NSW’s Department of Families and Community Services (FACS) has blamed dodgy data for public confusion over its caseworker numbers.
The NSW Parliament’s upper house is currently investigating claims FACS minister Pru Goward intentionally mislead parliament by claiming that the number of social welfare caseworkers the department employed remained steady, when an independent report showed that in fact about 300 of these positions remained unfilled.
FACS Director-General and former NSW Government CIO, Michael Coutts-Trotter, yesterday laid some of the blame on IT systems which he said are “in fairly significant need of upgrade and repair” as well as poor information management practices.
“My assessment of why it is that the vacancy rate started to get away from us was that we did not have the clear information systems and management focus necessary to prevent that happening,” he told the committee.
“My observation would be that the systems inside this department are imperfect at best.
“What that means is that in trying to bring all this data together there is an awful lot of manual handling between databases. It is a complex and difficult environment, made more difficult by the fact there were so many measures,” he said.
He said the “the number one reason” the number of vacancies was allowed to get out of hand earlier this year was the absence of an effective way for HR staff to track staff movements and predict when shortages might occur.
The mismatch between "inflow and outflow" had not been presented in a way that enabled managers to make good decisions, he said.
“They have not known the appropriate point to trigger a recruitment drive and as a result we have had an increase in the vacancy rate.”
Many and varied standards for reporting on staff levels, including headcounts and a range of full-time-equivalent calculations, have also been used to explain the disconnect between the numbers given by the minister and the reality on the ground.
As a direct response to the saga, FACS and Ernst & Young have put in place an online caseworker dashboard to provide ongoing visibility caseworker numbers, funding, vacancies and the percentage of risk of significant harm reports that receive a face-to-face caseworker visit.
“The work that Ernst & Young did at the department's request was to identify the best way to measure funding and front-line capability and to assure the department that we can consistently and predictably produce that information for managers and the community over time," Coutts-Trotter said.