Community services restructure: for or against the community?

January 26, 2000

By Frances Sheehan

SYDNEY — The NSW media on January 20 reported the proposed restructuring of the state's Department of Community Services (DOCS). It was reported that it would involve cutting staff, re-dividing the two main parts of the department and amalgamating area office functions.

Rumours of the restructure have circulated within the department for several months, but staff have not received formal notification of the majority of changes outlined in the reports. The restructure will be the fifth in less than a decade.

The main roles of the DOCS are responding to child abuse and domestic violence within families and providing therapy services, accommodation and other support resources to people with disabilities and their families.

The proposed changes that have signalled include cutting 200 nursing staff positions from disability services, cutting 250 disability group home manager positions, separating disability services from care and protection, removing one layer of management at the 84 community service centres around the state and halving the number of area offices, from 16 to eight.

The director general of the DOCS, Carmel Niland, who describes herself as a "change specialist", communicated with staff by e-mail in response to the media reports. While not denying any of the reported changes, Niland reassured staff that "if, in the future, we have any major announcements to make I will fully brief you as always".

The president of the NSW Council for Social Service, Gary Moore, and Brett Holmes, acting general secretary of the Nurses Association, both expressed concern at the proposed changes and warned of the negative impact that the changes could have on clients.

The NSW Public Service Association, which covers most of the department's employees, lodged a notice of dispute with the Industrial Relations Commission stating that DOCS had not consulted staff about the changes. DOCS' management appeared before the commission on January 20 and agreed to meet with the union for more talks.

DOCS staff are angry about the lack of detailed information about the proposed restructure. They repeatedly come under fire from the media and community organisations for failing to respond to their clients' needs while they face cuts and changes without consultation. Staff in the Blacktown office of DOCS took industrial action in October when they realised it was impossible to do their jobs properly after the latest cuts to funding.

The proposed restructure comes at a time when changes to child protection legislation require staff to be retrained by mid-year. Niland has stated that the new act will "transform the way staff work in the area of child and family services. It would be naive to think that we would not have to make changes to accommodate this innovative piece of legislation."

Staff turnover in child and family services is extremely high and surveys of DOCS staff morale have repeatedly shown it to be extremely low. A major contributor to the low staff morale is the lack of resources and access to services for clients.

The lack of consultation with staff, clients and their families, and community groups by the DOCS management and the government is not new. Both have been criticised by the union and disability advocacy groups for not consulting about their plan to contract out 75% of group homes for people with disabilities. Despite protests from staff and clients' families, the plan is going ahead.

The proposed restructure also comes at a time when the NSW Labor government is pushing for sections of the public service to accept a pay deal which would be partially funded by, and contingent upon, departments meeting new "efficiencies", including reducing the cost of service delivery.

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