Just doing their ACC jobs

Ralph Stewart
Ralph Stewart
ACC seems particularly accident-prone these days, with the latest issue being the payment of bonuses to staff who successfully cut numbers on the long-term ACC roll.

Most people's instinctive reaction to this practice is negative.

It just does not seem right that employees and managers would receive incentives for cutting off ACC for claimants. The situation enables the perception to develop that selfish monetary interest could colour judgement and actions.

ACC departing chief executive Ralph Stewart responded to news of the "exit targets" yesterday by saying ACC remained focused on rehabilitation. No-one was being pushed off entitlements unless they were ready to return to work. Mr Stewart also said incentives for moving people back to work had been in place for three years and were only part of the performance assessment.

ACC minister Judith Collins defended the strategy as "a good thing" because it gets "clients" back to work. She did, however, agree there was a problem if anyone was forced off ACC when they simply could not work.

In the past decade or two, various forms of performance pay and bonuses have spread across businesses and into the public service. Chief executives of private firms can receive fortunes in share options if their company is doing well.

But care must always be taken so that perverse or undesirable incentives are avoided. For chief executives, that might mean an undue focus on the short-term and immediate share price, rather than long-term strategy.

In other areas, unhealthy divisiveness between staff can be fostered. Often, however - especially in sales - well run performance pay systems can boost achievement and better reward better performers.

In the public service, and in essence ACC is public service, the matter is murkier.

It is argued that for those working with long-term claimants, only about 15% of their performance measure is on net entries to the long-term claim pool. The rest is on targets like meeting organisational values, customer service and case-management quality.

It is hard to dispute that a clear goal of working with long-term claimants has to be to get as many people as are able back to work, both for their sake and in the interests of the wider population who pay ACC levies. This, unlike some other performance indicators, has the advantage of being specific and relatively easily measured.

Additionally, it should be recognised how easy it would be for case managers - and ACC medical specialists for that matter - to take the easy way out when confronted with pressure from individual cases, individual people and individual's lawyers. After all, it is not their money being handed over year after year.

The interests of the squeaky wheel or the pushy often takes precedence over the more amorphous wider public interest. What could easily happen is that ACC costs soar. And there would, without doubt, be some - perhaps many - who would rort the system.

Nevertheless, ACC is in essence a monopoly and it has much potential power in its relationship with claimants.

This is power that its staff must use with skill and fairness.

ACC has to have a culture that looks to claimants returning to work as soon as possible - but that should be because it is appropriate and not, even in part, because ACC employees and managers receive extra money.

Even if the staff member is honourable enough not to let incentives affect decision-making, it can be seen as bad for all concerned, including the wider public, when that bonus mechanism is in place.

Fundamentally, endeavouring to return claimants to work if possible should be just part of conscientious staff members doing their job. While this is a process that should be encouraged, it should not be at the expense of what is right for the claimant nor for the monetary reward of the staff member.



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