COLLABORATION and innovation is rarely highlighted in relation to the community services sector – but it is precisely this focus that must drive the real outcomes into the future, CoAct CEO Matt Little urged at The Power of Many CoAct conference, in Canberra in June.
The conference served as both a wake-up call and a celebration for the sector and it was convened by CoAct – formerly the Job Futures – which launched its new brand designed to unite and energise community services throughout Australia.
In an industry needing to build new alliances and business relationships, the conference was both about celebrating CoAct members’ considerable successes while alerting business and community leaders to the broad challenges threatening the sector.
Guest keynote speakers Marco Roncarati from United Nations ESCAP – who presented vital regional information on youth unemployment issues – and Stephane Carcillo from the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs offered international perspectives on successful programs and experiences that Australia could adapt.
Diminishing budgets – and a change of approach by the Federal Government in seeking to procure from larger ‘single point of contact’ organisations, as outlined by Bronwen Dalton of UTS Business School – are creating unexpected challenges for smaller and regional community organisations that can only be addressed through innovation and collaboration.
“Whilst the current state of social affairs can, at times, make for grim reading in the media and foster a climate of pessimism, we feel that through collaboration and harnessing the power of many we can offer innovative solutions for the future of all Australians,” Mr Little said.
He said the change of brand and approach from Job Futures to CoAct was designed to help the community services sector to become more innovative and effective while delivering better outcomes for government and Australian society.
“The latest research shows that the community services sector contributes over $43 billion to the economy and is an essential ingredient in the decision making process for any government,” Mr Little said. “CoAct alone represents a sizable contribution to this figure and, with the combined knowledge of the people assembled at this conference, we can change the direction for social policy for years to come.”
CoAct is a national network of locally embedded community service providers who work together to create social and economic opportunities. As the former Job Futures, the community-based organisation was formed to meet the new environment as Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) was replaced by Centrelink in the late 1990s, to assist in co-ordinating the creation of job opportunities.
“We operate solely for community benefit and drive over 90 percent of revenue back into the communities in which we operate,” Mr Little said. “Overall, the community sector returns more (to the overall economy) than it receives in funding. That’s a fact.
“More than ever before, we need new solutions to old problems that have never been fixed and are beginning to fester.” Mr Little said one of the most serious problems in Australia – as it is in much of the Asia Pacific region – is youth unemployment.
“The youth unemployment rate in Australia remained unchanged at 13.6 percent which is more than double the average unemployment rate,” Mr Little said. “We are losing a generation of Australians to poverty, unable to afford housing in our major cities and becoming increasingly separate from the wider community.”
Mr Little said the CoAct conference was so important to the process as it was a rare opportunity to gather community, business and government leaders to address the key challenges in creating “an equitable Australia that provides actual jobs, places to live and access to services that are able to deliver innovative solitons without hindrance”.
“The purpose is to focus minds and generate action,” he said.
The impetus to innovate has been bolstered by recent CoAct partnership successes with business, especially in areas such as youth job creation.
“Earlier this year, I visited one of our programs,” Mr Little said. “There I could see for myself the work we have done changing the lives of Indigenous youth who had, up until that point, no hope of finding employment or accessing the skills training to get a job – it was a revolutionary experience for me.
“When we worked together with the business sector in our Hit the Ground Running program, we not only found jobs for young people but we got them work experience,” he said, as an example. “We found ready-trained employees for the business, Australian Hearing, saving them thousands of dollars in employment costs by reducing job lag.
“This is the power of collaboration and innovation. In this case we saved the economy and businesses money and created better lives full of opportunities that the individuals concerned would never have had access to before.
“Governments alone cannot solve these issues, however they can nurture the environment for true collaboration between industry and community that is focused on beneficial outcomes for all.”
“We want government to publicly commit to a sustainable sector, free from hindrance and with workable business models,” Mr Little said.
“And we want them to give their policy teams new orders to accelerate the progress toward new, sustainable, effective, comprehensive and socially ambitious community services and development agreements that restore funding to essential services such as specialised providers to youth and homelessness.”