In late 2017, the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee conducted an inquiry into the delivery of Outcome 4 of the National Plan, specifically how well the ‘1800RESPECT Domestic and Sexual Violence National Counselling Service’ was meeting the needs of women and their children experiencing violence. The inquiry looked specifically at the contracting and operational model for the service. The committee received 61 public submissions, held one public hearing in Canberra, and tabled its report on 15 December 2017.
Background to 1800RESPECT
The 1800RESPECT service was developed in 2010 and administered by the then Department of Social Security (DSS) under the National Plan. DSS appointed Medibank Health Solutions (MHS) as the service provider from 8 July 2010 until 30 November 2014, with a second funding agreement signed in 2014, taking the contract through 2017. MHS initially subcontracted the NSW Rape Crisis Centre to deliver the counselling. Then in 2014, MHS contracted Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA) to provide counselling; this time online and over the phone.
The department became aware that in the 2014–2015 financial year, the majority of calls to the service went unanswered. The report states:
...of the 52 431 calls received by the service, only 14 899 were answered (28 per cent), with 37 352 callers unable to access support when they needed it (72 per cent). Further, an additional 10 747 voicemails were also received by the service.
In 2015, the department contracted KPMG to conduct an independent review of the service. It identified a massive increase in community awareness, and thus use of the service, resulting from significant media and political attention on domestic violence at that time. KPMG recommended that:
The 1800RESPECT service be reconfigured to function as more than a counselling service; as an ‘effective first responder’ to a wide variety of domestic and family violence related calls.
The current operating model be replaced with a ‘first responder triage model’, where qualified counsellors or social workers answer calls ‘as quickly as possible and take immediate action as required’.
In August 2016, the first response triage model was adopted. RDVSA continued to provide trauma specialist counselling through the 1800RESPECT service ‘on referral’, but no longer took the initial calls. The new model resulted in ‘a 172 per cent increase in the number of telephone and online contacts answered, and the average waiting time was reduced from over 10 minutes to 37 seconds’. However, around 20 per cent of referrals to RDVSA for trauma counselling were still unanswered.
In 2017, MHS ran a Request for Tender (RFT) to establish a panel of providers for trauma counselling to meet the demand. After the RFP process, MHS signed agreements with DVConnect, safe steps, and Women’s Safety Services SA to commence in late 2017 and provide counselling services until the end of 2019. It also invited the existing provider, RDVSA, to be part of the panel. RDVSA initially agreed to participate, but later withdrew, stating that: ‘accepting the sub-contract and the new MHS service model would be inconsistent with the values, ethics, quality counselling practices and work place relations that are foundational to our organisation and culture’.
RDVSA argued that the tender process had been a ‘farce’ and was ‘not conducted in good faith’. RDVSA, which had publicly criticised the first response triage model, objected to the amount of time it had been given to consider the contract that was offered, and the fact that the contract took away 75 per cent of its funding.
In the context of this dispute, the committee sought to determine if the contracting model was working, if the service was meeting need and demand, and what changes may need to be made. The committee reported being unable to get access to much of the information required to answer these questions. The report states:
The committee had great difficulty in gaining access to program evaluation, and program performance details. Neither DSS nor MHS demonstrated a clear understanding of their accountability and transparency requirements to the parliament and its committees. The extent that future performance measurement assesses quality trauma counselling service as well as quantitative metrics of staffing levels and call rate is unclear.
Despite difficulties in determining ‘the truth’ in relation to the precise adequacy of service delivery, the committee drew a number of conclusions. These were around the critical need to ensure that the 1800RESPECT service was conducted with a focus on both quality and quantity. The committee stated that it:
...shares the concerns of the sector regarding the medium term suitability of private sector provision of these counselling services. The 1800RESPECT service and its performance measurement must reflect quality and client-focus as well as volume and efficiencies.
The 58 page report contained eight recommendations, which are summarised below. The committee recommended:
That the Government ensures 1800RESPECT counsellors ‘have adequate qualifications and experience and an appropriate work environment’. Also that ‘the government consider whether having a principal contractor, rather than the specialist services themselves, providing first responder services represents value for money and best-practice’.
That ‘sufficient funding’ be made available for 1800RESPECT to ensure there are enough specialist trauma counsellors ‘to meet current and future demand’.
That the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) conduct a review of the service.
That the department develop and release a detailed evaluation plan for the program.
That the department ‘brief its staff and contractors on their legal and contractual requirements in program management and Senate Standing Orders’.
That the government ‘consider whether the principal contractor model, as currently arranged, represents value for money and best-practice’.
That the department ‘require Medibank Health Solutions to develop 1800RESPECT specific privacy information’ explaining how personal information will be used.
That the department require the contractor to develop and display on its website ‘a clear statement’ on privacy, personal information and the protocols for handling subpoenas.
The government tabled its response on 15 March 2018. The government ‘supported’ all eight recommendations, but noted that many of the recommendations proposed actions that were ‘already an established part of standard business practices, or have been implemented’.
While the government indicated it ‘supported’ all the recommendations, the detail in the response suggests that the government did not agree with many of the conclusions drawn by the committee, and did not support many of the detailed suggestions contained in the committee’s recommendations.
For instance, the government supported Recommendation 1, which recommended ‘the Government ensure that 1800RESPECT first response triage counsellors and trauma counsellors have adequate qualifications and experience and an appropriate work environment’. It did not, however, agree with the sub-point that these counsellors should have a minimum three years’ experience, rather than two, saying: ‘there is no evidence to suggest that qualifications of the first response counsellors should increase from the current two years’ experience in a relevant field to three years’.
Recommendation 3 proposed that the government management of the program and its procedures be reviewed by the ANAO. While the government supported the recommendation, it also said:
The Australian Government notes that no material canvassed in this report provides evidence of any breach of Commonwealth rules and guidelines. It further notes the program will receive further extensive scrutiny through the evaluation, which is currently underway, and will require Departmental resources to manage, as will the implementation of new panel arrangements.
Recommendation 5, regarding the need for officers and contractors to be briefed on their obligations to the Senate and its committees, was supported. However, the government indicated that briefing had occurred, and it believed officers and contractors had acted in accordance with their obligations.
Recommendations relating to the appropriateness of the contracting model were essentially deferred by the government, which explained that an evaluation of the systems and processes of procurement and contract management was currently underway for the program.
An independent evaluation of 1800RESPECT was conducted by academics at the University of NSW and published in January 2020. It concluded:
…the 1800RESPECT service is considered by callers, MHS staff, NGO partner staff and stakeholders to be an effective service. It is perceived to deliver quality counselling and is valued for being available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for being accessible by phone and online, and for allowing clients to remain anonymous.
However, the evaluation identified several factors ‘impinging on service effectiveness’, including:
staff taking calls were often expected to take calls across other services;
staff indicated receiving insufficient supervision;
the ‘single session’ approach taken by the service is not suitable for repeat callers with complex needs; and
the ‘call back’ approach was questioned.
The evaluation also raised concerns around the contracting model, particularly in terms of monitoring and controlling costs to the government as demand for the service increases over time. The authors were concerned that ‘[o]perating on a cost per call basis involves financial risks for government. Service delivery costs will continue to grow as demand for the service increases’.
The evaluation suggested the government review the ‘cost per contact’ funding model because it ‘does not account for variation in call contact times’.
Box 4.1: Current status of 1800RESPECT
In the wake of a review into 1800RESPECT, the Department of Social Services is conducting a two-stage open competitive procurement process to secure a suitable organisation or group of organisations to deliver 1800RESPECT.
The Request for Expressions of Interest is on AusTender with a closing date of 24 April 2020. Following evaluation of responses the department will select a short list of respondents to be invited to tender. The Request for Tender is anticipated to be released in July 2020.
In relation to the process, the government has said:
The Australian Government’s priority is ensuring 1800RESPECT provides high quality, responsive and trauma informed support to people who need help, information and counselling. 1800RESPECT will continue to provide services throughout the duration of the procurement process.