Speech by The Hon Christian Porter MP

Family and Relationship Services Australia Senior Executive Forum

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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Good morning everyone.

Welcome to Parliament House.

As Minister for Social Services I am pleased to welcome the executives of some of my Department’s most important stakeholders to Canberra.

When I was a former Attorney-General in the Western Australian Government and before that a Crown Prosecutor at the WA DPP, I experienced far too often families at points of crisis – so I need no introduction to the work Family and Relationship Services Australia does for families nationwide.

Senior officers from my Department are here today to update and discuss with you directions of Government programmes as part of the ongoing collaboration between DSS and FRSA.

I wanted to open your conference today with a short but important focus on one single word.

My one word is “Data”.

The collection and application of data will have a massive effect on service delivery in social services and indeed in most other areas in government.

The Australian Government is investing $2.4 billion in grants until June 2020 – and these are merely the grants designed to fund initiatives targeted to families to strengthen relationships and improve lifetime wellbeing.

This involves over 1,600 different grants to more than 800 family and community service organisations.

We are in a tightening fiscal environment where every dollar spent in social services has an opportunity cost in that it is a dollar unable to be spent in health or education or a variety of other important areas (often areas where measuring outcomes is a more straight forward business).

This very large amount of grant finding is under increasing scrutiny as an inquiring media and sophisticated stakeholders seek to inform taxpayers about what value is being achieved in terms of quantifiable measurable outcomes.

In the past the determination of what expenditure and effort in this area has achieved has been guided essentially by instinct. The reality has been that our efforts to measure our performance have been limited to two substantive criteria: reach and satisfaction with service.

Despite the various ways in which we might refashion the wording of traditional KPIs they are almost always a measure of one of these two things – reach and satisfaction with service.

And so every grants agreement I see generally has three or four KPIs that measure how many persons have received a service and a KPI essentially measuring whether they were pleased or displeased with the service provided.

Such measures are not completely unhelpful but in reality they fail to go to the core question that everyone wants to know: what was the outcome?

The reach of funding in this area is considerable.

From 1 July to 31 December 2015, over 1 million sessions were conducted nationally by DSS funded providers to provide a service to people eligible to receive support under Families and Communities programmes.

But saying we reached 100 or 100,000 people is only a measure of output, not a measure of outcome. It does not tell us whether these people reached have improved lives and if so how.

We might have the common instinct that our service helps people but without a clearly understood set of universal measures we cannot be sure. Nor can we be sure that some other approach might not help more.

Counterintuitive results are commonplace for anyone that has worked in and about social services.

We must all be very clear that we are doing the right things that will have a positive impact on people’s lives. In the past this has been nowhere near as clear as it should be.

At its core, the 2014-15 grants bulk round was the first critical step in better allowing us all to assess and thereby improve the services we offer.

Obviously the grants round was, in part, a process of recognising there should be a stronger emphasis on the importance of early intervention and prevention in relation to the Families and Children Activity – and allied to this approach there is a need for evidence-based approaches.

The 2014 grants round provided funding and support for services to move in this direction – but equally, the 2014 changes are squarely about better measuring our outcomes.

The Families and Children Expert Panel was established to help providers funded under the Families and Children Activity to plan and implement programs, evaluate outcomes, and share the results with others.

We have provided $5 million over five years to support the work of the Panel.

I am pleased to see that the Outcomes Measurement project and Children and Parenting Support Planning and Implementation projects are now assisting about 70 service providers.

The Outcomes Measurement project is a good example of a new focus in assisting a number of service providers to improve the way they measure outcomes for families.

This will include helping providers to identify suitable performance indicators and service level outcomes; select appropriate instruments and methods to measure outcomes; and most critically of all to measure how the services contribute to the immediate, intermediate and long term outcomes of their clients.

This measurement of long term outcomes is now really for the first time within our collective reach and over the next decade it will represent a piecemeal revolution in how we offer services and ultimately what service we offer.

Robust longitudinal data allows us to track our achievements and rank the performances of services we offer in a cardinal and ordinal manner. This will mean we can make improvements or replicate successes or move away from failures.

Two barriers have prevented us reaching this point before now: the lack of baseline standardised data from the service delivery coal face and the technological capacity inside government to amass and manipulate data to tell us accurately what we need to know.

As you are all aware, we now have a front line new data collection tool called the Data Exchange, or DEX.

This tool helps us to shift the focus of performance measurement from outputs to outcomes.

While DEX will take time to fully implement across the sector, over 2.75 million interactions with clients have been recorded since it was introduced.

To support service delivery, DEX is the one consistent reporting tool that now allows for data to be collected in a standardised way.

For example, the Department used to collect client ages in 24 different ways because each programme had its own reporting requirements. As we have greater opportunities to use big data to track performance and outcomes the baseline information about reach has to be consistent and clear. The question how many and who are being serviced is the absolutely necessary starting point for being able to use other data to measure outcomes. Twenty four different methods of measuring age would have made the use of data resources going forward intensely more difficult.

Now we simply record age according to the client’s date of birth.

By way of another example, previously the Department might have received a report from a service provider that said 100 contacts were made with people accessing their Children’s Contact Service within a particular reporting period and, of those, 30 were over the age of 50.

To use this measure as a starting point for analysis leaves the question: did 30 different 50 year old clients access that service or did one 50 year old client come back 30 times?

There has in the past been no substantive ability to view the outcomes that service providers were achieving, making it difficult to answer the question: how many people are better off and how?

The new way of reporting via DEX aims to provide us the starting point to access and apply big data to measure performance.

Whatever difficulties and frustrations may arise in the early stages of this data collection, the outcome will be the ability to improve our understanding of the impact of our policies and programmes on families and children.

Of course a great benefit of DEX is that the Department can now share data on service delivery with service providers. The Department, and service providers, will have more information about who is accessing our services, if they returned, if they accessed a related service, and what outcomes they achieved.

Service providers can access reports on their own services to obtain meaningful information about their clients and the effectiveness of the services being delivered. The first of these reports, The Organisational Standard Report, was released in September last year and was downloaded by around 400 different users from a range of community organisations in the first month alone.

My Department is currently developing an additional set of enhanced reports that will be released over the course of this year. The partnership approach reports will include a rich set of information about a service provider’s service footprint, client outcomes and service delivery trends over time.

We are also seeking the views of clients on their needs and experiences through the rollout of the client survey with DEX. This is due to go live this year, and will provide a wraparound picture of service delivery, giving the general public a voice on government services.

DEX is the foundation block for the use of big data in a Priority Investment Approach to Welfare. This concept, and the associated challenge to Government to modernise its thinking about future directions for welfare reform, was laid out in the report by the Reference Group on Welfare Reform.

The Government committed $20.7 million to implement the Investment Approach in the last Budget, with a further $13.1 million announced to continue related longitudinal studies.

Big data-based actuarial analysis can now identify groups who have a high risk of long term welfare dependency and who would benefit from evidence based policy interventions designed to increase their long-term independence from welfare and improve lifetime wellbeing.

Critically, big actuarial data sets will allow comparisons of groups who have received a service with control groups who are as ceterus parabus as can be found, so that we can assess whether the service provided to group A produces better results than those that occurred for a closely similar group B who did not have the benefit of the service.

The results that can be measured by analysing 15 years of Social Services data are sound proxies for well-being: has the group subject to the services had increased attrition rates from welfare to employment and thereby achieved higher living standards than the comparable group that has not had the service?

PricewaterhouseCoopers was contracted to conduct this big data analysis. I have seen some rough first cuts of the data models and they give cause for optimism.

The Government will be able to use the analysis to tailor policies to identify risk factors and characteristics of groups, and thereby address their specific barriers to independence and employment.

With effective policy interventions at key risk points and rigorous evaluations of results, groups with a poor long term prognosis for welfare dependency could see see improvements in their long term wellbeing. This means better lifetime outcomes for Australian families and children, particularly those families experiencing long term welfare dependency.

Families who achieve financial independence as a result of these tailored, supportive policies will be better able to control and improve their own outcomes without long term Government support.

Changes in policies and processes are essential if we are to meet contemporary challenges.

The Government has committed more than $323 million over five years to Family and Relationship Services. We have 83 services being delivered right across Australia. In 2014-15, your services assisted almost 140,000 clients.

Family and Relationship Services and Specialised Family Violence Services make a significant contribution to our goal of improving the safety of women and children. This is an area about which the Prime Minister and I feel very passionately.

As you know, in September last year, the Government committed $100 million to the Women’s Safety Package, to further this important priority.

Your services are also supporting families that are formally engaged in the intercountry adoption process to assist them during this important time of transition.

Services are also providing assistance to humanitarian entrants requiring assistance as part of their settlement journey.

I appreciate the important contribution being made by your services responding to the complex needs of families, encourage participation, and support a cohesive society.

I wish you a productive and interesting meeting today and encourage you to make the most of this opportunity to gather and share information and network with both my parliamentary colleagues and the officials of my Department.