Ancient perspectives, modern policy: why we need more Indigenous senior public servants, and how strong political leadership could make it happen

By Stephen Easton

Monday November 25, 2019

Earlier this year, 78 senior bureaucrats descended from the first peoples of Australia and New Zealand argued public services should have at least the same proportion of people from Indigenous backgrounds as the populations they serve, at all levels. There is a growing consensus that having Indigenous perspectives influencing all areas of public policy and its implementation, especially at senior levels, is critical to improving on decades of inequality and marginalisation. There is a lot of encouraging talk, but progress is slow.

To make workforce representation targets like this mean something, the group argued, senior executives should be accountable for attracting and retaining Indigenous staff through their performance management KPIs.

Participants at the second ANZSOG Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum, held in December 2018, agreed on five recommendations to public service commissioners and agency heads on both sides of the Tasman. These include targeted leadership-development programs for talented Indigenous staff, and a push for “cultural competency” as an employment requirement.

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“Although many of these agencies already have existing strategies, targets or plans for increasing Indigenous employment, delegates agreed that public services still have a long way to go, as well as a collective and individual responsibility to set more ambitious targets and actively work to achieve them,” according to the report of last year’s discussions and resolutions.

The group has just met for a third time in Canberra. Little detail of its discussions has emerged so far, but the two most senior staff of the National Indigenous Australians Agency both strongly endorsed the push to get a lot more Indigenous people into senior public service roles, backed up by structural and cultural change. The NIAA hopes to be a “proving ground” for this kind of change.

From last year’s meeting, the staff network’s advice for public service agency heads and workforce leaders in New Zealand and Australia was:

  1. Build support networks: resource and support opportunities for cross-jurisdictional collaboration among Indigenous public servants, including the Forum.
  2. Develop leaders: invest in leadership development for all Indigenous SES and executive staff demonstrating potential to progress to the SES.
  3. Increase representation: set targets equalling at least population parity for Indigenous representation at all levels and across all agencies, including secretaries, CEOs and SES and to take steps to achieve targets that have not been met.
  4. Hold individuals accountable: require all SES (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) to demonstrate how they have attracted and retained Indigenous staff through KPI in their performance agreements.
  5. Build culturally competent workforces: include cultural competency as selection criteria for new positions, and support and reward the cultural competence of existing staff.

The push for greater representation in senior public sector roles is not simply about numbers. It is linked to a desire to see governments incorporate and learn from the cultures and ideas of Indigenous people, setting an example for the wider community by recognising the societies that existed before the modern nations of Australia and NZ and improving all areas of public policy, not just those narrowly defined as Indigenous affairs.

“Valuing First Peoples, our knowledge and ways of being are critical to the success and sustainability of public services across Australia and New Zealand,” said the delegates to the ANZSOG forum in their 2018 report, published about six months after the meeting.

“Our insights can help build a more collaborative, just and trusted public sector, and improve outcomes not just for Indigenous peoples, but for all peoples across Australia and New Zealand.”

Over dinner, forum delegates heard suggestions to “Aboriginalise the Australian Public Service” in a keynote speech from Dr Mary Graham, an associate adjunct professor at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Relations.

Her arguments inspired a unique submission to the APS Review from the ANZSOG First Peoples Team, which recommends changes to the legislation underpinning the APS with the aim of “incorporating Indigenous perspectives and approaches into its core values and ways of working”.

“This has the potential to deliver better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and improve the way the APS relates to the broader community. We suggest this is an important step towards the APS becoming a truly authentic Australian governance institution.”

Why Indigenous SES officers are still rare

The forum’s second meeting also heard from researcher Samantha Faulkner, who explored the “barriers and enablers” to Indigenous people getting to SES roles in the APS with her colleague Julie Lahn, on behalf of the APS Commission.

Through 50 detailed interviews with Indigenous public servants, they found “informal relationships with mentors and managers form the key enabler of career advancement” although other “institutionalised measures” like formal mentoring, study and development programs, affirmative-action policies and family-friendly provisions were also seen as useful.

“A number of barriers to advancement were identified including operational constraints, limited regional opportunities, poor management practices and a lack of institutional valuing of Indigenous skills and leadership styles,” write Lahn and Faulkner in their research paper.

The report is filled with direct quotes from the interviewees, many of whom emphasised the importance of taking charge of one’s own career development, working hard and being resilient, but also the value of mentors, good managers and support networks. Their views of affirmative action policies to overcome cultural bias in recruitment and promotion were largely positive but, like most members of groups identified as targets for such policies, they generally want this to mean actual equality of opportunity and not lower standards.

“One of the big things that we don’t want to do and one thing I advise non-Indigenous people in particular is, please do not lower the bar at any of the APS levels if you do use affirmative measures. Otherwise the person will come in to do a job and will feel vulnerable because they are not able to do the job,” said one participant.

As for barriers, the research highlights operational constraints and limited opportunities in regional areas, a lack of commitment to diversity and generally poor management practices, such as non-Indigenous managers being afraid of having a robust, constructive conversation about performance with Indigenous staff. Of course, “preconceptions, biases, prejudice and pigeon-holing” are one thing holding back Indigenous people from making the difficult climb into SES roles.

“I think one of the greatest barriers for me moving up to the next level is that I think people perceive SES need to be a certain way, a certain look, a certain speak, and a certain thing and when you don’t present that way I think there’s an assumption that you therefore cannot do the job because you’re not in this same mould,” said one interviewee. Another was much blunter:

“They treat us terribly, and it is a case of, ‘We want you here but only if you look like us, talk like us, sound like us, otherwise we don’t want you here.’ Well of course I’m not — I’m never going to look like them. The secretary gets it … the problem is the secretary does not see the shit that goes down in the corridors particularly amongst the [FASs]. There’s a saying in the corridors and it goes something like this, ‘The FASs know how to kiss up to the secretary and they kick down.’ You can’t expect any secretary, I don’t care how good they are — and the former secretary was brilliant — they do not have a line of sight over what happens.”

Several commented on feeling the need to work extra hard to overcome racial prejudices about their aptitudes or work ethic, and experiencing the kind of racism that manifests in back-handed compliments about how surprisingly competent they are.

Perhaps one recommendation is enough

The ANU research report “managed to shock” retired public servant and Indigenous affairs specialist Michael Dillon, who was moved to write a detailed blog post about the issues it raised. The shocking part was data showing only 25 senior executives in the APS identify as Indigenous in the middle of 2019 — just over 1% of more than 2,300 — and this has hardly changed at all in a decade.

Overall, Indigenous people make up about 3% of the 150,000-odd Commonwealth public servants but they are very much concentrated at the lower grades.

From their research, Faulkner and Lahn devised seven recommendations for the APS Commission to consider, five pieces of career advice for Indigenous public servants, and five ways non-Indigenous public servants can support greater Indigenous representation at senior level. They advised the government and APS leaders to:

  1. Increase accountability at the highest levels for improving progression through recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into executive and senior executive roles.
  2. Set employment targets at all levels and monitor progress.
  3. Establish mechanisms to facilitate increased mentoring, coaching and sponsoring of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff by senior executives.
  4. Develop a greater number of senior roles (SES and EL) and career opportunities outside Canberra, including policy roles, not just service delivery.
  5. Create clear pathways and plainly communicate expectations for career progression, and enhance formal feedback processes for unsuccessful applications to positions and opportunities.
  6. Develop and promote a strong ‘value proposition’, clearly articulating the diverse range of strengths that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees bring to the APS.
  7. Utilise existing tools such as the Australian Public Service Employment Database and the APS Employee Census to monitor career progression across the service

Dillon says these recommendations “make intuitive sense” and have merit, as do others with similar aims found in submissions to the APS Review, and the good intentions in this direction expressed by the APS Review’s interim report. But as a former policymaker with many years of experience in this space, he doubts they will be implemented.

He says the risk of such lists is they are “too fine-grained, too detailed, and too amorphous to ensure that policymakers at political and bureaucratic levels focus on them” and set himself a single question to answer:

What single policy change would make the biggest difference to Indigenous outcomes and APS employment levels over the medium term?

He decided this recommendation had to be “easy to implement… relatively visible and not easily ignored” and it needed to have broad and ongoing impact across all mainstream policy areas. His answer was to replace all the goals and recommendations with a single Prime Ministerial commitment to double the ranks of Indigenous SES officers to 50 within four years, and double it again to 100 within 10 years.

This would make the senior public servants of today jump up and “do all they could do to find ways to meet the commitment” in Dillon’s view. He believes it would “organically and informally encourage and facilitate” the desired outcomes that inform the recommendations of Lahn and Faulkner, and those of the APS Indigenous Steering Committee.

“If we had two or three Indigenous SES officers in each of Health, Home Affairs, Finance, Treasury, and so on, they would begin to establish an inclusive environment and context that would encourage the promotion and retention of more junior officers.”


Read more: Indigenous public service leaders wanted, to help reform ‘the structures of colonisation’

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