Image: Dr Melanie Randle
Credit: University of Wollongong

Dr Melanie Randle is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) recipient, based at the University of Wollongong, who has been working closely with non-profit and government organisations to increase the number of foster care placements in the Wollongong area through better marketing and recruitment strategies.

Now she is working with some of the same non-profit organisations to study the effects of the rollout of the Federal Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on its customers.

“My research in this space began back in 2007 with a Linkage Projects grant awarded to my former PhD supervisor, Professor Sara Dolnicar,” says Dr Randle.

“The project was about foster carer recruitment, as local agencies were having difficulty attracting enough carers for the number of foster children needing homes. Our research question was: What types of people make particularly successful foster carers and what marketing strategies would be most successful in attracting them to the role?”

Dr Randle and her team worked with several non-profit organisations, including CareSouth, CatholicCare Wollongong, and William Campbell Foundation to develop marketing campaigns that specifically target individuals with the right combination of skills, experience and personal characteristics.

The relationships they built continued through Dr Randle’s DECRA grant, which applied marketing segmentation techniques to the problem of finding foster carers. The result of their program of research over the past 10 years was all partner organisations seeing an increase in their numbers of foster carers. During this time CareSouth had more than doubled its number of foster care placements, William Campbell Foundation increased its foster carers by more than 300 per cent and CatholicCare Wollongong was able to triple the number of children it placed with foster families.

As a result of this collaboration, Dr Randle’s research team received the 2014 Service Partnership Award from the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA), the peak body for children’s welfare agencies in Australia.

The relationships that Dr Randle built during these earlier projects now underpins the current project on the NDIS.

In 2016, the NDIS commenced its roll-out across Australia. When fully operational, nearly half a million people with a disability will have the power to choose how they spend their government entitlements. The rollout provided a unique ‘real world’ experimental setting, and a team of researchers led by Dr Randle was awarded an ARC Linkage Projects grant of $326,506 to identify changes in consumer and market behaviour, both pre-NDIS and post-NDIS. 

“The research topic was identified following conversations with our partners, who knew that the NDIS would totally change the landscape for their clients. Under the NDIS, their ‘clients’ would effectively become ‘customers’ with the ability to spend government funding on a wide range of services and brand choices. There was also new for-profit competition entering the sector. We wrote our research proposal to address these issues and enable non-profit organisations to compete effectively in this new environment and continue to provide high quality services to people with disabilities.”

“The unique aspect of this study is that we can collect both pre-NDIS and post-NDIS data. We have just completed the fieldwork for the pre-NDIS measures and are analysing that now. We will go back (to the same study populations) after the NDIS has been in place for at least two years to find out exactly what impact it has had for people with disabilities.”

“The relationship with our partners is critical for the success of our study. It can be difficult to gain access to these types of groups without a good relationship with the right industry partners,” says Dr Randle.

Dr Randle’s research is clearly delivering significant social benefits to Australia. Her research is informing government policy makers to assist in the development of evidence-based policies and community service programs.

“We have provided consultation and advice over the years to the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, and ACWA, and briefed them on the current and future work we are doing,” says Dr Randle.

“And, our study of the NDIS roll-out is continuing to open new avenues for further research to inform government policy.

“For example, key to the economic success of the NDIS is the expectation that many people with a disability and their carers will be able to enter the workforce and contribute to the economy. However, significant barriers still exist to the inclusion of people with a disability in the workforce, one being negative attitudes of some employers and an unwillingness to hire someone with a disability.

“The next step for us is investigating what marketing strategies might be most effective in improving employer attitudes, such that they understand the wide range of benefits associated with including people with disabilities in their workplace.”

Dr Randle says that this is just one of many ways their research can provide information to make sure that government policy delivers on its intended results.