Navigating the Future of Community Services in Australia

01 May 2023

Australia’s community sector has been witnessing a steady rise in demand for their services and this trend is expected to continue, particularly as communities become increasingly discerning about where and how they want to receive and experience services.

This month we had the privilege of interviewing Paul Ostrowski, Chief Executive Officer at Care Connect Group, one of Australia’s largest independent homecare providers. With over 20 years of international experience in private health and homecare, Paul is a well known leader in the sector.

We asked him five questions about the sector’s challenges, opportunities and his vision for the industry’s future. Here is what he shared with us:

You’ve worked in community services and in-home care for over 20 years. What keeps you so engaged in the sector?

In many ways, community services are the unsung heroes of society. From community health, to aged and disability services, mental health supports, homelessness or crisis supports; they contribute so much, often under the radar. I’ve spent most of my time in aged and disability supports, although I came from multinational commercial services. Coming to the community sector, I was struck by the strength and commitment of the people. Because organisations are often small and the sector appears fragmented, we consistently underestimate them.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing community services in Australia today, and how are you and your organization working to address these challenges?

Like so many areas workforce is our number one challenge, magnified by COVID in two ways: Firstly, fear of COVID and the necessary vaccine mandates reduced available workforce. Secondly, boarder closures removed one of the greatest contributors to community services: immigration.

Our second biggest challenge came from well-intended policy change. Since the Productivity Commission enquiries 10 years ago, disability and aged care services have rightly moved to empower consumers, rather than service providers. The main way this was done was by allocating personal budgets and trying to force “market efficient” prices. The unintended consequence was that community care has become increasingly transactional. Meaningful discussion on how to achieve the best outcomes has been replaced by debates on whether $60 or $62/hour is better value for an hour of supports. We need to find our way back to talking about “what combination of supports will enable the best outcome for you?”

At Care Connect we’re very vocal in support of policy focused on outcomes rather than care activities or unit prices. Afterall, it doesn’t matter if you save $2/hour if you don’t achieve the independence outcome.

Care Connect has been serving Australians for over 25 years. How has the organization’s approach to community service evolved during this time?

Actually, we’ve been remarkably consistent in the principles of our approach. We were one of the first Linkages organisations in Victoria and have grown to support 3 states and 14,000 people a year. We take a care-partnering approach, supporting people to navigate the system, understand their needs and goals, plan their future and connect with the resources to build their independence.

Nationally, most of the Linkages capability was disassembled when the NDIS and Consumer Directed Care was built. What we’ve found though is that, in losing that community services fabric, thousands are now falling back on primary or acute care for what are often social challenges. Interestingly, we’re now seeing renewed interest in “Community Linking” and service navigation through initiatives like Social Prescribing or Care Finding to help unburden primary care. I’m intensely proud that Care Connect has always championed similar approaches.

How would you describe the essential qualities needed for effective leadership in the home care industry, and how do you apply those qualities in your role as the CEO of Care Connect?

The key to community services is remembering that “it’s all about people”: those you support and enable, and the amazing workforce that makes it possible. Therefore, leadership has to:

  1. Listen: It’s so easy to get caught up either in the vision, or the challenges of a business. When something goes wrong though, it’s easy to trace it back to not having listened enough or read a signal.
  2. Share/communicate: For people to bring their best, they need to understand the context. At Care Connect we’re extremely transparent. Every 4 months we run staff town halls where we discuss each service program, our challenges and successes and our detailed financials and progress against goals. Sometimes we’ve had to take difficult decisions, but it’s amazing how people will even align behind these if they understand the context.
  3. Have clarity of purpose and authenticity: People align with, and enable, something they believe in. As leader, you need to truly believe the organisation’s Purpose. People feel your passion or sense a “front”. If you’re authentic, your team are so much more likely to lean in.
  4. Have an enablement approach: I trained as an engineer and love solving problems. Early in my career I believed I needed to solve as many of the organisation’s challenges as I could myself. Time has taught me better. As leaders, our best work is when we build and enable great teams. They’ll always be far better at solving problems than any individual.

How do you stay up-to-date with the latest trends and developments in the home care industry, and what steps do you take to ensure that Care Connect remains at the forefront of innovation in the field?

I certainly stay connected with peers in the sector and attend and speak at conferences. Nothing forces you to stay contemporary in your thinking quite like the pressure of 3 or 4 major conference presentations a year.

I also read a lot outside our sector and listen to others. I love podcasts to make use of otherwise low-value time, such as when exercising. I love following global trends and ideas and am always asking how they could influence our sector. Like so many at the moment, I’m fascinated with the rise of Generative AI and ask, “how could this help our teams better support our clients?”