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Rural Communities -Getting on with the Job

Brenda-Anne Norman

Executive Officer Burdekin Community Association Inc.
PO Box 815 AYR 4807

For over 20 years the Burdekin Community Association has played a role in providing assistance to smaller organisations and communities. I am delighted to be asked to speak today, as the subject to hand is one on which I am quite passionate. I will give you a brief background and history of who we are and what our world was like. Then, I thought you might be interested to hear practical examples of how we have gone about creating a dynamic and innovative environment to live and work. We have been able in many ways, to unshackle ourselves from restrictions and silly rules, and develop outstanding projects designed by people who know and love their community and want to do something tangible to make a difference.

Our story is about accepting the language of change -but being determined to retain our own meanings. We happily 'market' (network, collaborate and promote) our services, we are aware of the 'competition' (other services and options to which we willingly refer), we develop various 'products' (services) for clients, and we work hard at our ' client relations, (client satisfaction surveys, exit statements and grievance procedures). We have a 'client base' (target groups) and we compete to find 'niche markets' (special target groups).

We do not, nor will we ever, have customers or consumers -customers buy things, we have clients who buy services, just like hairdressers, gardeners and information consultants. We are responsive to the needs of our clients and we research and analyse agency data to ensure we retain service quality. We do all this within a framework that says: We care.


With a population of only 18,000 or so, and target area of approximately 4,500 square kilometres, the Burdekin is rightly considered a small rural community spread over a large tract of land. Just like your own communities, we have experienced the contraction on police numbers, courthouses, banks and other services. We have intimate experience of the decision making processes of government departments: the 'Now-you-see-it and-Now-you-don't' kind of services -usually termed Outreach Services -we have to reach out and drag them kicking and screaming into our towns! And we have suffered the ramifications of global market fluctuations.

Rumblings of Change

For those of you who have been around for a while, you will remember the first rumblings of change in the early nineties, when there was some tinkering with the TAFE and Skillshare agencies. In the early 1990's DFYCC held a conference for FISP funded agencies, where I heard for the first time a public servant say, in public where they could be quoted, that the human services sector was going to have to move towards competitive tendering for funding. Not one person spoke up after her extraordinary speech...we didn't understand what the heck the phrase meant!

I have just come back from a month in the United States, where I saw at first hand the application of competition policy. In one school district in Colorado Springs, the schools council recently agreed to allow the Coke company sole supplier rights in return for a staggering amount of money, something like M1.7 over five years !!

Then we saw the language slowly change. We heard new words and jargon phrases more and ~, more frequently. Words like competitive tendering, economic rationalist, Industries Commission Enquiry, Competition. We started hearing less and less about community self- direction, principles of social justice, collaboration and cooperation. And we felt overwhelmed at the horror that we could not recognise, that had no name, that had the potential to destroy, disrupt and dismember the fragile nature of what we had spent much of our lives creating.

Developing a new Paradigm

For some years I have been active in the North Queensland Community talking about this New World in which we will be expected to deliver human and community services. A world of quality and quantity and time lines and cost efficiency and unit costings. What I want to share with you today is the knowledge that you too can regain control of who you are as communities and as organisations. Courage is a prerequisite for accomplishment; and few outstanding achievements have been by-products of fear.

I am passionate in the belief that we need to acknowledge to ourselves that we are NOT at the mercy of Government funding. That we CAN make changes within our community .We CAN develop and innovate and create without the permission or sanction of external others including government departments. As individuals and then as a communities, we MUST get to the point where we see ourselves -not as servants of an unseen master, but influential and instrumental in the delivery of quality, responsive and responsible services through dynamic processes within all aspects of our lives.

Who are we to talk?

The BCA is an empowered and vital part of the social, political and economic future of the Burdekin community: The staff are alive and vibrant and on the lookout for opportunities. We fight to be put on mailing lists -we see it as our responsibility to put ourselves in information loops. We insist on responding to a diversity of issues within the community. We use and adapt technology to our purposes and we take ideas from commercial enterprises and convert them to meet our needs. We read business and commercial magazines as well as other professional subscriptions.

Any success we have had, has been largely due to the time and effort we have put in to changing perceptions both within and outside the organisation; of what a 'caring' agency looks like, and what 'caring' staff 'do'. Not only has the culture of caring faced a challenge, but so too has the stereotype of those who are employed in the profession.

We insist that the community service sector has a reservoir of knowledge and talent that surpasses that of commercial operations: we are better with people, we service our customers better, and we are much better at follow up. We are terrific team players, we don't work in isolation to the rest of the world and we are really talented in doing something on a shoestring.

On the other hand, we recognise that as a sector, we tend not to be good at recognising these strengths in commercial terms. We don't think about how we can translate these attributes into dollars and cents. We don't use technology well, we don't look at the wide cross section of industry and commerce to pick up ideas, and we tend to be protectionist and isolated. I think that we can bridge these gaps in a moral and socially responsible way.

Making it happen -Planning for Change

The only way to change, is have the change happen from within. The BCA saw the writing on the wall and made the decision to respond in a strong and positive manner. We began the process of addressing these challenges; partly through internal organisational changes and partly by identifying what external frameworks we wanted to ensure we were always in the thick of anything that was happening. Again I stress, there is no point moaning about not knowing what is happening if you don't take responsibility for getting into every information loop you can.

Why Bother??

One thing that we often: forget is, that while we are warm and caring people working flat out to do good works in and for our communities, we are also part of the economic and social future of our communities. For every dollar we earn or funding we get to run programs; we create employment, we promote consumption of products and services. We contribute to taxes, we volunteer our time, we participate in community activities. Without your presence and input, how many jobs would disappear, would the school lose a teacher because of reduced student numbers? Would the soccer club close for lack of players and of coaches? So perhaps we should start taking ourselves a little more seriously.

Going About it: Finding Partners

It is vital to seek out and gather individuals, groups, agencies and businesses who share a common concern. Your local Shire Council is a good place to start because under the Local Government Act, all Councils have very clear obligations to nurture their community's well being. The Burdekin Shire Council has been a long-term supporter of the my Association, and traditionally supplied BCA accommodation. As our restructure began and opportunities to attract new and visiting services to the community grew, it became painfully obvious that the community lacked the appropriate premises that would attract such services. In addition, the BCA' s office spaces had become too small to accommodate their own existing services and they also presented concerns for safety, privacy and efficiency.

We approached the Shire Council with our ideas and concerns and were given a warm reception. We were delighted when the Shire Council agreed to assist in finding appropriate premises. The Shire Council is a major beneficiary of the warm relationship and close working association between ourselves, and the Burdekin community is indeed the richer.

I would suggest to you, spend time identifying prospective partners. The obvious ones are easy to identify...but it is the less obvious ones that often payoff. Try involving Police and Emergency services, Schools and Children' s organisations, services clubs and Chambers of Commerce for joint promotions. Partnerships often evolve, so be prepared to take your time, and finalising what kind of partnership you want may work on. The watchword is: Be Flexible. If you think hard enough and creatively enough, you will soon have ideas bouncing off ideas...and you will be off on your way to revitalising your community.

Getting the Structure Right: Creating a Team

I want to give you some idea of the practical things we did to get ourselves out of the mind set of being helpless pawns, in a world where no-one really understands the needs of those who live in rural communities. We began to turn these negatives into positives, first inside the agency and then in way the world perceived us.

We used a number of strategies to achieve a sense of common purpose within the staff. We: standardised all the letterheads and other correspondence. We began regular staff meetings with compulsory attendance and quarterly 2 hour staff lunches with no shoptalk allowed! Staff take part in presenting some of our in-service training at staff meetings, presenting topics where they have recently received training, or perhaps something from their own area of expertise. We share a newspaper column that had previously been written by one of the staff members.

We use the same header, but staff members write the column with their own by-line and photo attached. We now have developed our own agency T -Shirts that are worn on Fridays, and we enter an agency float in local street parades.

Once the internal structures were in place it naturally flowed that we should work to improve the profile of the organisation and begin removing the dependence on the individual coordinators to provide 'product identification'. This move also created a sense in everyone that the organisation was on the move.

The development of our own Policies, Principles and Procedures manual also gave the committee members a framework and a process to debate issues that needed their immediate and regular input, as well as a means to achieve meaningful goals. It did remove some of the more interesting, and time wasting chores, like working out if a service was going to do this or that, but in terms of focus of energy, it has been crucial to the scope and time frame within which decisions are made.

In keeping with our determination to have internal structures that take the best from the corporate world, we took on the task of Writing a full risk management policy which r articulates with workplace health and safety legislation. It was a nightmare. It has proved, however, invaluable in reducing the risk carried by the organisation across all our areas of operation as well as ensuring that all activities are carried out with an emphasis on caring for our clients and our 62 or so workers in ten different programs.

We have also developed an Environmental Policy to ensure that our practices and our purchases remain firmly environmentally responsible.

Industrial Issues

The next challenge was to develop employment contracts, especially in a climate where industrial legislation was fluctuating daily. We stayed true to our core values and wrote employment contracts that combine award provisions, responsible work practices and excellent working conditions determined individually by each member of staff.

It is extremely difficult to attract staff to rural communities, so we use salary packaging and flexible working hours to assist those employees with young families. Employment is subject to a confidentiality clause prohibiting the distribution or use of internal or commercial information.

Developing Commercial Sense

Developing a sense of commercial opportunism was vital. Up to this point while we had come a long way in changing the structures and indeed the culture, the idea that people could be asked to pay for 'welfare services' was simply appalling to many.

It all started with the photocopier breaking down. We wanted to purchase another photocopier that would do what we needed. Buying only what you can afford, even though you know it can't do the job is just stupid. We went out and priced what we wanted. Then we went around town and found out who was doing photocopying, how much they charged and where they were located. We worked out what our volume had to be to achieve a profit sufficient to buy the photocopier we wanted, and then we set out to sell a photocopy service to the community.

We now have a great photocopier funded through regular for-profit contracts for photocopying, and (for a price) we are happy to act as agents for other small businesses providing services such as colour copying, laminating etc. We prepare flyers, advertising hand bills and assorted other material for local businesses -for a price!

We bought a large glass front commercial fridge, filled it with specials from the supermarket and we sell the contents at a profit. That brings us in enough to cover the costs for a parenting group, or resource books and the like. The idea of making a profit all started to make sense.

We decided to discuss the issue of staff phone calls at a staff meeting. It was decided that staff would be allowed to make personal calls from work and pay (on the honour system) for their STD calls. Likewise, staff pay for their own personal photocopying (we give them a good rate) and they pay for personal use of the Internet. Money from the latter actually pays for the entire cost of the organisation having the facility.

Operating with Commercial Realities

The next, and bigger, challenge was to meet a big need for a generalist counsellor. It was clear we'd never get the funding from any government source, so we decided to operate on a fee-for-service basis. We found a qualified person who agreed to try this mad idea, and she went to work marketing 'her' service. And it worked! Only then did we receive a seeding grant that helped get the resources and pay for the letter drops, leaflets and other advertising materials. We now employ a psychologist and we also compete competitively for tenders in this area.

There was some dyspepsia among some staff members who felt that they just couldn't talk about money to prospective clients, but there have been no difficulties with clients themselves. We have structured the service deliberately to ensure there will be one free hour of counselling to every four paying clients, but so far we haven't needed to use it.

Developing the Culture

As our internal structures became more manageable, and our processes smoother, we were able to redefine our interactions with clients. We had to this point kept only the bare minimum of data, usually because we needed it for a funded service's quarterly return. We operate many unfunded services and none of that work was being documented. So we set about developing a set of policies and data collection mechanisms that clients could control. We are now driven by a clear imperative. Interactions with our clients are client centred; client controlled; client directed; and the focus of interaction is on developing a plan which reaches a smooth and appropriate conclusion.

Clients have responded well to the fee-for-service concept -even where the fee is negotiated down to a few dollars or even a 'lay-by' system. The response has been "If you pay for something you appreciate it." "Paying for it makes me feel like I control things," and "If you don't value the service why should I”. In saying this, we do insist that there will always be a need to ensure that some funds are put aside to assist those who simply do not have the resources to meet their immediate needs.

Retaining Our Roots

In the process of our journey, we retained our commitment to informing and assisting other rural communities. We actively link with regional networks, talk about change, disseminate information. We underwrote the first community sector conference in Queensland which concentrated on developing responses to the reform process. When asked by services in the region. to join the management committee of Queensland Council of Social. Service Inc., we committed ourselves to taking rural issues to Brisbane and acting as a conduit for information back to the region. I was recently elected as Vice President and I am keen to have contact with anyone who has issues you would like taken forward.

We accept free and fee-for-service contracts to train and support workers and assist management committees with operational and organisational issues.

What do we look like today?

We get State and Federal government subsidies to help with providing a large H.A.C.C. (Home and Community Care) program; S.A.A.P. (Supported Accommodation Assistance Program); a C.I.S.P. (Community and Individual Support Program) and a very small Community Visitors Scheme. The generosity of Burdekin people, combined with our own \ commercial services allows us to also offer a number of completely community funded services.

  • We provide the only community-funded 24-hour community-based "Crisis service" in Queensland. Available 'on call' to the Police, Ambulance and Fire Services and the State Emergency Service -Provides trained workers to assist victims in a range of situations. Staff attend and assist victims of sexual assaults and domestic violence. Staff are also available to individuals who attempt suicide or families affected by a suicide situation, Staff can attend vehicle or industrial accidents and other fatalities on request. This service has recently been evaluated by the Qld Police Service and one of the recommendations is that it be examined for adoption across other regions.
  • We sponsor two Grief and Loss support groups -a Still birth and Neo-Natal Death Support. Group, and another support group for people who have lost a loved one under other circumstances.
  • Our volunteers staff a Community Information Centre, which recently celebrated its 21st Birthday.
  • We have for the past 20 years been training volunteers for our Volunteer Home Tutors Scheme. This service operates to support children and adults, and recently we have been running special groups to train tutors working with the non-English speaking members of our community.
  • Since 1977 we have run a non-funded home care service to families and individuals who need basic home care, but who are not eligible for a H.A.C.C. service. These people might be recuperating from an illness or accident. This service is funded through community donations and provides subsidised services to those in need.
  • Our Community Visitors Scheme commenced in 1992 and has been successful in retaining long term volunteers.
  • We provide an outreach service to the community of Giro located in a remote part of our Shire. From this base we provide information and social support, transport facilities, home delivered meals and home care for clients in the Giru area.
  • We provide the funds to ensure the distribution of Emergency Relief Funding which provides payment of food, electricity and medical bills to individuals and families experiencing a crisis.
  • We also have a very active and useful Administration and Resources section, managed by a volunteer, which provides information, the loan of books, videos and resource material, and the loan/hire of office equipment and seminar rooms. This facility is popular with local teachers, clergy, students, staff, co-professionals and clients.
  • The Counselling Service provides client-based counselling and psychological services for families, couples, individuals and children with personal and relationship issues. It also provides training and educational presentations to groups in local schools and other community agencies as well as doing vocational and other psychological assessments. We have been especially successful in the development of responses to child witnesses of family violence -all without any government funding.
  • For some time now as a community the BCA has been developing a community response to suicide. We are developing a 12 year rotational school curriculum aimed directly and solely at providing our young people with a comprehensive program which starts at Grade One. Commencing with exercises in self esteem, managing anger and frustration, the program will continue into high school where we examine issues like loneliness, substance abuse, suicide, date rape and domestic violence. We believe, that with one single rotating program, fitted into the HRE (Human Relations Education) Program that is currently undertaken, we can address a range of social issues. We would do this on a graduating basis; and we believe that through this means we will have adopted the best means possible to reduce youth suicide figures, as well as the level of violence in the community.


If we have been at all successful, it is due to the outstanding quality and commitment of the individuals who make up the volunteers, staff and management committee of the BCA.

The BCA will continue being involved in supporting other organisations in the t community and we will continue to represent our community at every possible opportunity in every possible forum, just like this one. Maybe some day, someone will hear us and say:

"YES... We have some money for a pilot project!"

"No, we understand you are in a rural area and have special considerations," "Yes we can do that!" and

"How much do you need!!"

We will also continue to come to meetings like this and encourage other communities to take up the challenge, and become passionate about being self-determining.

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