Endless inquiries taking us for a ride

Published in The Community Advocate: Endless inquiries taking us for a ride

Endless inquiries taking us for a ride

It’s time to stop the inaction merry-go-round of government consultations, inquiries and reports and get to work, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.

One of the strategies used extensively by Australian governments to avoid making any serious commitment to a particular issue is to establish an inquiry, a consultation, a panel, or an advisory group to prepare a report and make recommendations.

The federal Parliament alone currently lists over 100 inquiries.

Australia is excellent at conducting inquiries.

Australia also excels at developing all kinds of plans.

A good example is the most recently developed National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032.

By most standards, it is an excellent plan – a comprehensive 10-year vision across multiple domains informed by extensive research, collaboration and consultation.

But a first-rate plan doesn’t necessarily change things.

We have similar plans for many aspects of our lives and our communities, including industry-specific plans, health system plans, education plans, poverty plans, environmental plans, disease-specific plans, plans for population groups, including Indigenous peoples.

In fact, having a plan for everything has become so popular for governments that it has become an end in itself.

It is an accepted way for governments to be seen to be doing something about an area or an issue, even if all they are really doing is agreeing to put a set of words onto paper.

All this work conducting inquiries and reviews, framing recommendations and developing plans takes a lot of time and effort. And every now and then these processes are useful – they work to get more resources into an area or to have the resources better used to achieve better outcomes.

Unfortunately, outcome-focused plans driving new investment and change are not the norm.

More often than not, the consultation and planning to address an issue of concern is almost like a parallel process to the real-world experiences of the issue, a parallel process that can serve to block rather than facilitate action.

While we are busy having input into consultations and inquiries, reviewing the proposed recommendations and outcomes, then contributing to the development of some kind of plan, we are probably not engaged as much in our core business of addressing the issue.

Perhaps just as importantly, it becomes difficult to advocate for more investment and action because we are already part of government processes having input into future policies and plans.

Engaging charities and not-for-profits in an endless process of consultation and planning provides government with cover. But it can be difficult to say no because we all want to work with government to address the areas of concern.

Refusing to participate can also mean organisations might miss out on opportunities for funding or other government support and engagement.

So, how do we decide whether we should play or not play in these processes?

What kinds of factors determine whether the process is going to be useful and deliver outcomes, or a waste of your time and expertise?

“Maybe if a few more of us said no to pointless processes, the inaction merry-go-round of consultations, inquiries and reports might slow down enough to review the work already done?”

I tend to focus on four key factors.

Of course, there are others that may be just as important or relevant, depending on the kind of work or issue you are engaged in.

You may also have specific reasons to participate or engage. But if you are going to offer your input, usually with no compensation to you or your organisation, it needs to be a good use of your valuable resources.

First, I want to know if those involved in the policy development have any commitment to real change, and real investment. Producing a beautiful document is fine, but not if it leads to no change.

Second, I need to know whether there has been any review of what has already been tried in this area, plans and recommendations that may have already been developed, and whether we really need to revisit those plans rather than embark on a new process.

My third area of focus is authenticity, which to me means genuine engagement, partly measured by prolonged engagement and positive supportive relationships.

There are many policy bandwagons that people readily jump on and off. I prefer to know that people have been actively engaged in an area for some time, and are committed to working as partners and taking as long as it needs.

Finally, I need to know there is a commitment to ruling some activities out.

Having a plan that encompasses every possible activity in a certain area is not a plan, it’s just a set of words everyone can agree to. A good plan is strategic, supporting only a limited number of effective actions.

Unfortunately, the most common form of a national strategic plan is framed to validate everything that is currently occurring, to ensure everyone agrees, and that everything can go on as normal despite there being a new national plan.

Across the charities and NFP sector there is a high level of engagement in government consultation and planning.

In many instances, this contribution isn’t valued beyond a government official being able to tick a box. Even if we are listened to, even if we already know what needs to be done to make a real difference, there is often no commitment to increased investment or change.

We have had comprehensive reviews of our sector involving thousands of submissions, extensive consultations, and countless hours of input and deliberations, generating millions of words in government reports.

As emeritus professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes points out in his revealing analysis of six government reports into the sector:

“In these reports alone, I counted over 160 recommendations, with 21 implemented, 113 unimplemented, and 33 partial or no longer applicable implementations.

“There is even one notable recommendation about recommendations from the 2010 Productivity Commission that ‘over the last 14 years, there have been five major reviews of the NFP sector, yet many worthwhile recommendations remain unimplemented.’”

I note that the leader of the Opposition, in his first address to Australia following the referendum outcome, talked about his commitment to the safety of Indigenous children.

He said he would hold a Royal Commission into Child Abuse in Indigenous Communities.

I doubt he has read the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032, let alone the specific section on developing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander action plan grounded in the Closing the Gap Target 13:

“By 2031, the rate of all forms of family violence and abuse against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children is reduced at least by 50%, as progress towards zero.”

Herein lies the heart of the problem.

Even when thousands of hours of consultation, research and considered work have been provided by informed and knowledgeable people, including those with extensive lived experience, we often ignore this work and reinvent another process to develop another set of words for us to ignore all over again.

It is, in many ways, an ignorant approach to policy development, and we seem to have perfected it in Australia.

Maybe if a few more of us said no to pointless processes, the inaction merry-go-round of consultations, inquiries and reports might slow down enough to review the work already done?

Why do we keep playing these games with governments?

Charities at risk of being left defenceless in cyber-crime battle

Charities at risk of being left defenceless in cyber-crime battle

The federal government appears to be taking the risk of cyber-crime seriously – just not when it comes to the concerns or vulnerability of the charities and not-for-profit sector, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.

“The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), which monitors and provides advice on cyber threats, received more than 76,000 reports during the 2021–22 financial year. On average, this equates to a cyberattack every seven minutes. Self-reported losses for one year totalled in excess of $35 billion.” (ACSC Annual Cyber Threat Report, July 2021 to June 2022)

The Australian government is finalising a new cyber security strategy.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, outlined the government’s intention in a speech to the Australian Financial Review Cyber Summit this week.

Leading into her description of the new cyber security policy, Minister O’Neil said, “Cyber security is the fastest changing national security threat that our country faces… we have an urgent economic and security imperative to make a step change as a country for how we deal with cyber issues.”

The new Cyber Security Strategy will include six “shields” across the following areas:

  • Cyber security awareness – community and business
  • Safe technology – cyber safe products (software, phones etc)
  • Blocking threats – active national anti-hacking initiatives
  • Protecting critical infrastructure – additional protections for some high-risk facilities
  • Building cyber capacity – across business and the community
  • Global engagement – actively supporting global cyber security initiatives.

Cyber security is now a priority concern for governments and business.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all charities, even though the potential for damaging cyber security hacks in this sector is just as real and pressing.

In a joint Community Council for Australia (CCA) and Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) webinar this week, Lyn Morgain from Oxfam and Doug Taylor from the Smith Family outlined their experiences as CEOs of organisations that had experienced a cyber attack.

Their presentations were made more poignant by the fact that both these charities had invested considerable time and energy ensuring they had good cyber security and systems protections in place before they were attacked.

Between them Oxfam and the Smith Family had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars addressing the hacks, and both also had to deal with the reputational risk as they made full public disclosures.

The lesson we all learnt listening to Lyn and Doug describe their experiences was that no matter how well prepared you think you are, an attack is a case of when, not if.

Even a small hack could have devastating consequences for an organisation. In some cases, the data held within charities and NFPs is much more sensitive than in many businesses.

David Spriggs, the CEO of Infoxchange, pointed out that according to his organisation’s surveys of the sector, Oxfam and the Smith Family were in the top 20% of well-prepared charities and NFPs when it comes to cyber security.

Almost 50% of charities and NFPs do not have multi-factor authentication as standard in protecting access to their systems and devices. The same number do not train their staff in cyber security awareness.

Many charities and NFPs suggest cost is the issue preventing them from putting in place cyber security protection, while others indicate it is simply not their highest priority.

Either way, it seems the sector is a sitting duck for bad actors seeking to disrupt and capitalise on weak cyber security.

“Charities and NFPs need to do a lot more to address the threat posed by cyber security, especially given that we are clearly not a priority for government.”

At CCA we wrote to the Prime Minister, the Minister for Home Affairs, and the National Cyber Security Co-ordinator a month ago. Copies of the letter were provided to the Assistant Minister for Charities, Dr Andrew Leigh.

Our letter argued in part:

Charities hold extensive personal and financial information from millions of Australians.

“Despite having a massive footprint in our economy and in our lives, charities and not-for-profits have not been provided with the support they need to deal with an increasingly sophisticated level of cyber-attacks.

“Unlike business, charities spend every spare dollar they can find on serving their communities. Allocating more resources to strengthen cyber security would mean reducing the level of services available in our communities.

“Many charities and NFPs struggle to withdraw services, even though cyber security is clearly an important priority.

“There will be cyber-attacks on charities and there is real potential for certain kinds of attacks to significantly damage confidence and trust in our sector. Cyber-attacks in our sector could also have devastating impacts on individuals and communities.

“We ask that you consider providing increased support for charities across Australia to be able to review their current cyber security preparedness and to invest in better data security and protection.

“This is no more than what your government is already providing to business.

“Leaving charities to fend for themselves in dealing with the threat posed by global cyber security attacks is not an acceptable policy approach.”

Not once did the Minister for Home Affairs mention charities or not-for profits in her speech to the Cyber Summit, nor in the subsequent media coverage and discussion of cyber threats that I managed to follow.

No one has responded to our letters.

It’s as though cyber security is only an issue for business or government. Or that charities and NFPs are seen as a subset of small business – even though none of the extensive small business cybersecurity concessions and grants are available to our sector.

Charities and NFPs need to do a lot more to address the threat posed by cybersecurity, especially given that we are clearly not a priority for government.

It will be the communities we serve who will ultimately pay the price if we fail to support the cyber security capacity of charities and NFPs in Australia.

Beyond the blind eye

Beyond the blind eye

In light of the Jenkins report, CCA CEO David Crosbie issues a challenge to every charity leader to actively support those that call out inappropriate behaviour or misconduct within their own organisations, Pro Bono News, 2 December 2021.

Beyond the blind eye, Pro Bono News, 2 December 2021

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” – Albert Einstein

Many years ago I was asked to help out at a local high school experiencing problems with year 7 students sniffing petrol during their lunch break, coming back into the school, disrupting classes and causing problems. I spent some time informally talking with the students and discovered that a petrol station on the corner near the school was selling the students 50 cent plastic bags of petrol. When I confronted the owner of the petrol station, he vigorously defended his actions as legal, claimed ignorance about what the kids were doing with the petrol, and argued they must have been using it for their model cars. I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he had chosen to support petrol sniffing by 13-year-old school students. It turned out many students and some adults were aware of the petrol sales, but didn’t want to upset the petrol station owner who was quite intimidatory and powerful in the community. Following my intervention, the sale of small amounts of petrol in plastic bags ceased. (I should note the school implemented a range of interventions with the students and their families – cutting off the convenient supply of pre-packaged petrol was not the only action taken.)

I retell this story to emphasise one key learning. It is invariably the case that only when bad behaviour is called out does it stop. Turning a blind eye allows misconduct to flourish.

In the Kate Jenkins Human Rights Commission Set the Standard report into Parliament released this week, one of the most telling lines for me was the description of a “culture in which the individuals responsible for misconduct are often widely known and their behaviour deliberately overlooked, minimised or tolerated”.

It could be argued that the most powerful reaction to repeated misconduct and discrimination – or in this case bullying and sexual harassment – is to turn a blind eye. By looking away, not seeing what we have seen, not acting, not speaking up, not acknowledging what has happened, we offer a powerful endorsement of that behaviour. And that is what has been happening in our Parliament.

The blind eye approach works well enough on its own, but it can also be quite powerfully paired with the hand washing approach or not my responsibility. When confronted with the kind of disturbing workplace culture outlined in the Jenkins report, one of the most often used defences by workplace leaders is to argue we are all responsible (“we need to share the blame – not put it all on me”). A second approach is to pretend it is only about the individuals involved – only the perpetrators can be held responsible (“I didn’t do it so don’t blame me”). 

Grace Tame, our brave and impressive Australian of the Year, made clear this week who she thinks is responsible for workplace culture: “It rots from the top. Parliament’s ecosystem of abuse has been revealed. 15 minutes after the 500-page review launched today, Scott was already claiming it’s a safer workplace than when Brittany was there. This, days after he coercively orchestrated the ambush of Bridget Archer.” (Government MP Bridget Archer asked not to meet with the prime minister at the time, but it went ahead anyway.)

It is true that we all share in the responsibility to maintain a safe and respectful workplace, but it is also true that the senior leaders and executive are very clearly responsible for owning workplace culture and addressing failures that make people feel less than supported in their roles.

The current government has been in power for over eight years and the leader of that government cannot and should not wash their hands of any responsibility for workplace culture.

Another enabling factor in workplace misconduct, sexual harassment and assault is to punish those who call out the problems. A young woman raped in a government minister’s office not only loses her job and her career, but is attacked for putting herself in a vulnerable position. Brittany Higgins has risen above a lot of the criticism, and helped drive the need for reform, but at what cost? 

A challenge to every charity leader is to actively support those that call out inappropriate behaviour or misconduct within our own organisations. While this might appear obvious to say, it can sometimes be much harder to put into practice. Amongst other provisions, charities should be aware of their obligations to provide appropriate internal complaints procedures and whistleblower provisions.

Another point of reference for charities and other organisations is to consider how best to manage some of the identified drivers and risk factors of workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination in workplaces. These factors include; power imbalances, gender inequality, lack of accountability, entitlement and exclusion, unclear and inconsistent standards of behaviour, leadership deficit, overpowering workplace dynamics (e.g. win at all costs), social conditions at work (e.g. long hours away from home), employment structures and systems (e.g. who is rewarded). 

Turning a blind eye in our workplaces is one thing, turning a blind eye in our community is another. 

Charities have a critical role to play as advocates for those experiencing discrimination, abuse, bullying and other forms of misconduct in workplaces and in communities. Many charities actively engage in the spaces where misconduct occurs and their role is not just to call it out, but also seek some form of justice. Racial discrimination, slavery, domestic violence, sexual assault, bullying, discrimination against the disabled and others, animal welfare, treatment of prisoners, refugees, justice, the list goes on. Charities champion the calling out of misconduct. It is at the heart of some of the most valuable advocacy work charities do.

There is one other critical factor in reducing all forms of workplace misconduct, a factor that goes beyond averted eyes, washed hands, abrogated responsibilities, and protecting the truth tellers. Very little will be achieved if we do not take affirmative action.

In calling for the Parliament to act on the recommendations in her report, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said: “This is an opportunity for the leaders of our country to transform Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces to become what they already should be: workplaces where expected standards of behaviour are modelled, championed and enforced, where respectful behaviour is rewarded and in which any Australian, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status or age, feels safe and welcome to contribute.”

There is no place for turning a blind eye to misconduct within organisations and especially within charities. 

Charities should be places where we model, champion, and enforce the values of respect and safety for all. This only happens if there is a real commitment to ensure the values at the core of most charities are embedded in our structures, processes and relationships.

When we choose to call out misconduct in our organisations and our communities, when we choose to challenge bullying and discrimination, we are not just making a difference, we are enacting the fundamental values of charity.

Read on Pro Bono News: beyond-the-blind-eye

Media Release: Robbing St Peter to pay the ATO? – 4 May 2015

Media Release: Robbing St Peter to pay the ATO? - 4 May 2015

Speculation is rife that the government will end uncapped meals and entertainment tax concessions for all charity and not-for-profit organisations in next week’s budget.  Many in the charities and not-for-profit sector recognise that the current system is unfair for most employees in the sector and strays from the original intent of supporting a stronger charities and not-for-profit sector. Some capping is inevitable, but there are calls to keep the savings within the sector.

David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia said, ‘it is important to understand that more than one million Australians work for charity and not-for-profit organisations in Australia, most at well below commercial rates of pay.  Over 90% of these employees do not use a meal and entertainment card (originally intended to help the sector attract and retain staff) and of those that do, most claim back relatively small amounts.  The reality is that there is a tiny minority within the sector that are very well-paid that can afford to spend and therefore claim tens of thousands in tax free income.  Capping the concession is fair, but the savings should be directed towards the original intent – supporting our charities and not-for-profits.’

Rev Tim Costello, Chair of CCA and CEO of World Vision has argued that; ‘the current concessions favour the richest employees in our sector.  While we need to retain concessions to attract the best and brightest to our sector, I would prefer the concession was capped at a reasonable level, and that all the savings were used to strengthen the sector, not just be redirected into consolidated revenue.’

According to the ATO, the savings that can be achieved by capping the meals and entertainment card are well over $100 million per annum.  Figures released previously suggest that a number of not-for-profit employees including medical specialists employed at public hospitals have claimed over $50,000 in tax free concessions in one year by using their meals and entertainment card to pay for personal expenses such as overseas travel and the cost of weddings.  These practices have become more widespread in recent years, particularly amongst the small minority of more highly paid employees of charities.

CCA, which represents a broad range of charities and not-for-profits, has argued the concessions should be capped at $15,000 per annum, and the money saved should be used to enable all charities and not-for-profit organisations to offer tax deductibility for donations made by their communities.  ATO figures suggest this measure would be more than affordable with the savings from capping the FBT concessions, provided all schools and churches did not automatically qualify. 

David Crosbie said, ‘to get tax deductibility in Australia is a ridiculously complex and time consuming process typically costing tens of thousands of dollars and often more than a year of effort, so only the bigger charities tend to go through the process.  We can make deductibility more transparent and equitable by using the now well established Australian Charites and Not-for-profit Commission determination of whether a charity should gain or retain their charity status as the basis for eligibility.  Why not allow all those with charitable status to receive tax-deductible donations?  This is much fairer for all charities, would encourage more donations and build stronger communities for all of us.

View CCA’s 2015 Federal Budget submission for more details on the proposal.


Coverage here: 

Budget to target NFP tax concessions, Lina Caneva, Pro Bono News, 5 May 2015 http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2015/05/budget-target-nfp-tax-concessions

Budget 2015: Doctors pained by limit on tax perks, Joanna Mather, Australian Financial Times, 7 May 2015  http://www.afr.com/news/policy/budget/budget-2015-doctors-pained-by-limit-on-tax-perks-20150507-ggw4y3