The Crisis in Indigenous Affairs

By Ian Marsh, Adjunct Professor, Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of Tasmania


The important CIS report on Indigenous programmes adds another volume to an already heavily laden shelf. Criticism of existing approaches and of the effectiveness of spending is wide and deep. Recent assessments range from the Senate Public Administration Committee review of the IAS, to an officially sponsored study, Empowered Communities. Peter Shergold, the original architect of joined-up Indigenous policy, has called for a new approach and the same theme runs through numerous think tank reports and other studies and papers.

Whilst perspectives differ, there can be no doubt about the overall conclusion. Indigenous affairs are in crisis. Despite the declared benign intent of succeeding governments, nether administration nor practice are fit for purpose.

There is also general agreement about any solution. Indigenous citizens must be engaged in the decisions that affect them. But because tax payer’s money is involved, accountability also needs to be sustained. And efficiency requires attention to the effectiveness of programmes and to learning, innovation and continuous improvement.

These requirements set a high bar for administrative designs no less that the skills of those charged with administration. An effective architecture needs to square the circle between three not immediately compatible outcomes: local engagement, continuous improvement and central accountability. It must do this in a context in which responsibilities are shared between federal and state governments.

The CIS report envisages evaluation as the instrument through which continuous improvement can be accomplished. There is no doubt evaluation is absolutely critical. But the question concerns its form.

Think of the challenge of school attendance. This looks straightforward. But in practice the causes of non-attendance are many and varied. Here are some: mobility of families, deaths, funerals, sorry business, violence in the communities, sporting events, carnivals/shows, overcrowding, street parties at night meaning children do not get sleep, other cultural practices. A list of critical factors could be grouped at least into family, community, school, governmental, cultural, economic, and other categories.

An approach that will work in Allice Springs is most unlikely to work in Redfern or Arakun. Contextual factors will be critical. This is one reason local engagement is essential. The chances of there being anything even remotely resembling ‘best practice’ are zero. This would throttle effective local service design. This is not to say that there will not be opportunities for learning and for the exchange of experience. But the learning that will apply across sites will be adaptive – not technical or codified.

Moreover, in a context in which experience accumulates and circumstances change, learning will be continuous and dynamic. The surrounding system needs to enable these processes on an on-going basis.

Underpinning this whole approach is one fundamental notion.   Troubled families, school attendance, drug or alcohol addictions etc. are not amenable to solutions in advance in other than a provisional and corrigible sense. So the surrounding administrative system needs to invest in the capacity of local agents to learn from and improve their own efforts. This, not the accumulation of more and more inevitably incomplete knowledge of what works, is the path to continuous improvement

As well as focusing on outcomes, the surrounding administrative design must also focus on the means used by different providers who are working towards broadly similar ends. Agents need to indicate how they will approach their task and how they will self-assess. They need to be willing to share information about their practices.

The CIS report documents 1082 programmes of which 792 are delivered by NGOs. All the latter would be based on contracts. The building blocks for a new approach are thus already present. There is no reason why contracts should not specify means as well as outcomes. There is no reason why exchange of this information should not be routinely part of contract management.

In other words, strategic analysis of programmes need to routinely link back to an informed review of implementation problems. Monitoring should focus not only on outcomes but also on the associated learning processes. These occur within and between providers as well as across agencies. The present box-ticking culture of compliance is wholly at odds with such relationships.

Federal-state collaboration presents an especial challenge. But social investment bonds have become one favoured approach to linking NGOs and private sector investors. Why not shift the same strategy to cross-agency working at federal and state levels?

Indigenous Affairs shows up in stark relief many of the problems of highly centralised public administration. We need a better way. The broad administrative precepts outlined here offer an alternative. There are many and varied examples of its application in US and European settings. There are of course challenges in migrating such an approach to local settings. This is wholly in keeping with an approach that prioritises context.

The Empowered Communities report, still awaiting a response from Minister Scullion, is an opportunity to experiment with an alternative approach. But the Minister’s political leadership will be critical. The public service will properly be reluctant to act without his endorsement.

So the government must take the lead. As the CIS report emphasises, it is not an absence of good will that sustains the present impasse. But the solution it proposes is vastly amplified evaluation. Evaluation yes. But of a kind that is congruent with inevitable and persisting uncertainties.

In his 1968 Boyer lecture, the great anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner warned of the uncertain path to equality for Australia’s Indigenous citizens: ‘….the surfacing of problems which are in places six or seven generations deep confront us with problems of decision, but we are badly under-equipped to judge whether policies towards the problems are slogans, panaceas or sovereign remedies or none of them’.

His doubt remains pertinent. I have sketched here one approach that responds to this challenge. A workable system must square the circle between local engagement, continuous improvement and accountability. It must make ‘learning-by-doing’ routine in day-to-day practice.

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