Women's Information and Referral Centre (WIRC) Services
Position paper - December 2013
The ACT Government is committed to addressing gender equality issues by funding a range of women specific services and by ensuring mainstream services offer appropriate gender based service responses which are accessible to everyone in the community including those people in the community who are most disadvantaged.
The ACT Government remains committed to ensuring that an information and referral service for women will continue but the location from which this is delivered and for some functions the actual provider will change.
The Women’s Information and Referral Centre (WIRC) has been a valued government service for women in the ACT for 35 years and in that time the services offered have evolved in response to demand but the approach to engaging women in the community has remained largely the same. It is reasonable then that this 35 year old approach be re-evaluated taking into account the significant changes to technology, population groups, service delivery models and the geographical layout of Canberra that have occurred in that period.
There are a range of imperatives for making changes to the current WIRC service delivery model. Firstly it is critical that governments ensure their services are delivered in ways that are appropriate to and accessible by those people in the community most in need. Secondly, as the ACT Government has made clear, in the current fiscal environment there is a need to stamp out duplication and deliver services in a more efficient way while minimising the impact on service delivery. Thirdly, it is critical that with the recent reforms of a range of Community Services Directorate (CSD) and other ACT Government services, that all related services are aligned and consistent in their service delivery approach and that they are informed by and operate to and within broader Government policy.
Recent internal CSD changes resulting in the creation of the Community Participation Group provides a timely context for re-evaluating WIRC services and ensuring they align with the policy imperatives of CSD and the ACT Government as a whole.
The reformed model retains those WIRC functions that are appropriate for the ACT Government to provide and the outsourcing of those that are not.
CSD has been reforming its frontline service delivery for many years to ensure services are efficient, are targeted to those in the community most in need and are provided in ways that minimise multiple sites of contact and wherever possible reduce the need to physically attend those sites. This has included the implementation of the Central Access Point (CAP) in Housing ACT, the development of the Child and Family Gateway Service and a range of initiatives to create an integrated service system of support across and between the various areas of CSD and community sector services.
More recently Minister Barr announced the ACT Government will develop a Human Services Blueprint in partnership with the community sector to ‘make Canberra’s human services system more integrated and cohesive’. While the Blueprint will understandably initially focus on CSD, as the main provider of human services in the ACT, consideration will also be given to the linkages between CSD services and other areas such as health, justice and education.
The draft guiding principles of the Blueprint such as person-centred, outcome focussed, sustainable, flexible and tailored have informed the changes outlined in this paper.
The (WIRC) model was established some 35 years ago to provide information and referral services to women in the ACT community. The service was created at a particular time in history that acknowledged, through the provision of resources, the need for specific services for women, particularly for women escaping domestic violence.
35 years on, there is a need to re-evaluate that model in relation to: whether women still access and need a women only physical location for information and referral; how the changes to the geography and demography of Canberra (away from the City as the only and central hub) are reflected in the model; how the services has adapted to the significant technological changes in that period; the current commitment to targeting of resources to people most in need; and the need to reduce, wherever possible, duplication in services.
WIRC is currently geographically located in the City, in an area that accommodates government offices and more recently a sizeable student population. While the city was, 35 years ago the only central hub for the ACT, there are now five ‘hubs’ in the ACT. Combined with the fact that 74% of services offered by WIRC are not provided face to face, it is appropriate to question the ongoing costs of maintaining an isolated commercial lease in the city. It is also appropriate to question how the needs of women living closer to the other four hubs in the ACT could better access WIRC services and what synergies could be established with other CSD funded services in those locations.
While WIRC data shows that the provision of current WIRC services is well received by the women who access the service, the services offered are not in the main, accessed by young women, older women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women or women from diverse cultural backgrounds. It is critical that consideration be given, and changes made, to ensure government funded services are targeted at, and accessible to, those people in the community who are most disadvantaged and for whom assistance the assistance provided by a government information and referral service is of significant importance.
The Return to Work Grants Program is not a WIRC service. This will continue as a function of the Office for Women in the Community Participation Group which is moving to Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre.
Model of Service Delivery
Information and referral phone line/email
WIRC data (2012-2013) shows that of the total 12,470 contacts with clients, nearly half or 5,787 were via telephone, 3,068 were via email and 330 via post.
Therefore 74% of the services currently provided by WIRC are not provided face to face and are consistent with the core functions of government information and referral service designed to assist women to access the full range of government and community services, from childcare rebates to support groups.
That the provision of information and referral has remained as the core function of WIRC is also reflected in the data on what type of information women sought from WIRC with the highest areas being: WIRC support groups/information sessions (20%), general information (10%) and financial or legal information (10%).
Of the four other States with services similar to WIRC, only one is outsourced to a community provider. The other three services have been retained within government in recognition of the government’s role in ensuring accessibility for women to the full range of government and community services.
A review of women’s information and referral services conducted by WA in 2013 noted that no “distinct advantages for clients were observed”, 1 in relation to whether the services are provided by a Non-Government Organisation or by Government. The Report did however note that the visibility of the service as a distinct service (where it was located with a range of other related government access services), was critical to success.
Therefore the provision of a distinct women’s information and referral service will be retained within ACT Government and located with the Community Participation Group within CSD with attention paid to ensuring it remains visible as a distinct service.
Key point 1.
The information and referral functions previously delivered by WIRC will be retained within ACT Government facilities and anchored in the Community Participation Group of CSD at Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre.
Domestic violence Support groups
In 2012-2013 WIRC organised five support groups for women who have experienced domestic violence. Three of the groups were run at the WIRC site in the city, one at the Gunyah Indigenous women’s service and one through Northside Community services. All five were facilitated by one of a number of women psychologists who have been providing the service to WIRC for some years. The groups varied from three to eight weekly sessions of three hours.
Between 2000 and 2006, the provision of the support groups was tendered to the community sector. However, a review in 2006 found this outsourcing was not successful because of the lack of provider expertise on domestic violence. Consequently, this function was brought back into WIRC.
Consultation undertaken around changes to WIRC, with the primary direct support providers, rather than advocacy based groups, shows support for the need to remodel existing WIRC services, particularly in relation to the domestic violence support groups. Most see an expert community agency such as the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) as the natural provider of this in the ACT.
In addition, many of the women attending the WIRC support groups were actually referred to WIRC by DVCS and/or were current or previous DVCS clients. This not only reflects the key expert role of DVCS it also suggests a duplication or additional set of referral processes for the women accessing the WIRC support groups.
Bilateral consultations with the direct providers also shows strong support for a move to a more flexible and outreach based approach to the provision of the support groups to enhance access by women in the community most in need, including young women, Indigenous women and women from diverse cultural backgrounds. Suggestions included developing a rotating location and target group focus that could include groups specifically for women currently in domestic violence homelessness services provided at one of the refuges and groups at locations such as Winnunga Nimmityjah or a youth centre.
The women’s services’ providers also made comment that the geographic location of the groups should be expanded to meet the needs of services and women who do not find the city accessible. CSD has a number of locations that could be utilised for these support groups such as the Child and Family Centres which would enhance the provision of these services in a range of locations such as Tuggeranong and Gunghalin.
Providers also recommended re-evaluating the content and model of the support groups as they felt the same thing had been provided for many years now. An evaluation will be undertaken in 2014.
Key point 2.
That WIRC funds currently allocated to the provision of domestic violence support groups be transferred to a community agency expert in domestic violence from 1 July 2014. This will include a requirement to locate the groups in a variety of locations and settings, such as at one of the refuges (for current and/or previous clients of the domestic violence homelessness services), Winnunga Nimityjah and the Child and Family Centres.
WIRC provides a range of courses including ‘self esteem after domestic violence’, general ‘self esteem’, ‘moving on after separation’ and ‘healthy relationships’. WIRC staff report that most attendees at these courses are women who have experienced domestic violence in the past but are no longer at the early or crisis stage of the recovery process. These courses are run either with four to six sessions of three hours. In 2012-2013 they were run 10-12 times with an average of six participants in each course.
The data indicates there is some of level of demand for post crisis support groups for women who have experienced domestic violence. However while a large numbers of attendees is not desirable for a support group (rather than for an information based group or course), six attendees is low and suggests these courses could be run less often with more participants in each course.
While it is not strictly necessary to have the same provider run these courses as for the domestic violence support groups, there is merit in doing so. Having one provider coordinating the groups and courses contributes to easier accessibility and a more integrated programmatic approach to content, model and topics.
However, consultation with the women’s services sector strongly suggests there is a need to review what courses are provided.
The current information session on finances and legal issues are relatively well attended. However, WIRC staff report that most attendees are women who have experienced domestic violence. Rather than women who have experienced domestic violence having to attend separate sessions (and address childcare and transport issues for each one), it seems logical that financial and legal information be included in the domestic violence support groups (where the provider can bring in appropriate expertise such as Women’s Legal Service), particularly as the providers of the current legal and financial information also conduct separate information sessions as part of their own service provision.
Additionally, having one contract with one provider, rather than outsourcing a number of small contracts goes some way to addressing the issues raised in consultations that the gender based focus of WIRC will be lost if there is a ‘piecemeal’ approach to remodelling the services.
Key point 3.
The provision of legal and financial information sessions will be included in the domestic violence support groups.
While attendance at the ‘Thinking Thursday’ sessions provided by WIRC have shown reasonably good attendance, WIRC staff report that they are overwhelmingly attended by public servants.
While this indicates demand, with an average of thirty-three attendees at each session, the client group is not a target group for CSD. It is therefore recommended that these sessions be discontinued and be forwarded to the ACT Public Commissioner for consideration as part of their ‘supporting our staff’ commitments.
Key Point 4.
The Thinking Thursday sessions will cease and the information on the demand for the Thinking Thursday sessions will be passed to the Public Service Commissioner for consideration.
Face to Face Service Provision
In 2012-2013 WIRC had 2,476 face to face contacts, with 1,697 of these occurring as ‘drop ins’, 380 accessing the library or internet and 399 attending a booked appointment.
Across all forms of WIRC service delivery, approximately 35% of contacts are for information about WIRC courses or ‘general’ information and another 10% for referral or information on legal or financial services. Only 6% of all contacts relate to requests for information or support about domestic violence.
herefore only approximately 24 women a year access face to face services for support related to domestic violence. This number indicates low usage of WIRC as a place to disclose abuse as would be expected and appropriate to a generalist information and referral service.
While some of the women’s sector have raised the importance of WIRC as a ‘safe space’ for women, particularly in relation to domestic violence, it is important to note that WIRC is an information and referral service, staffed by public servants. It is neither a counselling service, nor a specialist domestic violence service and does not offer direct access to professional or qualified counsellors or the systems and structures that support staff in a specialist service.
It is important also to consider whether a stand-alone and isolated service location is imperative to the provision of good information and referral services for women. The United Kingdom advisory group The Women’s National Commission, conducted an online survey in 2010 to explore whether women only services are seen by service users and service providers as critical to good service delivery for women. The survey found that in relation to sexual assault or domestic violence, women only services were seen as critically important.
However for generalist services, the survey found strong support for the provision of ‘single-sex services within mixed-service organisations’. A range of reasons were cited including, that ‘this sends a clear message that women’s issues are not seen as marginal’, that ‘it is the service user experience and how a service is delivered that matters’ ‘and that women’s services in mixed organisation could change the ethos of the organisation as a whole’ 2.
It is appropriate that WIRC as a generalist information and referral service be relocated to the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre as it integrates the service with similar services in ACT Government rather than isolated from the natural integrations and policy contexts that inform and support service provision (including the Human Services Blueprint).
However it is important that WIRC staff are trained and understand how to deal with disclosures and refer women to the appropriate expert services and that the service creates an atmosphere that is welcoming, safe and discreet with private spaces easily created or available if required.
Key point 5.
A designated, private and safe space for women to access WIRC services will be provided in the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre.
To increase the accessibility of WIRC services in locations other than the city, it could be possible to create a number of identifiable ‘outreach’ locations in existing CSD sites where the face to face responses to information requests could be provided by identified existing CSD staff. This model would see the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre as the primary or central hub, with the three Child and Family Centres (CFCs) and the Housing ACT Central Access Point (CAP) as identified outreach sites. This would result in WIRC information and support being provided in Tuggeranong, Gunghalin, Belconnen and the city.
This model operates in South Australia where the Women’s Information Service (WIS) has a central hub in the Adelaide CBD but has satellite functions at rural and other locations. While “WIS staff are not available at these locations” women can access information at those sites and there is a free telephone contact to the service in Adelaide.
Locating the anchor hub in Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre with the Community Participation Group provides an opportunity to enhance access for women (particularly women from culturally diverse backgrounds) as well as ensuring a more streamlined and consistent approach to service delivery within CSD. Increasing outreach services at the Housing Central Access Point provides an opportunity to enhance access by a more disadvantaged group of women than currently reflected in the WIRC data and services at the CFCs improves accessibility for women residing in a wide variety of geographical locations.
As the primary requests for information received by WIRC are about WIRC support groups, general information and legal/financial information and referral, CSD staff will be able to respond at these locations.
Key Point 6.
Consideration be given to creating outreach sites in the three Child and Family Services and the Housing Central Access Point. The outreach sites could have signage and information stands and specific workers (existing HACT and CFC staff) trained and able to respond to the requests for information.
Key point 7.
The internet/computer services and photocopy services will be relocated to the Theo Notaras Centre.
The current library facilities at WIRC were accessed by only 78 women in 2012-2013. While space could be found in the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre usage of these resources could be improved through their placement in another location. Preliminary discussions are underway with the Civic Library regarding the possibility of establishing a feminist or women’s section with the donated books from the WIRC library which could significantly increase the current low usage of this resource. This is also consistent with the ACT Women’s Plan. Any other suggestions from the women’s sector should also be considered.
As the name WIRC currently contains the word “centre” and the remodelling changes the notion of place based services, the use of the word “centre” could be misleading. It is recommended that the name be changed to either ‘Women’s information’, Women’s Information and Referral Network or the Women’s Information Network. Due to the time constraints on printing the calendar for instance, the interim name used will be ‘Women’s Information’.
Key point 8.
A new name to be phased in across publications and documents over a 12 month period.
In most other jurisdictions in Australia, information services for women, similar to WIRC have a strong online presence. For example Women’s Infolink in Queensland provided by the Queensland Government through their Office for Women provides a “Find a service” facility on line to search in a variety of categories for local relevant services and a range of fact sheets and other publications available on line.
In order to increase access and adapt to new platforms it is recommended that CSD and in particular the Community Participation Group improve the current accessibility of on-line information for women over the next 12 months.
Key point 9.
CSD will explore improvements to the current provision of on-line information for women over the next 12 months.
The NSW Government has developed and made available the “Aurora” phone application for women experiencing domestic violence or who are worried about their relationship. The app allows women to message trusted friends and or the police in situations where they have concerns for their safety and the app contains useful and critical information on services and supports that are available. The app has been designed with a range of safety features and is available for free download. This app provides a new platform to support women in situations of domestic violence and could be seen to have particular application for young women and across Australia and in the ACT a very significant proportion of women experiencing domestic violence are young women.
Key point 10. The Office for Women will investigate the development/purchase of an ACT specific phone app (like the ‘Aurora’ for women experiencing domestic violence).
Future evaluation and reform
It is important that robust data be collected and evaluated to improve access to the services provided by disadvantaged groups of women in the ACT. A data committee will be established within the Community Participation Group to develop robust data collection and analysis tools.
The success of any service delivery in government depends on the integration of policy and practice. That WIRC services will now be located with the Community Participation Group in the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre allows for the development of stronger links between the policy and practice arms of the Office for Women. To this end it is appropriate to review and evaluate the revised model of delivery of WIRC functions in line with the ACT Women’s Plan.
While the ACT Women’s plan continues to June/July 2015, the current implementation plan ends in September 2014. This provides an opportunity to ensure consistency between service delivery and policy. The data committee will look at current data collection and potential additions or changes to this collection with a final data plan by end February 2014. This then allows for 6 months data collection and a period for revisions to be completed and amended in line with the next Women’s Implementation plan on 1 October 2015.
During the 6 month period from February 2014 to September 2014, consultation will also occur with a range of women’s sector forums about any issues arising from the reformed model of service delivery that can then also be considered in relation to the new Implementation plan.
Input into the Implementation plan for the ACT Women’s Plan must include consideration of WIRC functions and services within the broader policy context of CSD and the ACT Government more broadly, particularly Health and Education and with particular focus on improving access by the most disadvantaged women in the ACT community.
The reformed model of service delivery will be considered in the new ACT Women’s Plan in June/July 2015
Research and Table of Current and Future Service Provision
A number of State and Territory governments in Australia provide some form of ‘free and confidential information and referral service about government agencies and community services supporting women’ (Queensland Government).
Of the four jurisdictions with identified women’s information services, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, three provide the service within government and one, Victoria is community based. Two of the four, Victoria and South Australia, offer a shopfront facility.
South Australia also operates ‘satellite’ services in regional locations. These locations (in other government shopfronts, provide a range of written information and a free phone service to the Adelaide centre.
Only the Victorian service, provided by a community based organisation, offers a range of services other than information and referral such as programs, classes and professional development.
WIRC DATA (2012-2013)
WIRC data (2012-2013) shows that of the total 12,470 contacts with clients, nearly half or 5,787 were via telephone, 3,068 were via email and 330 via post. Therefore 74% of the services currently provided by WIRC are not provided face to face.
Of the 2,476 face to face contacts, 1,697 ‘dropped in’ to the service, 380 clients accessed the WIRC library or the internet services provided and 399 attended a booked appointment.
Across both the non face to face and face to face services, the four most common areas of information sought were:
- Information on WIRC support groups/information sessions (20%)
- General information (10%)
- Financial or legal information (10%)
- Domestic violence (6%)
Support Groups/Information Sessions
A range of support groups for women are facilitated by WIRC, including domestic violence support groups, self esteem based courses and legal or financial information sessions.
In 2012-2013, there were 52 attendees at the five domestic violence support groups offered (each running for between three to eight sessions).
Across a range of other courses targeting women’s self esteem and relationships (including self esteem post separation, healthy relationships and self confidence courses) there was a total of approximately 130 attendees in 2012-2013. Data does not reveal whether the women attending the domestic violence support groups are also attending the self esteem based courses, although WIRC staff report that many of the self esteem based courses are attended by women who have experienced domestic violence in the past (where the support groups are attended by women who have recently experienced domestic violence).
Other Groups and Information Sessions
While data shows high attendance with an average of 33 attendees, at the “Thinking Thursday sessions”, (with topics such as: ‘Dealing with change’,’ mentoring’, ‘Getting organised’, Building resilience in the workplace’, ‘presentation skills’), consultation with WIRC staff indicates these are attended predominantly by public servants, both Commonwealth and ACT. While this indicates an area of demand by women in the community, it is legitimate to question whether CSD as the provider of targeted human services is the appropriate provider of these. This interest has been referred to the relevant area of Chief Ministers and Treasury Directorate for consideration.
The courses/information sessions on financial matters showed relatively good attendance with 35 women attending four sessions. While a breakdown of the details of the attendees is not available, these courses appear relevant to CSD targeted service provision in that women as a group disproportionally experience poverty (particularly single mothers), and women escaping domestic violence often need support to regain control of finances, given financial control is a common component of domestic violence.
The same reasoning could be applied to the legal information sessions provided, with 24 attendees at the three information sessions offered in 2012-2013.
Additionally, the ACT Government has provided a range of community organisations with grants to undertake research and provide information sessions around the subject of financial literacy for women, under the Womens Grants Program.
Current WIRC service provision
Approx % current WIRC output
% function maintained
Phone/email information service- 9 am to 5pm Monday to Friday
Continue from Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre
Development of WIRC calendar and organising groups/training
Calendar for Jan to June 2014 currently being developed and will be retained as a function
Facilitate operation of Domestic violence support groups and courses
Organised by WIRC until 30 June 2014
Facilitate operation of Financial/legal information sessions
Organised by WIRC until 30 June 2014
Provision of ‘Thinking Thursday’ sessions
Will cease as of 31 December 2013.
Drop in information and support service
Relocated to Theo Notaras centre and outreach at CFCs and Housing ACT Central Access Point
Domestic violence phone app
Investigate purchase/development support phone app like ‘Aurora’ in NSW
Total WIRC services continued = 99.5%
1 Western Australia Government, Community Information Evaluation Final Report, Western Australia, 2013, p.14.
2 Women’s National Commission (2010), Findings from the WNC survey on women only services. UK. p.2.