Development of a whole-of-government Indigenous Evaluation Strategy is underway

By Stephen Easton

June 27, 2019

The Productivity Commission has begun development of an evaluation strategy for the whole of the Australian Public Service and any policy or program affecting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Auditor-general Grant Hehir recently confirmed evaluation of the centrepiece of federal Indigenous affairs policy was years behind schedule and still only in its early stages, but the PC’s new plan will have far wider scope than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s delayed framework for measuring the effectiveness of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

The PC’s Indigenous policy evaluation commissioner Romlie Mokak, appointed last December, has begun the consultation phase of developing a whole-of-government Indigenous Evaluation Strategy that could apply to any policy or program affecting Indigenous Australians. “It needs to be much more than just a ‘tick and flick’ exercise for agencies,” the commission states in a new discussion paper.

Romlie Mokak

The government has asked the PC to produce a list of priorities; a principles-based framework for evaluating policies and programs affecting Indigenous Australians; and a system for reviewing agency evaluations against the strategy.

It’s not a one-off project. The independent advisory body has been given the green light to conduct its own evaluations, if it chooses to, and an ongoing role in monitoring agency performance against the upcoming strategy, as well as the job of reviewing and refining it over time.

At this stage of its methodical approach, the PC is seeking feedback and information on the questions posed in the issues paper until August 23.

“There are increasing calls from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community for a greater focus on monitoring and evaluation to improve program design, delivery and accountability,” the issues paper observes.

The PC notes there has been plenty of reporting on outcomes for Indigenous Australians but fewer than 10% of Indigenous-specific programs are evaluated, according to one analysis. It also refers to a 2010 report by Finance officials that observed “rigour and independence” was lacking in many of those few evaluations that had been conducted in the policy area.

“The Indigenous Evaluation Strategy presents an opportunity to lead the way in evaluation of government policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” adds the PC, noting its work had “long identified the potential for increased use of evaluation to improve policy-making and outcomes” in all areas of policy.

The first question is what the strategy’s objectives should be, beyond the obvious central aim to improve outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

“Beyond this it is likely that views may differ on other objectives of the Evaluation Strategy. For example, many people will see the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander input into policy processes as a core objective, while another objective might be building the evidence base about ‘what works’, or ensuring value for money in providing services.

“Clarifying and detailing the objective(s) of the Strategy is an important part of the Commission’s task, both for informing the development of the Strategy and, ultimately, for identifying what a successful Strategy would look like.”

As a starting point, the paper points readers to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Australian government endorsed in 2009.

Feedback is also requested on the proposed components of the whole-of-government strategy and exactly what programs it will cover – given about 80% of service delivery to Indigenous people, in terms of spending, goes through mainstream programs.

The commission says it intends to recognise other organisations outside the Commonwealth bureaucracy as “key stakeholders, and partners” in the project and invite their ongoing input. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, state, territory and local governments, not for profit entities, business and communities” are all asked to contribute.

“This project will draw on their knowledge and experience with a view to ensuring the Evaluation Strategy has the potential to be used more widely and therefore promote increased use of evaluation beyond Australian Government agencies.”

The 50-page issues paper offers plenty of useful background on the major pieces of current Indigenous affairs policy and a helpful summary of some key evaluation concepts and methods.

It notes that some ways of collecting information to feed into evaluations “explicitly incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges … and bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to the fore” which leads to a greater focus on the importance of self-determination. “They recognise long histories of culture, lore and practice in evaluating what works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and societies,” the PC issues paper explains.

Romlie Mokak will discuss the project with academics and public servants including PM&C’s deputy secretary for Indigenous affairs, Ian Anderson, on Tuesday morning at a forum hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

Top image: Nick Youngson / CC BY-SA 3.0

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