Thursday, September 13, 2007

The church and delivery of public services – Part 1 of 2

No. 40, 24 July 2006

by Wilma Gallet

The past 10-15 years has seen the emergence of competitive tendering and the development of a market model in the provision of a range of human services including aged care, employment services, child care, drug and alcohol services, health care and family services. In all of these areas the government contracts with the community, church and for-profit sectors to deliver services. Consequently, private companies are now providing return on investment through the provision of government funded welfare services.

By adapting to the new rules, church agencies can win contracts and even gain ‘market share’, but will this be at the cost of losing their distinctive mission goals? And how does the church demonstrate the difference between the church’s provision of services and that of a private company?

Specifically, how does a child in a church run child-care centre or a resident in an aged care hostel experience being in a facility run by the church? How does an unemployed person experience the difference between a church-run service for unemployed people and a private provider? How do the employees of such organisations know that they are working for a Christian service? And if there is no difference, then why should the church continue to provide such services?

The church’s role in delivering community services

The role of the church in delivery of social services is to provide a compassionate, primary response, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan. Less obvious to outsiders, but just as critical, is the church’s role in reforming society. The role of advocacy is emphasised in Proverbs where believers are implored to “speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8).

Many within the sector believe there is a risk that the advocacy role is affected by privatisation and the use of contracts in a market environment that can compromise the agency’s independence. [1] Laura Tingle reported in May 2005 that church agencies were “usually frightened to say anything about what they are doing let alone anything critical of the government at the risk of losing their contracts, particularly the church agencies reliant on Job Network income to prop up their charity work.” [2]

The market model has introduced new concepts: competition, compliance, corporatisation and commercialism. The question is whether they lead to compromise.

From competition to collaboration

Prior to competitive tendering many agencies worked closely together, developed alliances and shared ideas and strategies. Much of this has now disappeared and this has had a deleterious impact on our social fabric: we’ve seen a loss of social infrastructure, social networks and community leadership skills. This is particularly true in regional Australia where effective community relationships between agencies are critical to the support structures for poor and disadvantaged families. The question is, “Does the church have to compete? Or can the church establish a new paradigm focused on collaboration?”

The Job Futures Group did this in the large DEWR (Department of Employment and Workplace Relations) Job Network tender. If a church agency believes it needs to submit its own tender bid, another option is to form a collaborative relation with other church agencies after the contract is given and services are established.

Collaborative services will provide better outcomes for people, certainly at a reduced cost and will create a sense of greater cohesion within communities. Developing alliances and partnering arrangements will also provide an opportunity to deliver more holistic and integrated services that create pathways for people to move through various life events.

From corporatisation to a community of faith

Another change since privatisation is the focus on corporatisation and ‘the business’ of welfare with the creation of systems, structure and processes aimed at achieving the standards set out in the government contracts. Churches and their agencies often feel they need to develop larger infrastructures, Corporate Offices, large IT networks, Marketing Departments, Finance Departments, Commercial Services Departments etc.

Associated with this is a form of managerialism, which involves out-sourcing the responsibility for specific issues away from the centre of government without giving away the control. Church agencies should be careful that the image projected is not only professional but also in keeping with expectations of what the church and the agency represent. The agencies also need to ensure they don’t slip into an enjoyment of the “trappings of office.”

One way in which the church can stay grounded is to ensure that services, staffing and structure are based on the principles of a community of faith, with a strong focus on people and their gifts. Our faith should be evident in the way we work.

From commercialism to commitment

Another key element of privatisation is the whole focus on the commercial or financial aspects of welfare. The danger for the church, of course, is in the potential for a clash of ethos and values. The Church needs to be careful that “profit-making” does not take precedence over “care for people.” Sadly this can happen. The focus should be on a commitment to making a difference, not on a commercial venture, but on a service which impacts positively on the individuals who are the recipients of the service, the staff who work within the service and the external stakeholders.

By demonstrating a commitment to living out the words of Jesus in caring for people, seeking justice, bringing hope and being merciful and gracious it is possible to counteract the negative elements of commercialism and individualism.

From compliance to capacity building

In some contractual arrangements, governments are very specific about how and when services should be delivered, and who should be supported and for how long etc. Often there is no scope for agencies to develop their own unique service approach, because the contract is so specific. There is a risk in this outsourced world that the church simply becomes the government service.

Compliance can also mean that that service recipients have to meet specific requirements in order to participate in particular government programs. In this regard the ‘Welfare to Work’ program is of particular concern. Under the new rules there is a real risk that some vulnerable people may fall through the cracks simply because the requirements are so specific.

There are organisational contradictions that come with the notion of compliance. The loss of organisational identity and a focus on the client is combined with an intensified focus on contract management and administrative requirements. The counter to compliance is capacity building: that is, building organisational and community capacity and helping individuals to build their own capacity through demonstrating a belief in the individual and seeing the inherent worth in each human person.

Wilma Gallet was founding CEO of The Salvation Army Employment Plus and is completing a Masters in Social Policy. She has a passion to see the church actively and positively involved as a prophetic voice in public debate. This is an edited version of an article published in BriefCace, July 2006. Used by permission.


[1] Brian Howe, Paul Oslington, Ray Cleary & Marilyn Webster, The Church and the Free Market (Melbourne: Australian Theological Forum/Victorian Council of Churches, 2002) p. 9.
[2] The Financial Review, 6 May 2005.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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