How to make positive community change with a Winnebago in two weeks

For many public servants, the idea of turning around a policy or service concept in two weeks is unfathomable. Two weeks is hardly sufficient for policy development, community consultation, review, budgeting, QA, review processes or executive approvals! But, does more time always lead to better outcomes? Or can having a tighter deadline lead to more critical and clear thinking? We chatted to Michelle Lees, General Manager with the Australian Department of Human Services to hear about a great service example…

About the drought bus…

Back in 2006, during a period of drought, the Minister wanted us to have a mobile service, and literally within a couple of weeks we had established not only what the parameters of the service would be, but actually had the first ‘drought bus’ out on the road. We took the services out to rural communities who had never had access to face to face services in that way before. It was the first time we had remote computer technology working, so that our staff could be looking up customer records and serving community members then and there.

We were quite considerate of our clients in that instead of calling the service the ‘Centrelink Drought Bus’ we called it the ‘Australian Government Mobile Service Centre’ because coming from a farming family, I knew that farmers and the rural community would not want to have anything to do with Centrelink because of the stigma associated with relying on the government for support. We took the service on the road, and on the first day with very little advanced notification other than using the grapevine of the Country Womens Association (CWA), the first person to turn up was an older man who was a farmer. He turned up not for income support payments, but rather he had recognised that he needed social work support because of the impact of the drought on his mental health – which underlined for me the importance of what we were doing.

Getting on the road…

I had small teams of people who would go out and deliver the service, and one time I went out to see them while they were on the road to observe how things were going. Sometimes people would drive past a couple of times to see if people they knew were there before they parked and went inside for help. They knew they needed help, but if there were local people there that knew them, even without Centrelink blazoned across the side of the mobile service centre, it was something that was difficult for them to do. There was the attitude in rural areas to ‘be tough’ and ‘keep going’ because there are generations of people before them who had done it. It was very difficult for people to admit they needed help.

Getting it all up and running…

It was madness to get the service up and running within a two-week timeframe but we did it! I suppose one of the good story elements of this is that the Minister was delighted with how the first mobile service went so I was put in charge of delivering another two mobile service centres the month after we started, and mobile service centres are still part of our department’s servicing approach today.

I think that my having a very solid, pragmatic service delivery bent certainly helped. There were people that were assisting with things such as contract negotiations for the provider of the Winnebago, liaison with policy agencies and all the other administrative elements. But, I was someone with a long career in direct service delivery who also understood farming communities, having been from one, and understanding what would/wouldn’t resonate. The pragmatism of ‘We just have to get in there and do it’ and understanding the service delivery aspect rather than coming from a purely theoretical or policy basis also helped.

Standing the test of time…

The current mobile service centres play a really important role in emergency response when cyclones, fires, floods and droughts occur, as well as for every day delivery of government services. One of the lessons is that if we had more time we wouldn’t have gotten an outcome that was any better. In two weeks, we created something that really has only been slightly iterated as new technologies have been rolled out. So having less time really sharpened our minds! We focused on what were the absolutely critical elements and getting the right people involved who could deliver. This project absolutely sharpened everyone’s mind which made it all achievable.

And, the outcomes…

We ended up winning the 2007 Institute of Public Administration Australia Prime Ministers Award for Excellence for implementing the first mobile service centre! It was just one example through my long career of working with the community to do something that directly impacted the lives of those who needed help.  In fact for the first 12 months, around 75% to 80% of people who were accessing the service had never had anything to do with Centrelink or Government in that way, and many of them would have been entitled to payments well before that. So if not for us going out there, they would not have been getting financial assistance that they were entitled to as well as the opportunity to connect with social workers from an individual and community mental health perspective.

This story highlights how positive impact and change can occur quickly! Next time you are faced with delivering a new program, consider how quickly you can make it happen.  Think about working to a shorter than usual time frame.  You may be surprised by what you can achieve for clients and communities, without compromise.

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