The moral mess of mutual obligation

The new contract for Disability Employment Services (DES) will not bring performance improvement

Government will scratch its head, blame the economy and people with disability, talk about educating employers and spend money on more consultations before coming to the conclusion that people with disability must meet more stringent 'mutual obligations'. 

Let me tell you what I know about ‘mutual obligation’ as understood by Government funders.

From the jobseeker side:

The Disability Support Pension (DSP) is a poverty-level payment. As punishment for small misdemeanours, such as not turning up to a meeting, the current DES contract mandates taking away some or all of this money. Particularly for people as at-risk as our fellow Australians with disabilities this behaviour is, frankly,  'un-Australian'. Worse, it doesn't work!

Australia has fewer people in work and the quality of these positions is down when we measure what matters, such as hours, wages, tenure and employee engagement. The labour market is infested with casual and part-time minimum-hour positions that hardly sustain life.

From the service provider’s side:

Forcing DES to punish job seekers forces an attitude of ‘them or us’. Clearly, this isn’t a productive way to coax, guide and train people into anything, let alone first-timers into the workforce. People who come into the DES field are usually caring and compassionate. Meeting mutual obligation targets soon drums this out of them, or they leave.

From the funding body’s side:

There is nothing mutual about this obligation. Without any discussion that I can remember, we’ve allowed people with disability to be relegated to sub-normal living, that is, below the poverty line. The consignment of a class of people to involuntary poverty it criminal. But we sit back and suggest it must be some fault of theirs and so they deserve it.

Genuine mutual obligation would have more carrots and fewer sticks – incentives to perform, not disincentives for underperformance, both for job seekers and disability employment services themselves. The incentives would be based on realistic targets that improve the lives of people with disability.

Can people with disability be better serviced by better-performing DES providers making a difference through actual effort towards an understood goal?

Thankfully, yes! 

But this won’t happen while present practice remains unchanged.

- Martin Wren