VIEW: Merely Being compliant is not a point of difference to be proud of in the disability sector

As the disability sector is facing a range of headline-making issues, including a new NDIS Minister and pushback from the industry to proposed changes to the NDIS, this interview outlines experiences and insights from River Night, CEO and founder of Australian Communities, about how he is using his passions, lived experience of disability, and skills to drive change in the disability sector.

  • What currently drives you in your work?

After 24 years working in the disability sector, I’ve seen so many changes and so much worry, innovation, skepticism, new ideas, unclear agency directions but also, great feedback and solutions from people purchasing services and service providers. I go to work each day because I see a chance and opportunity to provide leadership and a platform for people to be heard and to be the voice of the sector for people who don’t have one.

I want to support and create ways to shape how Australia can get things right for its disability community. I am driven because I can see the opportunity to bring together thousands of service providers, people living with disability and diversity from all over the country. Creating a way for us all to establish events and have think tanks that can power out multiple solutions to what people see as problems and challenges in our sector.

I also get to do this from the position of a service provider, a person with lived experience of disability myself, a carer of family members with disability and diversity, an advocate and a professional. Therefore, if we can get things right, it affects me directly as well.

If I can facilitate events where, as a sector, we pick 10 key worries and problems direct from the people it affects from each event and produce multiple solutions to take straight back to the Agencies involved then that is a huge benefit to everyone involved and is the main thing that gets me up and out of bed every day.

  • What standards in the disability sector are you working on changing? Why?

I have developed a focus on raising the bar and delivering a more principles-based approach to quality standards. I have found you can have all the standards in the world but unless you are actually committed to them and are doing things for the right reasons, then it just doesn’t hit the mark. Without this we continue to see abuse, neglect and breaches of human rights. The key principles I try to focus on and have turned into a practice framework are Transparency, Commitment, Authenticity, Customer Centered Work, Contemporary Practice and Safety. Regardless of how you go about things I strongly believe if you, your staff and the stakeholders involved bring things back to good common principles, people will make the right decisions based on good foundations.

While privatisation has its pros and cons, I believe we need to treat the people that are accessing services as respected and valued customers with the priority to be to deliver a good service. To do this we need to invest more in professional development and raise standards.

A major standard I would like to focus on is service providers excelling and delivering a good product beyond basics. I have seen for too many years a sector where the point of difference between service providers is that they are compliant with legislation and standards as opposed to their competitor that is not. Being compliant with basic legislation or regulated standards is not a point of difference to be proud of. Compliance is a basic, expected first step. That is why I want to focus on raising the bar to deliver a disability community services sector we can all be proud of by really professionalising the sector and the way we work.

  • What are the impacts on our society as a whole when standards in the disability sector are improved?

I am a strong believer that people provide a lot of insight into themselves based on how a community or individual respond to diversity and the treatment of people that need support.

If a person is insecure, uncomfortable, judgmental, and lacking in respect for themselves and others, then their treatment of other people will be very much impacted. The treatment and value of people and the way we deliver support to them through the disability sector tells us a lot about ourselves. I have had no surprises from the horrific stories heard through the Royal Commission as I know these things happen and they continue to happen. Just like many people often have not had contact or understanding of the realities of Aged Care until a loved one goes through it, we often avoid recognising and talking about diversity openly and comfortably. It is harder for abuse and neglect to occur and continue when practices are transparent and there is real accountability along with frequent checks. As a culture it is essential for us to value and put focus on how we respond to disability.

  • What are your views on how the NDIS is currently designed?

There appears to be a disconnect from how it is designed and how it appears to be designed. At a broad level, individualised allocation of funding has been great for many people being able to have some choice and control over who they purchase services from.

After many years, I see many operational matters that could easily be fixed to help providers streamline common things like payment claims and portal features. Simple things that if in a private company, would simply be fixed by way of an IT team. Sadly, being a Government Agency, change is slow.

The plan review process is inconsistent with new delegates causing many issues. If a participant gets a good delegate, the process is simple. If they get a different one, even after many, many reports and supporting evidence, delegates seem to make decisions that just don’t fit and we have to go through the time and wasted resources of immediate reviews. A good system and approach would make some of these processes very simple. For example, a person with a significant lifelong physical disability diagnosed since birth, should not be asked to provide evidence that they still have a disability every review period and argue that they still need staff support. A simple review based on the recommendations of their own professionals that know them well is appropriate.

The introduction of independent assessors also adds to an already worrying design creating more inconsistency. It takes time, close professional relationships and case knowledge to assess and make recommendations for an individual. When a person has an Occupational Therapist, Psychiatrist, Speech Therapist and Guardians appointed, amounting to years of case history, it makes no sense introducing a third party without case history or any previous rapport or relationship to over-ride or replace significant professional input and recommendations. On the other hand, for a person that has no professionals or assessments already, an NDIS assessor would potentially be very helpful. This is the logical and individualised approach that the NDIS needs to demonstrate more of.

  • If you were head of NDIS for a day, what’s one thing you would change? Why?

The many systemic issues and problems of the NDIS and related Agencies cannot be fixed in a day but a good culture and some concrete action to demonstrate good faith could be done tomorrow. I would start by stating clearly that the NDIS recognises the challenges and systemic issues that exist, list them and show vulnerability in leadership through open and transparent language. There are huge benefits and opportunities through a National Scheme but also massive difficulties. It is not rocket science and people know that it is hard to ever get things perfect, so establish some regular flows of communication with the sector that are authentic, including talking about mistakes to ensure that people living with Disability are leading this Agency, sitting in the portfolio and making decisions.

I would mandate on my day of leading the agency, that the outcomes and recommendations would then only be considered once they have been reviewed and endorsed by each state and made up of approval bodies consisting only of people living with disability in Australia. This process would also need to be widely advertised and communicated to the community, so it is seen to be done as well as being done. I would mandate that only when each state can come to an agreement by these groups should policy, process and legislation be drafted. This may overstep the boundaries of the head of Agency but it could be a good start and I am not used to limiting my work to fit in a neat box.

About the expert

River Night is the CEO and founder of Australian Communities. With more than 22 years in Disability, Mental Health, Education, Child Safety, Youth Justice, Quality Systems and Forensic Settings in Government and Non-Government Sectors, as well as lived experience of disability, River Night is an expert in raising the bar and helping 24/7 NDIS Funded Participants.

River has spent two decades supporting participants living with disability, mental illness and complex behaviour, and working with participants who require coordination of a variety of stakeholders including Statutory Agencies.

By applying his own experience in disability, mental health, education, youth detention and child safety, River helps others to set and maintain better standards for the disability sector. He also brings expertise in licensing, forensic disability support, government and non-government roles to his position as a consultant and disability services industry leader.

River’s upcoming events:

Image description: Headshot of River from the waist up. River wears a black, collared shirt.


VIEW: Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people – Yasmin Poole

Age diversity is often discussed in creative and innovative industries, but what about sectors such as policy and government?

As the rate of change fastens – from digital technologies and climate change, to flexible ways of working and globalisation – experts say there is a drive among younger generations to tackle these challenges head-on and with an open mind, in comparison to older generations. Yet, representation of young people in parliament and, consequently, representation of issues they are passionate about, are lacking.

While it may seem inevitable that people of a certain age and with a certain number of years experience under their belt are better suited to politics, countries like Finland are showing this simply isn’t true and age diversity is not only possible, but also an effective way of governing.

Yasmin Poole is passionate about being and empowering the voice of Gen Z to be heard in parliament. In this interview, she shares why age diversity at the leadership level matters, and how governments and societies can benefit from involving young people in policy development.

  • Why is age diversity at the leadership level important to you?

It’s firstly important in terms of representation. It’s a rare sight to see a politician under 30 in Parliament House. Yet, young people are majorly impacted in policy. We were the first to lose our jobs after COVID-19 and will have to deal with the economic fallout for decades to come. We’re also affected in other areas of policy such as health, education, employment and housing. We’ll also be dealing with the looming impacts of climate change. Despite this, youth voices are often unheard.

Aside from that, I also think many underestimate how well young people can prepare us for the future. Younger generations are open minded, risk taking and curious. Those are traits we need more than ever – as 2020 has demonstrated, the business as usual approach is long gone. If we want to create a prosperous and forward-thinking society, we need young people at the table too.

Take COVID-19, for example. It has essentially forced the world to learn how to live online and think outside of the box. Yet, young people can be the leaders here. We’ve grown up in a time of rapid technological innovation. We’re poised to be the most entrepreneurial generation. Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people. Adaptation and change are our normal.

  • What are some examples where you’ve seen a positive impact from diversity of age in leadership?

I’d say a good example of positive impact was when I led the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress, which was their first ever youth advisory board representing over a million young Victorians.

We found that the mental health system in particular is poorly designed for young people. While the government had funded youth mental health support, services were largely only available 9am-5pm weekdays and closed on weekends. This was totally inaccessible for the majority of young people who were at school. It seems like a simple observation, but shows how youth policy is often created without understanding what young people want and need.

Since our recommendations, the Victorian Government has committed to ensuring every public school has a mental health counsellor – a really encouraging step towards making services accessible.

That example taught me the power of government co-designing policy with young people. I think a big part of youth disillusionment is simply because we feel unheard. If government can better engage with young people, it will only lead to better solutions.

  • Have you ever felt that sometimes age does matter in the workplace? Why or why not?

Definitely. I still think young people can learn a lot from older leaders – there remains a certain type of wisdom that comes with age. I was once told that “life is a marathon, not a sprint” and it’s always stuck in my mind. Older mentors have taught me a lot about leadership. A big takeaway has been that it isn’t always about how large your impact is or how fast you get to the end goal. One of the best bosses I’ve had used to check in with me every day and genuinely ask how I was going. Often, it’s the small things that make the very best leaders.

I’ve also found that, while youth can bring new ideas, we may not always have the connections to turn it into a reality. A big part of Youth Congress’ success was the support of senior government figures. They put us in touch with the right people to make sure we were heard – without them, our recommendations could have very well gone unnoticed. I’d love to see more programs like that which connect older decision-makers with younger people – it’d be a great way to turn ideas into action.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted your approach to leadership and role modelling today?

I’d say that growing up low income has played a big part in how I view the world. A question that’s always in the back of my mind is “whose voices are missing from the conversation?” I study in Canberra and, at many points, have looked around me and wondered who deserved to be here but couldn’t because of cost. While I feel really lucky to have the platform I do, I’m conscious that there are many young Australians that continue to be unheard and slip through the cracks.

To me, stepping into your vulnerabilities is crucial for authentic leadership. When I was 20, I was a panellist on Q+A – the first time I was ever in the public eye. It was pretty intimidating. But I realised that, in order to speak authentically, I had to share my lived experience. I talked about growing up low income and my parents’ story. Both experienced poverty over their lives – my mother used to sell food on the streets of Singapore and my father grew up homeless.

Stepping into your hardships, especially in a public way, is undoubtedly daunting. Yet, those experiences have given me the agency to stand up for what I care about. At the end of the day, I want to be the person that younger me would have wanted to see growing up. If I’m embodying that, I know I’m on the right path.

About the expert

Yasmin is best described as a ‘human megaphone for Gen Z’. She has represented millions of young Australians in advocating for youth policy reform, including being the 2018 Chair of the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress. She also led the global business development of 180 Degrees Consulting, a youth led social impact consultancy that spans across 30 countries. She is currently Plan International’s Youth Ambassador, focusing on engaging young Australian women in politics. In 2019, Yasmin was the youngest member of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence and Top 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians. Yasmin has been a panellist on shows such as Q&A and the Drum, with a focus on how we can include youth in the conversation to create change.