Aged Care Royal Commission poses interesting challenges for sector

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By Managing Director Becher Townshend

“Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself” – Lanny Davis

With the announcement by the Federal Government of a Royal Commission into the aged care sector, those providers in the top 100 have had their work cut out for them over the Christmas break. 

That is because the Royal Commission has written to them with a ‘request for information’ which must be provided by the end of January. 

While this request is voluntary, those in the sector would be well advised to fully cooperate.  

In Tasmania, only a handful of providers are in the top 100 list, so there will be only one or two who will be required to pass on information. 

However, this request should be taken as a clear sign to other providers not in the top 100 that the Commission will be leaving no stone unturned in its investigation of the sector and now is the time to start investigating within your organisation to ensure you understand what has occurred in the past. 

The request covers any matters whereby the provider may have breached its duty of care or had a complaint raised against them.  

While the request for information does not specify issues of governance of the organisation, providers would be well advised to examine this aspect as well. 

Some in the sector have been asking how far they should go in providing this information and from a communications perspective, I would recommend using it as an opportunity to be as open and transparent as possible. 

It should be remembered that the powers of a Royal Commission are incredibly strong: there isn’t a document inside your organisation they can’t access, or a past employee they can’t interview. 

The other advantage to preparing this information is it allows the provider to fully understand what issues the organisation may have faced in the past and to be able to ensure they have appropriate responses to questions when they are inevitably raised by the Commission. 

It is likely that at times the organisation’s response to past issues will have been lacking and in these cases the organisation must take steps to ensure there are now policies and processes in place that directly address the issue where standards have been poor, regardless of how long ago they occurred. 

In other words, don’t wait to be told what to do by a Royal Commission, act now to ensure that if a matter is raised, you can at least demonstrate that you have taken proactive steps to address the situation once you became aware. 

This is not just common sense, it is also demonstrating the organisation is willing to learn from its mistakes by firstly fronting up to the failure, then conceding an action needs to be taken to ensure it does not occur again. 

In communications speak, the golden rule is, if you foul up, fess up and fix it. 

Or, as the former White House Press Secretary Lanny Davis famously said: “tell it early, tell it all, and tell it yourself.” 

The Royal Commission should not be the exception to this rule and if experience with the investigations into child sex abuse and the banking sectors is anything to go by, if you think you can get away with it, you are fooling yourself. 

While proactively identifying issues requires careful communications and media management, if done properly it is much better than the alternative, which could be having the information painfully extracted by Counsel Assisting in the full glare of watching media. 

The aim of any Royal Commission is to investigate practices and attempt to identify where wrong doing has occurred. 

While this is a painful process for those concerned, it does lead to better outcomes in the longer term, by exposing poor practice and then hopefully coming up with some remedies to ensure these activities do not occur again. 

Many in the aged sector will argue that the issue of funding lies at the heart of its challenges, but this should not be used as an excuse for poor practices.  

The Royal Commission will also allow providers to articulate their side of the story and talk openly about the difficulties and tensions of providing care, answering the question of fulfilling duty of care whilst also allowing older people to live full lives as independently as possible. 

Further, the terms of reference also ask what the Australian Government, aged care industry, Australian families and wider community can do to strengthen the system of care, highlighting caring for the elderly and frail as something the whole community has responsibility for.  

With opportunities such as these to have a broader debate about aged care, hopefully at the end of the Commission, while there will be some consequences, it will help to make the aged care sector a better thing. 

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