In a few short weeks I will have completed 3 years in the role of FCVic Executive Officer. Looking back over this time (I will not call it a journey), despite a lot of change and development, the key challenges facing the sector at the macro level remain the same. COVID-19 has, if anything, only raised the stakes and intensified their significance. These challenges can be summarised in the following three interlinked propositions:
First, financial counselling is an important, even crucial service of support to the most vulnerable in our community. It works with vulnerable people to empower them, and it works in practical ways to improve our governmental and industry systems so they respond better, support better, and work better for our community as a whole. As we experience the greatest economic dislocation in two generations, this work is becoming essential on a large scale, and demand will come with need.
Second, for all its strengths and some growth, financial counselling is still very much in a niche, and it is too small a sector to scale up quickly. Financial counselling is a practice profession, by definition, working with vulnerable people. This requires financial counsellors to maintain the highest possible professional standards, with robust training to ensure that those qualifying are ready to practice. Short cutting the training is not an option, because it is the clients who would bear the risks. Any system that would transfer risk onto vulnerable people is antithetical to financial counselling. Training new financial counsellors takes time and takes sectoral resources – in particular the guidance of experienced financial counsellors to develop sound practice on the part of new financial counsellors in training. But the sector is so small finding those resources is a constant challenge.
Third, financial counsellors are too often stuck in a cycle of too much crisis demand limiting space and time to work at the preventive/early intervention end. At the current rates of change, demand will keep outstripping capacity in a pattern that contributes to stress and burnout risks. The high levels of stress in the sector risk becoming a negative feedback loop that further reduces capacity due to turnover and lack of training opportunities for new financial counsellors.
The first point is why the second and third points need to be addressed. FCVic is advocating for the Victorian government to build an integrated plan for boosting the sector capacity in Victoria so that there are financial counsellors able to respond to community needs. This has started happening in other states, such as WA and SA and needs to happen here. I hope to report on progress in this in the next Devil’s Advocate.