Across Australian jurisdictions the trend towards marketisation continues apace. Examples of this can be seen many areas of government from ports to poles and wires. So perhaps unsurprisingly we’ve now reached a point in which the one area where you might reasonably least expect the market to go – human services – it is now going.

The Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into human services is seeking to evaluate the potential of applying competition policy in this space – historically, an area almost exclusively administered by government or the not-for-profit sector. This is not a totally new phenomenon. Market principles have been increasingly adopted in the commissioning and implementation of services since the 1990s, but the scale and breadth of this inquiry is unique.

Following an initial round of submissions and research, the Commission has identified six priority areas where introducing greater competition, contestability and informed user choice could improve outcomes for people who use human services, and the community as a whole. For Jesuit Social Services, the two most prominent are services in remote Indigenous communities, and grant-based family and community services. The others span social housing, public hospitals, specialist palliative care, and public dental services.

While the Preliminary Findings bring some welcome recognition to how human services can be more effectively planned and implemented, they continue to herald the assumption that the market will in most cases automatically improve outcomes by applying an underlying assumption that it provides superior conditions for innovation than already exist. In addition though, the Findings essentially reiterate what the not-for-profit sector has been advocating for decades now – improved sector coordination; long-term commitments to funding and policy approaches; greater collaboration and co-design to improve planning; and place-based interventions in areas experiencing locational disadvantage.

In its submission to the Inquiry, Jesuit Social Services advocated its position, based on nearly 40 years of community sector work – that what makes the difference is an ongoing service which provides dedicated support, through a meaningful and trust-based relationship, with the individual always at the centre. And warned of the danger, that the application of market principles inherently work in favour of the service provider, rather than service user, thus reorienting the most crucial aspect of the human services dynamic.

The Commission’s findings appear to ignore the fact that in order to achieve reforms, the market is not the essential ingredient. Greater collaboration will come about through a more concerted effort by governments and providers to include service users in policy and program design. As will long term commitments, which can only exist if governments choose to fund or stick to proven initiatives beyond an electoral term. For users accessing services in remote Indigenous communities or through family and community programs, reforms in these areas are crucial.

Ultimately, pursuing a market-based approach to human services has the potential to impact society’s most vulnerable, those at the margins and often with multiple and complex needs. Jesuit Social Services calls on national and state governments in partnership with the community to put in place appropriate structures, plans and resources targeted to these individuals and communities, and finally begin to break the web of disadvantage that exists across Australia. It is our duty to ensure we do not continue to let the most vulnerable ‘drop off the edge’.

This post is written by Andrew Romanin, Policy Officer Jesuit Social Services.