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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Jenny Stewart, Professor of Public Policy, ADFA Canberra, UNSW Sydney

For years, First Nations people have been telling governments they want to be listened to. In particular, they want more ownership of the programs and services that are supposed to help them. The Voice referendum may have failed, but the need remains.

The recent Productivity Commission review of the Closing The Gap agenda reiterated these problems, adding that despite some signs of change, very little had been done in designing and implementing programs to move away from the “business as usual” top-down approach.

If good intentions alone could bring about change, we would not be in our current predicament. As Indigenous diplomacy researcher James Blackwell noted in February, despite high-level discussions, and the provision of more money, the “reset” that is required remains elusive.

How do we get there from here? With many gaps to close across a variety of areas, it’s more important than ever to get the best outcomes for Indigenous people. Having a public service that works with them is key, but what’s standing in the way?

Read more:
The government is well behind on Closing the Gap. This is why we needed a Voice to Parliament

Barriers to change

Public service organisations are not set up to be flexible.

Government structures and processes are built around accountability. This means purposes must be defined, money assigned and acquitted according to law, and performance measured against agreed criteria. Everything must be quantifiable. If the only goal is to protect taxpayers’ dollars, it works well enough.

But the status quo has limitations when it comes to dealing with complex problems.

Indigenous issues differ from place to place, and almost always have multiple causes. Many of the young Indigenous people who break the law do so because there are few jobs where they live, they don’t have enough support to undertake and complete the education and training they need, and they don’t feel safe at home.

Addressing all these problems at once is almost impossible. But heavy-handed interventions tend to make matters worse. So, how do we make progress while still having measurable policies with clear lines of accountability?

The academic literature – and there has been a great deal of research in these areas – gives us some guidance. Official reviews, inquiries and reports, particularly where they give prominence to submissions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are helpful.

More importantly, the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as so many have outlined in submissions and testimony to myriad reviews, suggests what the top priorities should be. There are some common themes across their thoughts, experiences and expertise. Having reviewed much of the available literature, and in keeping with my own engagement with Indigenous people about working with bureaucracy, here are some practical suggestions.

Stop crowding out local knowledge

Submissions to the Closing the Gap review show us the kinds of difficulties that stop people getting things done. Far from being neglected, Torres Shire Council reported that on Thursday Island, the local community was suffering from an excessive state and federal agency presence, crowding out opportunities for local people to do the work.

The chair of Indigenous collaboration Empowered Communities, Ian Trust, pointed to the group’s continuing frustration with top-down service delivery that failed to meet local needs. He said:

All the power remains in the hands of the state and territory jurisdictions to determine actions to be implemented to try and meet the Closing the Gap objectives. Shared decision-making is happening at the national or jurisdictional level, rather
than at the local or regional level. No learning over time occurs to iteratively improve actions taken on the ground.

The status quo is not so much a Gordian knot as a Gordian mess. Clearly the public sector needs to fund programs designed by First Nations decision-makers, as close to the action as possible.

Read more:
New commissioner will focus on vexed issue of Indigenous children in out-of-home care

But Indigenous leaders are saying: please don’t overcomplicate matters. There is a danger that well-intentioned bureaucratic processes will further bury local initiatives in a plethora of Closing the Gap implementation plans and constant meetings.

Of course, in times of crisis, political intervention is inevitable, but it only brings about ad hoc change, as we have seen recently with the Alice Springs curfew.

Indigenous leaders themselves have urged giving more funds and encouragement to communities that are finding ways to help themselves. Listening well means following up on these leads.

Changing the make-up of the bureaucracy

The incentives and expectations for public servants currently reward controlling issues rather than providing the right support for innovative practice.

Rewarding, or at least acknowledging, leaders who genuinely listen to Indigenous people in their approach is necessary. These people then lead by example, helping create culture change in their departments over time.

This goal isn’t necessarily easy to achieve. Years of outsourcing, and a lack of credible strategies for developing and retaining staff, particularly from diverse backgrounds, has left the public service struggling for talent. The “old hands” have departed, and staying too long in one place is not for the ambitious. This hasn’t helped in tackling multifaceted social issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The lack of built-up wisdom and experience can hinder the work of organisations on the ground. As Aboriginal organisation Dharriwaa Elders Group submitted to the Productivity Commission review, community engagement does not mean employing more people to engage with communities, but ensuring bureaucrats have the experience, wisdom and respect to manage contracts well. They also require the communication skills and relationships to exercise influence at higher levels when needed.

Good things take time

Systemic problems cannot speedily be fixed. Throwing money at them, in the absence of careful analysis, only makes matters worse.

As the establishment of the National Indigenous Australians Authority showed, large changes in administrative arrangements, even if well-intentioned, take years to bed down on the bureaucratic side.

Read more:
Governments are failing to share decision-making with Indigenous people, Productivity Commission finds

Having Indigenous people design and deliver the programs that affect them will take time to become standard practice. There are well-established Indigenous organisations in the health field, but in others, like housing, even registered Indigenous organisations have lacked sustained funding.

Closing the Gap targets are necessarily wide-ranging and can seem overwhelming. But more plans, more talking, and more bureaucracy won’t help.

The Conversation

Jenny Stewart does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. The Australian public service is letting Indigenous people down. How do we fix it? –