Meals on Wheels drowning in red tape

Meals on Wheels from Shutterstock

The burden of government compliance poses a threat to the long-term viability of Meals on Wheels (MoW) services around the nation, Flinders University’s Professor Melanie Oppenheimer told a Canberra audience today (Friday 23 August).

Dr Oppenheimer, newly-appointed Professor of History at Flinders and a leading expert on volunteers, presented the preliminary findings of a three-year Australian Research Council-funded project – the first national research study of Australian MoWs – at the national conference of the Australian Meals on Wheels Association (AMOWA).

She said that while MoW staff and volunteers recognised the importance of the government regulations, many felt they were “drowning in red tape”.

“We thought that the project would reveal a lack of volunteers as the major problem facing MoWs. Instead, it is the impact of these regulations that is the key challenge,” Professor Oppenheimer said.

“It’s not that the regulations aren’t necessary – it’s just the sorts of things that the MoWs are now being asked to do are not jobs for volunteers,” she said.

“These are professional jobs that people are being asked to do.”

She cited the survey response of one Queensland volunteer who complained that there was “no allowance for scarce availability of persons with admin backgrounds in small towns. Volunteers [are] considered unpaid servants of government. Government attitude is ‘do the work or no funding’ so caring for our community is under duress (blackmail)”.

Volunteer committee members, in particular, are being turned off by the regulatory burden and leaving the MoWs, Professor Oppenheimer said.

“They are throwing up their hands saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s too hard.’ You can’t just impose occupational health and safety standards, for example, without the responsibility of properly funding their implementation.

“As a volunteer-based organisation, Meals on Wheels is very good value for money, it does much more than just deliver a meal, but regulatory changes must be properly funded.”

The research also suggests that MoWs are of particular importance in rural, regional and remote areas where services are limited.

However, despite an ageing population, the number of meals delivered is declining.

“This could be due to a variety of factors: people have greater choice, they may want different types of meals, their aged care packages and day care provisions diminishes the need for daily meal provision,” Professor Oppenheimer said.

“But it could also come down to cost and affordability: instead of having five meals delivered per week, they’re having three. It says nothing about quality.”

Conference delegates were also told that MoW clients tend to be older, more demanding and with more complex needs than only five years ago. The disparate, ‘federalised’ nature of the structure and governance of MoWs around Australia was also highlighted.

The final project report and recommendations from the project – a partnership between Flinders University, La Trobe University’s Professor Jeni Warburton and the AMOWA – will be formally presented to the AMOWA board early next year.

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