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‘Stewardship’: buzzword, inkblot, or a new way to deliver human services?


At least since the 1990s, governments have been stepping back from direct delivery of services and ‘block funding’ of mainly not-for-profit (NFP) service providers. Instead, they have been using market-based arrangements that are expected to result in greater choice for clients, competition between NFP and for-profit (FP) organisations to provide services and obtain funding, and little or no role for government agencies in direct service delivery. In this environment, what role if any should government perform?

‘Stewardship’

In colloquial usage, stewardship means that something valuable is cared for responsibly, with a view to retaining value for the longer term, possibly beyond the current generation. The word has also been used with a more technical meaning, for example in stewardship theory and data stewardship.

More recently, an independent UK think-tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has developed a stewardship framework for the establishment and operation of public service markets. The IfG’s definition is broadly consistent with (for example) arrangements in Australia for the NDIS and the vocational education and training (VET) sector:

Public service markets usually involve a contract between a service provider and a public sector body ... This [public sector] body purchases services on behalf of its citizens, who may then be able to exercise choice about exactly which service or provider they use.

This IfG’s framework is based on the UK experience of the introduction of contestability, choice and non-government providers into services formerly provided by local authorities and the National Health Service in England. In the IfG’s model, government departments performing a stewardship role ‘adjust … the rules of the game in an attempt to steer the system [and] iteratively engage with providers of public services to steward the market towards producing desired outcomes’. Is this how stewardship is being introduced to Australia?

‘Stewardship’ in Australia

In relation to the NDIS, the Minister for Social Services and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) have both indicated that they have stewardship roles. The Minister’s usage of stewardship appears to have been more colloquial in nature. The NDIA’s vision is that markets will be ‘largely de-regulated’—market intervention is contemplated, but ‘models and methodology for this are works in progress’ and interventions would be ‘increasingly by exception only’. This suggests that regulation is not necessarily envisaged as a big part of NDIS stewardship.

In contrast, the 2014–15 Harper inquiry into competition policy saw stewardship as including policies and regulations, even across portfolios and jurisdictions where necessary:

stewardship relates not just to governments’ direct role in human services but also to policies and regulations that bear indirectly on human services sectors. For example, the Productivity Commission (PC) identified planning restrictions as affecting the provision of child care services in Australia.

The Productivity Commission’s (PC’s) view of stewardship also seems to include cross-portfolio measures, and potentially involves the use of a wide range of policy levers, including regulation. In the PC’s June 2016 issues paper on competition and user choice in human services, stewardship is seen as potentially including ‘modifications to the functions of regulators and other government agencies, and possibly the establishment of new bodies’. There are some ambiguities—in its discussion of the potential costs of reform, the PC’s recent preliminary findings report suggests that ‘governments may need to step in and take over an underperforming or failing provider, or set up arrangements for a provider of last resort’, although it is not clear whether the PC considers this to be part of stewardship, a cost or risk of stewardship, or a cost or risk of reform.

To some extent there’s nothing unfamiliar in what the PC describes—for example, stewardship also includes ‘evaluating outcomes to identify effective practices, and making ongoing improvements to policies and programs to disseminate innovations and improve service outcomes’, so it’s still somewhat unclear whether stewardship is simply a buzzword or a new name for what governments already do.

Whatever it is, stewardship doesn’t appear to be widely known. Only about ten per cent of the 287 submissions to the PC’s inquiry specifically mentioned stewardship; some of these merely quoted the PC’s own question on stewardship, and those submissions that discussed stewardship-related issues did not necessarily use the terminology. This suggests a low level of familiarity with the concept.

Without an agreed definition of what stewardship means in the Australian context, Commonwealth practice cannot progress towards a developed model such as that of the IfG, which recommends, for example, that ‘accountability maps’ should be used to ‘detail both the organisations and individuals responsible for each aspect of market stewardship.

The PC’s preliminary findings report progresses Australia towards a better understanding of the concept, but it is up to the government to clarify how it sees stewardship, and whether (and how) stewardship might be adopted.

Conclusion

For the moment, stewardship is an inkblot—depending on who’s speaking, it could be a colloquial way of indicating overall responsibility; a ‘light-touch’, portfolio-specific set of measures that facilitate a market; a strategic, cross-portfolio application of policies and regulations with new functions and bodies established as required; or just a shorthand buzzword for ‘what governments usually do’.

So defining stewardship for the Australian context is important—but there is also more at stake. Stewardship has been identified as a possible solution to problems that affect Australians most in need of support and care, and who in some cases are less well-equipped than most to exercise informed choice in a market. Without a clear delineation of the form stewardship might take in Australia and the responsibilities involved, we’re all looking at the same inkblot, but with different understandings of what it is and the outcomes it might deliver. And as long as we’re seeing and expecting different things from ‘stewardship’, misunderstandings and disappointments will likely follow.

Further reading

The IfG’s model of stewardship could be a useful reference for assessing the findings and recommendations of forthcoming Australian National Audit Office audit reports on the transition of disability services to NDIS market arrangements (due in October 2016) and the effectiveness of aspects of the Vocational Education and Training (VET FEE-HELP) program (due in December 2016). In addition, the IfG’s online diagnostic tool highlights potential problem areas and possible remedies in proposed public service markets.