The CCS Chronicles: a manager’s perspective
As the central point between so many of the key stakeholders impacted by the new Child Care Subsidy package, the centre manager was the pivotal player in this complex process and without doubt the unsung hero of the transition.
The first time Joanne Tutt can recall hearing about the new Child Care Subsidy (CCS) was in July 2017 when her employer at the time, Goodstart Early Learning, circulated an email with an outline of the new package and a set of early implementation instructions.
“I remember feeling quite apprehensive about it” she notes. “It was obviously going to be a big change but we didn’t have a lot of details to share with our team or families.”
Samantha Boss, who was a centre manager with Sesame Lane in Queensland, felt the same commenting “I certainly had mixed emotions about it. The fear of the unknown mostly.”
This general sense of foreboding was not uncommon in the early periods of the CCS with almost all information coming in email form form either the Department of Education and Training or third party software providers.
The lack of any real detail meant conversations with enquiring families who had picked up snippets from the media were always a bit uncomfortable. The reality was that families would ask about it but nobody was really able to help because they knew nothing either.
It was not until December 2017, at their centre manager meeting, that Ms Boss’ employer raised the topic and began to fill in some of the gaps around her knowledge base.
A new year, a new challenge
It seems that the period just before and just after the New Year was the point in time when the CCS transition really became a reality for centre managers.
More information was starting to flow from their support office teams, their software providers, and the Department of Education and Training: communication plans, process checklists, training calendars, transition timetables, engagement guides, marketing materials, webinars, information sessions, and estimators came flowing their way.
To some this flow was welcome, to others it was overwhelming.
Nathan Brown, a centre manager at Goodstart Early Learning comments, “We were very well supported. Goodstart’s information was really up-to-date. The company was proactive with a real focus on planning. That helped us a lot.”
Jodi Panozzo, currently a centre manager at G8 Education, agreed noting, “We were given a lot of training so on a centre manager level I feel that I was reasonably well-equipped with the right knowledge to support our families through the transition.”
For Ms Tutt, who is now the manager at Appleberries Early Education Service Beenleigh – part of Childcare Holdings Pty Ltd, 2018 was really about gathering as much information from as many sources as possible to be able to provide real support for her families.
She says that as the year progressed “parents were becoming increasingly inquisitive about the transition and had more and more questions. It was important for me to be able to answer what i could in a calm and positive manner. I realised that parents were relying on me and I felt a sense of responsibility”.
Ms Tutt combined information from a range of formal and informal sources. She also went a step further by approaching some of her team who had children in care and worked through their registration process with them.
“Practicing with the team was so useful for me. At least I had a good understanding of what actually needed to be done because I had been through it several times with some of the mums on my team and I could then share that practical experience with our families” she says.
The race is on
The last few weeks ahead of the transition saw a big pick up in the intensity of preparations as everybody scrambled to have as many parents as possible properly registered.
Michelle Scott, formally with G8 Education and now a manager at Coombs Early Learning, says “In the weeks before 2 July, there was a lot of work with emails and families. Weekly communications were going out to mums and dads who needed support and [there was] a lot of hand-holding particularly around the area of enrolment.”
Mr Brown was very busy in that period also.
“Each family had a 15 minute face-to-face meeting with the centre manager and assistant centre manager to talk through the change. In particular, we would ensure that families had completed their registration tasks correctly and then try and work out how we could use our Goodstart packages to manage their CCS allocations to release as much saving as possible. Having an estimator was really useful to do this.”
Mr Brown goes on to note “That effective pre-planning helped us increase our occupancy by 7 per cent over the transition.”
“That effective pre-planning helped us increase our occupancy by 7 per cent over the transition.”
But unfortunately not everybody was so lucky.
Those managers that worked for the larger organisations felt much better prepared than those that were managers for smaller providers, in particular those with one or two centres and those managers in higher and mid socio economic areas generally speaking felt more comfortable that their planning agendas were being actioned and that families were responding to their and the governments communications.
Ms Boss recalls “Those last few weeks were really hard for us because I kept getting questions from families about what their new gap payments would be, and to be honest I had no way of telling them”.
Ms de Silva has been involved in the early education and care sector for 18 years but felt quite shattered by the entire experience. With families not engaging and their key software provider down in the week before transition that last stretch was incredibly challenging.
But unfortunately for Ms de Silva, and many like her across the country, things were going to get even harder into July.
Who are you with?
The key challenges that were experienced in the first week can be categorised as two main types:
- Firstly, challenges around getting families that had not registered or hadn’t registered properly to register.
- Secondly, challenges around ensuring that information in third-party software provider systems was accurate, in terms of basic details mapped from the old system; new details drawn from Centrelink; and, CCS calculations.
For some, this combination proved particularly challenging as they were either unfamiliar with their third-party software system at a time when they really needed to be, or their third-party software provider was not as ready as they should have been.
It was no surprise then that the Australian Childcare Alliance’s (ACA’s) post-CCS implementation member questionnaire highlighted the number one challenges above all others were issues around third-party software providers.
That being said it’s important to be balanced in assessing their performance.
The CCS transition from a systems perspective was huge. Nobody really knew how the systems were going to respond in that first week. Nobody really knew just how many support staff would be needed, and nobody really knew how many glitches would be identified and require fixing.
As Ms Panozzo quite rightly pointed out “teething problems had to be expected as we moved into the first week of July.”
But what about the second?
The perfect storm
For many, the second week was particularly challenging largely because, having talked about the financial side of the subsidy for weeks before transition, this was the week when the actual numbers started to hit.
The first CCS payment cycle took place over the weekend of the 7 and 8 July 2018.
By Friday managers were expected to have uploaded their families sessions to the government systems who would then calculate the subsidies to be paid and then transmit the payments back down to the operators’ bank accounts.
At the same time the CCS fee statements were being sent out by the centre’s billing systems to parents detailing their total subsidy and their corresponding gaps for the first time.
The problem was that not all CCS payments were received and not all families agreed with their statements.
That combination was particularly difficult to digest because on one hand, if there was no CCS received difficult decisions about payment of fees would need to be made and on the other if a family wanted to query their statement they would have to do so face-to-face which, if the family were unhappy, raised the possibility of a difficult conversation right at the time when difficult conversations just weren’t needed.
The devil was in the detail
Faced with the twin challenges of in some cases, CCS not appearing and families being unsettled, managers in many cases were left with no choice but to take matters into their own hands and resolve the issues themselves.
As Melissa Falero, a manager of a 49 place centre in New South Wales, noted “For any family that hadn’t received their CCS, and we had a lot, we had to address each one on a case-by-case basis until their issue was resolved.”
So what did that look like? Well in reality is was asking question after question after question…
“Is it a registration issue? Have they registered properly? Is it a billing issue? Have their details correctly mapped over from the old childcare management system (CCMS) system to the new? Is their child in preschool? Does the exemption apply? What does their MyGov account say? Have they been to Centrelink? What did Centrelink say? Might it have something to do with withholding tax change? Why has their percentage changed? Is this statement accurate? It looks like their Customer Reference Number (CRN) is wrong? What happens there? Why did Centrelink say that it’s wrong? This is connected to inclusion funding but i am not sure what do i do? What’s the Inclusion Development Fund Manager? Is Additional Child Care Subsidy (ACCS) transition to work like the old Jobs Education and Training JEt) funding? Why is this payment taking so long to be approved? What documentation do I need to do for the ACCS child wellbeing? Do I really have to form an opinion on whether the child is eligible? This looks like an ACCS temporary financial hardship issue, has the family gone to Centrelink to apply? We bought this centre in June, is that why we received nothing? Mum isn’t working, will she be prepared to volunteer? What happens if my ACCS is family uses more than 100 hours?”
…and so on and so on and so on until the answer was found.
For Ms Falero her challenges were exacerbated by a portion of her families not speaking a word of English and the later transition overall of her centre due to a change in ownership in April.
“This aspect of the transition was very challenging for me. I spent three days back-to-back on the telephone. A lot of talking about money. And very little of talking about quality.”
For Tamika Hicks, owner of Cardinia Lakes Early Learning Centre, financial realities contributed to drive her forward noting that “we could see this big cauldron of trouble with payment” because the financial burden of non payment was being carried by the centre over the period directly following the implementation of the CCS.
To gap or not to gap?
And that was a really significant tension in that period.
On one hand, each centre’s obligation as carers of children made it very difficult to implement a decision that could ultimately put a family under enough financial stress that they feel there is no choice but to remove their children from care. And on the other, each centre manager also has an obligation to ensure that the centre that they are responsible for is on a sound footing financially and sustainable going forward.
Managers basically had to make an assessment on the spot as to what was the right action.
Those operating in affluent areas were more likely to take a clear position on full fees versus gap being dependent on the hours allocated.
Ms Scott’s centre in the ACT took this approach. She notes her policy was “to charge full fee when hours were not visible and gap only when hours were visible.”
But for centres in lower socio-economic suburbs or regional locations that decision was much more difficult.
With regards to her treatment of families that did not see their CCS flow, Ms Panozzo says she “tried to do what I could to support families with no CCS flowing financially and wait until everything gets sorted out…that meant we accrued debt but we had to, its either you charge these families full fees or you lose them.”
The debtors trap
But unbeknownst to many managers, the consequences of this decision to extend support to the families most in need only became apparent much later when it became clear that the balances owed were – to many’s surprise – paid back to the family and not the centre.
“I wasn’t aware that I was going to have to try and chase families to get the money back. Its tax time as well in July so families are getting reconciliations back from their Child Care Rebate (CCR) and they get confused and think the CCS is actually theirs to spend. So I have had some difficult conversations and set up some payment plans. On the whole my parents are good but I am not sure what it would be like in the city,” says Ms Panozzo.
Other managers have found this part of the process very challenging in particular the need to keep on top of the communication around repayment debt with more transient or vulnerable families.
The Centrelink connection
And then there was Centrelink.
Of all of the stakeholders involved in this transition, Centrelink came up again and again as the one that created the most frustration.
As Ms de Silva’s noted, “My daughter who is acting manager at our sister centre spent huge amounts of time on the phone to Centrelink. Her job was meant to be manager but 100 per cent of her efforts went on fixing Centrelink-related problems.”
Whether it be the hours spent on the Centrelink helpline or the hours queuing for an attendant in a Centrelink service – the time committed to Centrelink was very large.
And to make matters even more challenging, once contact was eventually made, quite often the advice received was often wrong.
The general sentiment towards Centrelink and their part to play in the transition was captured quite succinctly by Paul Mondo of the Australian Childcare Alliance when he noted “at the Centerlink call staff level there has been a failure for them to understand the nuances of the legislation to support families sufficiently.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
Despite the highs and lows of the post-transition period, by the time September had arrived the vast majority of outstanding issues had been resolved and the challenges that had been experienced were receding into the past:
Ms Hicks had 28 families with Centrelink-related problems in July and that was down to six by August.
Mr Brown had three families out of 200 that were awaiting assessment.
Ms Scott had all of her families now fully registered and receiving the correct subsidy.
Ms de Silva had a few outstanding CCS matters at her centre but they were getting there.
Both Ms Tutt and Ms Boss have all families registered and three waiting for additional hours approval.
These results did not happen by themselves. They happened as a result of hard work, relentless commitment and a passion to support their families in every way possible.
The CCS transition will have undoubtedly been one of the most challenging professional experiences of current centre managers’ careers.
Many had to dig deeper and for longer than they ever had to before. Many had to go above and beyond again and again. But all without exception are relieved that it’s behind them and that they can return to what they love doing most – supporting their teams and their families in every way they possibly can.