expertise to do the work it's therefore," he says.
That makes it all the easier to lose sight of the fact that vulnerable families and children constitute what contemporary managers call the "core business" of the department. Its very structure seems to widen the gap between management and the staff out in the field.
The book the Human Costs of Managerialism contains a chapter by Col Face, and anonymous DOCS official who recalls that despite all the staff cuts, the restructure in 1991 introduced a new category of divisional managers, creating an additional layer of bureaucracy between front-line staff and head office.
While more work and more responsibilities gradually devolved to those in the field (who, to save money, had lost all clerical support) those in the corridors of power seemed to be further than ever from the day-to-day matters of child abuse, disability services and substitute care. That may be why the policy direction of the past decade is no more logical. So it is far more cost effective to try to convert the domestic tragedies that end, for instance, in children being taken into substitute care at a cost of $60,000 or more per child per year, the emphasis is on intervention, not prevention. The trouble is that support services for families who are at risk are more difficult to translate into the standard "outputs" and "outcomes" now demanded by the policy makers.
Last year a blistering report by the NSW Council on the Cost of Government suggested the department was in complete disarray, that it's management was factionalised and fighting among itself.
One year later, says an experienced district office at "the department is still crisis-driven. If something hits the news they will try and do whatever looks to be solving the problem".
Policy was certainly made on the run when an abused baby died soon after Bauer took over.
Much to the surprise of front-line troops, senior management suddenly sent out a memorandum, CFS 292, instructing them (as far as they understood) that in notifications of child abuse involving children under a year, the investigation had to begin within two days and the child had to be sighted.
Many months later, following the case of Jordan Dwyer, a baby who had died and had been left in the back seat of the car, as his obviously disturbed mother was driving north through in NSW with her three small children, the Community Services Commission investigated the failure of DOCS procedures.
If a little dry, the details give a real idea of the department's modus operadi. The commissions report suggests not only that CFS 292 contained ambiguities, but that in ordering field staff to make sure they actually saw the children, whatever the circumstances, the memo took no account of the inevitable effects of the work-load on officers already contending with a huge backlog of cases. Moreover, the memo countermanded the procedures set out in yet another new policy (to do with risk assessment).
And believe it or not, the thing was contradicted by the next memorandum on the subject.
Though DOCS employees are generally too frightened to speak out, field staff in the office in Blacktown, in Sydney's west recently contacted Lo Po' saying they refused to be silent, confronted with the real possibility that they would be held responsible for the death or injury of a child in a family they haven't even had time to see.
"We never read of the countless children saved from harm by DOCS intervention, only of the failures," Saha Lo Po'.
"DOCS front-line staff have the toughest job in the world."
Undoubtedly the job would be difficult under any circumstances. District Officers first entering a house to follow up notifications of neglect or abuse are usually abused, often threatened and sometimes forced to flee. If things start to get heated it's important to check that there is a clear path to the front door. Instead of worrying about the dangers, the officer is intent on extracting information from a probably unco-operative family and assessing the risk of abuse or neglect. But casual and temporary staff who've had no training are also routinely sent out on jobs like that, as are young graduates.
"You walk in. It's your first job after graduating in social work," says Gary Moore. "You get a desk and within two hours, you're out on a call."
Nor is there much support.
"If you're a young district officer who is just starting you may not be able to talk to an assistant manager or the area child protection specialist-they're not available," he says.
Many who work in the field contend that it's typical of its haphazard policies and stop-go planning that the department spent four years and millions of dollars talking about implementing the proposals of the 1992 Usher Report on children's care. The idea was that non-government welfare agencies would take over the substitute care of all State wards (rather than just some of them).
"There was endless consultation," says Amanda Cox, director of Barnardo's on the NSW south coast.
"They did massive area plans. But all that time hasn't done a single thing for a single child."
After the Carr Government was elected, the whole thing was scrapped.
The sense of doom has deepened. The endless, fruitless tinkering with the department continues. One person who works in head office says that the latest restructure plans won't be implemented for months--raising the very real prospect that the changes will again be brought in about time the political flux prompts the demise of another director-general and provokes another restructure.