For genuine collaboration with Indigenous communities on policy, government must change how it regards Indigenous public servants, representation, control and mutual learning

By Catherine Althaus

Monday August 12, 2019

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Associate Professor Catherine Althaus is Associate Dean (Academic) the Australia New Zealand School of Government.

If governments are to improve outcomes in Indigenous policy, they must invest in public service Indigenous leadership and reset their relationships with Indigenous communities. They can do this by acknowledging that Aboriginal leadership is central to delivering public value.

While political debate is focusing on constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples, there is much that public services can change at a practical level to change the way they work with Indigenous communities. These changes involve recognising that Indigenous communities are different, that they need to be engaged with as equals, and that their knowledge and culture can benefit all Australians.

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The Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), with the financial support of the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, held its Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms in February.

The conference gave more than 400 delegates the chance to hear from 54 speakers, 47 of them Indigenous, on how we can reimagine Indigenous policy and change the relationship between governments and First Peoples across Australia and New Zealand. Breakout sessions provided a chance to move away from the deficit model and hear about successful Indigenous-driven initiatives, particularly in health and education.

ANZSOG has now published its final report from the conference, outlining how governments can invest in Indigenous employment and leadership in the public service by recognising the need to reset relationships with communities and acknowledging that Indigenous peoples, communities, culture and knowledge are central to delivering better public value.

A call for opportunity and respect

It means genuine engagement and consultation with Indigenous communities, even if this takes more time and does not necessarily produce a government’s preferred outcome. Approaching Indigenous communities with a question or a matter a government would like to work through rather than presenting communities with pre-determined solutions can be the basis for relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

The keynote speaker was University of Melbourne’s Professor Marcia Langton, whose message was simple: give the money to the Indigenous sector, give the power to the Indigenous sector.

Other speakers at the conference reinforced the call for greater recognition of the forms and power of Indigenous leadership both inside and outside the public sector.

Four consistent messages emerged from the conference:

  1. Give Indigenous communities more control: Communities need the money, authority and power to identify their priorities, make their own investment decisions, and deliver their own services. This will lead to better outcomes for First Peoples.
  2. Everyone can learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and being: Governments must support the expression, continuation and celebration of Indigenous language, culture and knowledge. Culture is essential to the wellbeing of Indigenous communities, and investing in culture can improve trust and relationships between communities and government.
  3. Representation matters: We need Indigenous people represented across the public service at all levels, and particularly as senior decisionmakers. Indigenous people bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experience and can challenge the status quo to affect positive change for communities.
  4. We are all agents for change: All of us, whether Indigenous or not, have a responsibility to challenge our own mindset and the mindsets of the people we work with, to achieve change in Indigenous public administration. Individuals must reimagine themselves, their role in the system, and their relationship with Indigenous people and communities.

To thrive, Indigenous public servants must straddle two worlds. Is that fair?

Employing Indigenous people is not a box-ticking exercise, but it is essential for developing relationships with communities and for changing the culture of public sector agencies.

Many Indigenous speakers told of the emotional labour of working in a bicultural context — a skill and task that non-Indigenous colleagues do not have to master, intellectually or emotionally. Thus, the effort is not being reciprocated. Governments are not putting in the work to understand the experiences of Indigenous people or how to harness their potential. Indigenous public servants often act as bridges between different worlds, facilitating knowledge, developing new ideas and innovation, giving voice, mobilising resources, giving and generating respect, and providing role modelling.

Research I have undertaken with Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh by interviewing Indigenous public servants in Queensland and British Columbia to inform our book, Leading from Between, shows these issues are not unique to Australia. There is a remarkably consistent set of conceptual and practical understandings of leadership, and of experiences of institutionalised racism. When there is a persistent pattern of Indigenous public servants avoiding promotion to senior roles because of the feeling those roles do not allow Indigenous staff to challenge policy or engage with communities, and the preference of those people is to work ‘under the radar’, then governments need to rethink how they treat Indigenous employees.

Evolving our perspectives on leadership

Perhaps the most fundamental message from the conference was a call for systemic change: the need to validate the idea that Indigenous leadership is of the same calibre as other leadership. It is a natural part of our system, not an add-on or afterthought.

We need to understand that Indigenous leadership may look different to preconceived public sector notions of leadership, but it is pursuing the same goals.

If governments want to engage in genuine consultation or collaboration with Indigenous communities, or to enrich what they do with Indigenous culture and knowledge, then they need to change how they regard Indigenous employees.

While this is beginning to be acknowledged by public services, there is still an unwillingness to change the structures and assumptions that reduce the effectiveness of Indigenous public servants.

The vision outlined by the conference will require profound change, but until governments undergo fundamental change in the way they relate to Indigenous people and communities, we will never achieve the outcomes we need in Indigenous policy.

READ MORE: Craig Ritchie sees the mistakes public servants make working with Indigenous communities. How he finds policy and delivery success in ‘me knowing you and you knowing me’

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