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NDIA hired research company to sell controversial changes to staff and public, leaks reveal

Luke Henriques-Gomes
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The agency that runs the National Disability Insurance Scheme hired an “external research company” to help create a “new narrative” aimed at selling its controversial reforms to its staff and the public, leaked documents show.

A staff memo that summarises the findings of the research, obtained by the Guardian, also reveals NDIS staff are “struggling” and feel they “cannot adequately support participants” through the rapid and sweeping overhaul of the scheme.

The government is facing widespread backlash from disability groups, and this week the new minister, Linda Reynolds, placed one of the most contentious reforms – independent assessments – on hold.

But the overhaul – which includes a rewrite of the NDIS Act that determines who is eligible for the scheme and what can be funded, as well as technical changes to how funding packages are created – also appears to have frustrated staff within the agency.

The internal research found staff were “struggling with the amount of information … and do not feel they can adequately support participants through the changes”, while “inconsistency of message delivery is affecting participant, staff and partner trust”.

Related: Linda Reynolds puts compulsory NDIS assessments on pause

Other findings from the focus group research with “participants, staff and partners” included:

  • that the agency needed to provide more “transparency” on “wrongdoings”;

  • that it needed to reduce “corporate-speak and vague language” because “both lead to the assumption things are being hidden”;

  • that it needed to “speak about sustainability of the scheme” because “even if the outcome is not liked – transparency is important”.

“Sustainability can come across as threatening – detail is needed about why sustainability is an issue, and that participants are not at fault, and the responsibility the agency takes for this,” the research found, according to the staff memo from late March.

That finding comes as separate leaked documents this week revealed the agency had set up a secretive unit, the sustainability action taskforce, to slow the growth in participants and funding packages.

Disability groups claimed that establishing the taskforce showed their fears that the agency wanted to cut costs within the scheme “have been justified”.

The documents show the external research company’s work had been used to create a “new narrative” for staff, including a slogan and logo to promote the reforms: “A better NDIS”.

“To ensure staff and partners feel confident and supported in delivering reform messages, the ‘A better NDIS’ narrative (our story) has been developed,” a leaked staff presentation said.

This “narrative” is aimed at selling the reforms to the public, while the new logo, created in-house by the agency and described in minute detail in the presentation, is considered “internal branding”.

“The look and feel [of the new narrative] includes a coloured journey line … that weaves through the design,” it said.

“Our research revealed participants appreciate transparency and an acknowledgment that the past has not been without its challenges. The journey line represents this by portraying the twists, turns and bumps along the NDIS journey.

“The journey line always ends in an upward trajectory, reinforcing the positive forward progression, resulting in a better NDIS.”

Staff are told in the presentation to insert some key phrases “organically” into their communications with participants and stakeholders, as well as presentations and reports.

These include slogans such as “A better NDIS”; “An NDIS that works for everyone” and “Together, let’s build a better NDIS to ensure the scheme will be there for you and Australians if they need it over their lifetime”.

It “should not be labelled as a narrative when it is used – please refer to it as ‘our story’”, the presentation said.

Talking points explaining the agency’s strategy for the future include “slowing down the unsustainable growth of the scheme”, but it is stressed that “this doesn’t mean cost cutting”.

As a commonwealth corporate entity, the National Disability Insurance Agency is exempt from updating new contracts on the AusTender website, and the agency refused to answer questions about the cost of the research.

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Bill Shorten, Labor’s NDIS spokesman, told Guardian Australia the material would “be a joke were it not true”.

“People with disability don’t need a ‘coloured journey line’ or other taxpayer-funded marketing drivel,” he said.

“If minister Reynolds was serious about ‘a better NDIS’ she should deliver it: cancel mandatory assessments and call off her razor gang.

Related: ‘Flawed, unethical and dangerous’: new NDIS assessments risk traumatising the vulnerable

“People with disabilities and their carers will be furious this is where funding is going when they’re battling to make ends meet.”

Jordon Steele-John, the Greens disability spokesman, said the documents made it clear the government “still do not get it”.

He said it was typical of the government’s “patronising” approach.

“They need to stop spinning and start listening to disabled people and the concerns we have about these changes,” he said.

The “new narrative” documents are the latest in a string of leaks emanating from the agency after the disclosure of draft legislation as well as the document this week revealing the creation of the so-called “razor gang”.

The external research company’s findings also claimed the agency needed to “explain the concept of insurance – but as a safety net for all Australians rather than using traditional connotations of insurance”.

An NDIA spokesperson said conducting research was “not unusual for government agencies and seeking feedback and input from participants is not new to the NDIA”.

“This happens in a number of ways including online and email feedback, one-on-one or small group discussions, and participants working directly with project teams to design a product or policy, including through the agency’s participant first initiative.

“To supplement internal research efforts, the agency used an external agency with unique skills in communications insights to conduct research.

“The agency is committed to seeking feedback on reform proposals through a continued and comprehensive consultation program.”

Do you know more? luke.henriques-gomes@theguardian.com