The commencement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) from 2016 led to the NSW Department Family and Community Services (FACS) losing most of its staff who worked in disability related roles. This, in turn, led to a collapse in the membership of the Disability Employee Network (DEN). When I become DEN Chair in November 2016 membership numbers were at a new low. Things had to change.
I launched a membership drive in early 2017. By September 2018, membership numbers had recovered to a sufficient degree, and it was time to start tapping into the passion that was evident. I sent out an email seeking volunteers who could contribute some time to help things along. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew I needed more people involved if we were going to make things happen.
The Need for Something Different
Up to that point I had running things mostly by myself. My focus had been on growing membership numbers. I had inherited a structure and a culture in which the DEN Chair was the focal point. Even in my time as Deputy Chair, I had little involvement – how little I was to quickly discover. Now it was time to change.
The DEN met formally every 3 months. That was a big commitment for the agency because representatives from around the state flew or drove to Sydney and were accommodated overnight, for some that was 2 nights. In between the formal meetings the agency dealt with the Chair only. That was understandable. It was a conventional approach, and it worked conventionally.
The Chair was on several committees as a DEN representative. I was to discover that fact when I became the new member as the new DEN Chair. I had been unaware of the committees. Nothing was said about them at meetings and no reports were made to members. In fact, outside the standard agenda and minutes emails, members got only the odd request to participate in a consultation process.
All this was perfectly normal. The DEN was supported by a genuinely dedicated secretariat in HR. There was no shortage of goodwill or good intent. The problem was that the DEN was a manifestation of the agency’s desire to support staff with disability. It was providing this support very agreeably – on its terms and in its time. That’s how things were done.
There was, however, a huge mismatch between the agency’s pace of change, and the membership’s desire for change. Aside from the loss of members through restructuring, participation in meetings had declined. Sometimes HR representatives outnumbered members. There was discontent and disappointment in the ranks.
Now new members were bringing new emotions – anticipation and impatience. Squandering that energy after working so hard to recover membership numbers would be an act negligent folly. I needed to do something different.
On an inspiration, the email I sent out invited participation in what I called the Guidance and Action Team (the GAT). I don’t like the word ‘committee’. It has a soporific tone to it. The GAT had an energetic tone.
I had 15 responses. It was a mixed group. There were staff with sensory disabilities, mobility disabilities, degenerative diseases that conferred an array of disabilities, formally diagnosed psychological disabilities, and one person with autism. There were several with no disability who had joined the DEN as allies.
I suddenly had 15 energised individuals, some of whom had been through some shocking experiences as staff with disability. Some were angry (for good reason). All were passionate and impatient for change. Most were hurting in some way because of what they had been through. Turning this passionate mob into a focussed, disciplined, and professional group of change agents was not going to be easy.
Formation and Transformation
It took 12 rocky months. I chose a light touch. I did not want the GAT to be dependent on me. It had to find its own sustainable character. I did, however, set some non-negotiable rules – we were relentlessly civil and positive. We did not complain – but we were frank about the issues. We identified challenges and offered solutions. We were professional in everything we did.
Over that time, I had to apologise twice for the GAT’s conduct. This was early on when passions were still raw, and the good habits hadn’t settled. It wasn’t the whole crew. The majority were well disciplined and always civil. But it was a team, not an assemblage of individuals.
I also worked hard to ensure that who and what the GAT was was understood by the agency. I needed tolerance, and appreciation that these people had been through some bad times. Authenticity does not come free, and neither does it come perfectly formed. It had to evolve – and it had to have the freedom to make mistakes; and own its imperfections.
In mid 2019 I was able to secure funding for a 2 day professionally facilitated planning session. This was a crystalizing experience. By the first anniversary of the GAT’s formation, we had a formidable crew assembled.
The GAT’s membership was split 50:50 between Sydney metro and regional NSW representation. The DEN met formally quarterly, and I arranged for the GAT to meet the day before. Those meetings were between 6 and 7 hours. This meant ensuring that all GAT members who had to travel were able to do so. With the assistance of our Executive DEN Champion, I was able to secure assurance that their regions would support their attendance.
Those all-day meetings included presentations by internal and external speakers – information gathering and consultation. The GAT was becoming acknowledged as a credible impetus for change.
A key event in the evolution of the GAT was a presentation by 6 members to the FACS Board in February 2019. This was the first time that the DEN had been before the Board since its establishment in July 2010. The second presentation was in November the same year. These presentations cemented in the Board’s awareness the presence of a strong team working to drive inclusion. It also helped the GAT believe that the Board was genuine in its support for the DEN. You just don’t get to present to the Board twice in a year unless that is true.
The GAT’s formative stages developed a powerful bond among its members that remains to this day.
What is a GAT?
Probably the best way to describe the GAT is that it is a consultation and advisory group whose members are committed to ongoing engagement with DEN related matters.
This engagement is formal and informal. There are regular email conversations between individual members as well as the whole group. It seemed to me that there was always at least one group conversation going on.
In this sense it is a resource the Chair can use as a pool of different perspectives and support to stay on message.
The GAT keeps the Chair honest. Previously only the Chair interacted with the agency-provided secretariat. This created a small ‘executive bubble’. The GAT creates a bigger bubble and blurs the line between executive and representative functions.
There was no need to wait until the quarterly meetings to generate conversation between diverse staff members with disability. This was now daily, and it could be instantly generated. The GAT had become a dynamic feedback loop.
How Big Should a GAT be?
It really depends on how a GAT is managed by the Chair and how the members have come together and formed as a group. These two factors will determine the size. A cohesive group can handle being 15 strong – or larger. It can still have a diversity of views without fragmenting and losing cohesion. The cohesion must be preserved – and that can be a tricky thing to manage.
Because a GAT isn’t a management committee in the conventional sense, it grows by consensus. In that sense any DEN member who has a passion to be engaged could ask to join the GAT on the strength of their interest.
The GAT as a Source of Leadership
A prime advantage of the GAT is that it provides to a pool of people an opportunity to explore their potential as a future leader. The past practice of a small executive bubble virtually quarantined leadership functions from membership. This meant that new Chairs had little to no prior experience of leadership issues.
In my view a DEN Chair must have management/leadership experience and be sufficiently senior to have some credibility within the agency. In the NSW public service that means grade 9/10 at least.
A GAT has the capacity to identify and attract potential leaders; and engage them in more complex DEN matters as soon as they indicate an interest. Effective leadership is critical for a DEN’s success and succession planning is critical. As a DEN becomes more effective it will attract staff with management and leadership experience and skills.
The current DCJ DEN has 3 Deputy Chairs filling specialist roles. The GAT creates a talent pool for these roles as well as being a resource if a new specialist role is created.
The Relationship Between the GAT and DEN Membership
When the DEN was formed in mid 2010, most members attended the formal quarterly meetings. Meeting attendance dropped or rose as an indicator of the DEN’s perceived value. As I expanded membership, opportunities to attend meetings via videoconferencing were increasing, and while participation in meetings increased markedly, the majority of members did not attend. Membership signalled an affiliation with a cause, rather than a sign of commitment to engagement.
The GAT was formed through a call for volunteers from the DEN’s membership. Every member who asked to join the GAT was invited to do so. This created a core of engaged members that had no artificial boundaries to exclude members from participating if they wanted to. In this way the GAT tapped into members who wanted to engage.
I had expanded the DEN membership to include Allies. GAT membership was open to Allies as well. Allies, as a membership class, were important because it provided cover for staff who did not feel safe about ‘disclosing’ their disability. Aside from that, Allies may be relatives of, or carers for, a person with disability. They had insights and experiences of value. They were just as passionate about driving positive change.
The GAT became a way staff with disability and Allies could come together as an activist community.
The GAT opened up untapped potential and maintained an energy level missing in a conventional structure. It gave opportunity for ongoing engagement for everyone who wanted to be involved – and created a community to share ideas and experiences as a regular thing.
I describe the GAT as the energetic tip of an iceberg. It’s the visible representation of the universal desire for positive change. It’s always on because the desire for change is constant.
The GAT changed how the DEN worked. In fact, it made it work properly.
Today I got an email newsletter from the DCJ DEN. The GAT has expanded to 28 members, including 2 Executive Directors (one of whom is the Executive DEN Champion). This is exciting. It means that the GAT continues to evolve and reinvent itself. I will catch up with the crew and come back with a report on current thinking.