As the nation’s attention again turns to bushfire, drought, regional mental health and family support, we are reminded of the important role social services play in the aftermath of community disasters. In this piece, CSSA Research Director, Brenton Prosser, overviews recent work that seeks to capture the value of the services from locally-embedded providers in regional and remote areas.

I spent much of my childhood growing up in regional South Australia. Several years of this was in a town named Gladstone in the lower Flinders Ranges. It was a proud regional centre that relied on good wheat growing, a Gaol and the railways to sustain four pubs.

One of my strongest memories of those years were the inter-town rivalries. Every weekend in winter, the whole town would migrate to the football oval and netball courts of a nearby town (or be swept up in reverse migration). Each town had its distinct identity and culture.

Things have changed.

Now, many of these football teams have become acronyms that amalgamate what were once proud rivals. For me, it is a tangible sign of the population challenges facing much of regional Australia. When the Gaol closed, the railways rolled back and family wheat farms had to be sold, things became a lot tougher for Gladstone and its community.

I also fondly recall the nuns that would move around the region, faithfully (and not-always quietly) serving our local community. Things have also changed for the orders. Their presence is not what it once was in regional communities, while the community need has increased. This makes diocesan-based service providers all the more important to sustain mission and service in these areas.

New opportunities have also emerged. Increasingly, country-based non-government service organisations have been growing. This growth has been, in part due to the shift from direct to indirect welfare support by government. It has also resulted in a range of innovative and place-based responses by local community service providers.

Recently, CSSA hosted an event that brought together its non-metropolitan member CEOs. They came together to discuss these and other challenges and opportunities.

One of the key outcomes was identifying a need to collate evidence about the value of locally delivered services in regional areas. This intended to show the value of services in terms of effectiveness and quality. It would also show that funding for place-based welfare services was an investment and not just a cost.

With the support of the ANU Internship Program, CSSA commissioned a scoping study on these themes. This study involved both a literature review and interviews with leaders across the CSSA network.

The outcomes of this literature review centred on place-based services and economies of scope. It found that place-based approaches resulted in:

The review also found that when services are diversified within and integrated across local providers there are opportunities for greater productivity.

The economies of scope concept helps capture this greater productivity. It identifies times where sharing inputs across two or more activities results in better value than putting more input into one. The value of this approach in regional areas can be seen particularly in staffing. It can address underuse of staffing resources in an individual organization. It can also avoid situations where full time positions need to be funded by multiple programs (and the loss of funding for any one program makes the whole position unviable).

This study also included over a dozen interviews with CSSA leaders and practitioners. These interviews found major challenges for these approaches in regional areas. This included governance and funding approaches that encouraged individual agency competition and response.

The interviews also focussed on the additional value provided by regional services. Amongst the key findings from these interviews were that:

  • Place-based approaches were standard practice in regional and remote areas;
  • Government funding arrangements meant that they had to be delivered ‘underneath the radar’;
  • Integration and partnership across services and sectors occurred often;
  • This relied on informal networks and ‘having someone’s name in your phone’;
  • The delivery of both of the above was hampered by ‘siloed’ application, administrative and reporting arrangements because significant time  was reallocated from services and partnership-building to compliance;
  • These approaches resulted in better local consultation and service delivery than centralised approaches.

The interviews also revealed a new project in South Australia that involved one of CSSA’s members. This research quantified the social and economic value of locally embedded community service organisations in regional areas.

This research by the UniSA Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise applied a microsimulation model with two organisations in regional South Australia. It looked at organisational income and expenditure (including businesses that supplied services). It surveyed staff on their local spending patterns and amount. It also quantified the local value of organisational and community volunteering.

The study found that for every dollar invested, two dollars thirty was injected back into these local economies.

The above research builds a case for the additional value of locally embedded social service delivery in regional areas. It does so in terms of quality for clients, efficiency of delivery and return on investment.

Currently, CSSA is working with its membership to explore ways to strengthen the evidence base around the value of locally-embedded services in regional areas. This aims to draw on CSSA’s network to capture value in terms of economic contribution, service quality and community impact.

Our aim is to demonstrate something that is already known by many regional communities. Locally based services are vital to the life and viability of regional communities both in times of hardship and the times in between.

This Research Insight is an extended version of a presentation made to the FRSA National Conference in November 2019. If you would like to find out more about CSSA’s work to capture the full value of locally based social services, please contact our Research Director, Brenton Prosser.

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