A Social Actuary: Putting Passion Into Practice

An interview with Sarah Johnson, Scheme Actuary for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

National Disability Insurance Scheme actuary Sarah Johnson has always felt at home working in the human services industry. She encourages other actuaries to consider how they might be able to put their own passions into practice. With a natural interest in social policy and solid technical experience, Sarah is well prepared to shape and steer the future of the NDIS.

A Calling for Social Policy

Sarah had always been good at maths and when it came to electing majors at university, actuarial studies and economies seemed the natural fit. As part of her university scholarship she had the opportunity to work across three different placements.

“Throughout university I worked at HIH, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and ING. During my time at PwC, I worked with actuaries in the human services industry and realised I could use my skills in social policy – an area which I love. I really enjoyed the work and after I graduated, I accepted a graduate role with PwC and I stayed there for around nine years.

“I started as part of a very small team lead by John Walsh (a Partner at PwC who mentored me, and the leading actuary in health and human services) and over the years we built that team up to a 20 person actuarial health and human services team with a big focus on disability reforms and broader social policy reforms, including funding options and policy evaluation.

“During that time, I completed my actuarial qualifications. I wasn’t always that keen to finish the course because social policy didn’t seem to fit within the study areas of general insurance and investment. But at the time, John Walsh strongly encouraged me to see it through and that was some of the best advice I ever received.

“I was lucky to find a sector I was passionate about and the technical skills that I gained throughout my studies helped me bring a lot to the human services industry. I have the actuarial qualifications to thank for that,” she said.

In 2010/11, Sarah was seconded to the Productivity Commission to work on the inquiry into Disability Care and Support, which then led to the government announcing it was going to set up a task force to implement the NDIS.

“I continued to work at PWC for another two years until November 2013 when I was appointed as Scheme Actuary of the NDIS. The decision was simple, I had a huge interest in social policy and after working so closely with the scheme, I wanted to see the Productivity Commission’s vision brought to life. For me the best way to do that was to work for the scheme, rather than just act as a consultant. I needed to be in the thick of it.”

Tackling the Challenges of the NDIS Head On

When Sarah was asked to take on the role of Scheme Actuary for the NDIS, she knew this was her chance to build the financial sustainability framework the scheme requires to maintain its viability.

Sarah acknowledges the challenges that come with the role. All of which, she believes, can be overcome. According to Sarah, the main challenge is moving the scheme from a welfare model to an insurance model.

“The welfare model involves the Government spending money to provide services to those in need. The focus is on output and delivering services and there is no focus on the broader and longer term outcomes.

“The insurance model is much more about the person and providing them with the services needed to support them over a lifetime. Under this model there is more of a focus on financially sustainable outcomes and better outcomes for the person with a disability.

“The NDIS is an insurance model and there are a variety of people with a variety of skills and experience working on it. Some of these people previously worked with the welfare model so instilling the insurance model and principles and changing how people think is a particularly big challenge,” Sarah explained.

“An actuary who has a deep understanding and a passion for an industry and can apply their technical actuarial skills, is able to make a real difference and improve that industry. I see a huge potential for actuaries to influence the shape of Australia’s human services sector.”

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Spend Time on the Soft Skills

According to Sarah, her soft skills such as communication and multitasking are essential for success and she encourages all actuaries to work on these rather than simply focusing on their technical skills.

“The role requires multitasking and good time management skills as we’re balancing the implementation of a national scheme with trial sites, a national office and numerous other stakeholders to report to. Communicating the impacts and results of the scheme is also vital.

“My advice to younger actuaries is to develop their soft skills. Of course you need to build your technical skills but there comes a point in your career where your technical skills are largely a given and it’s the other skills that make you stand out,” Sarah said.

Given the unique skill sets of actuaries, Sarah believes there is a huge opportunity for the profession to contribute to and shape the future of the NDIS and the Australian human services industry more broadly.

“The insurance model traditionally relies heavily on actuarial expertise and there is a role for us in ensuring the scheme continues to operate under this model.

“It is important to remember the NDIS is still in infancy stage. We will need qualified and talented actuaries to work on the scheme to ensure it remains financially sustainable. By drawing more attention to the human services industry and introducing the sector at an education level, the profession will have the skills and understanding to keep it alive.

“I believe that once an actuary has a deep understanding and a passion for an industry and then applies their technical actuarial skills on top of that, that actuary can make a difference and improve an industry. I see a huge potential for actuaries to influence the shape of Australia’s human services industry,” she said.

A Different Social Side

As a young girl, Sarah always wanted to be a professional tennis player. It’s safe to say that the Australian human services industry and the actuarial profession are lucky that she decided to only play socially. Now, tennis is one of many hobbies Sarah makes time for despite her highly challenging role.

“For me, I love travelling and I’ve visited most continents and each year I try to take a few weeks to go somewhere new. I love playing sport including tennis and team sports such as touch football. I also enjoy having dinner with friends and socialising.

“Everyone needs to have interests outside of work. Whether it is friends, family, sport or art, to have a full life you need to make time to enjoy these sorts of things as well as work,” Sarah concluded.

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