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

By Stephen Easton

Monday November 25, 2019

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Governments need to make a long-term investment in Indigenous leadership backed up by significant structural and cultural change, argues the head of the Australia New Zealand School of Government.

“It is essential public services do more to recognise the value of having Indigenous leaders, recruit and support those leaders, create pathways and change definitions of leadership to reflect how Indigenous people work between government agencies and NGO’s (NFP’s, mutuals and the private sector) and individual communities,” Professor Ken Smith told a recent meeting of ANZSOG’s Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum in Canberra.

Smith thanked the National Indigenous Australians Agency for its funding support to the cross-jurisdictional forum, and acknowledged the personal contribution of its deputy CEO, federal public servant Professor Ian Anderson, who also spoke to the group of 23 Indigenous leaders.

“Indigenous public servants are critical to influencing the system that underpins public service practice and to reforming the relationships between government and the people,” Anderson said.

“We need a reformation of public service practice that actually makes real the idea of working in partnership, with institutions and practices that provide opportunities for people outside of government to make a meaningful contribution to the decision-making of government.”

The Australian Public Service is a long way from the goal described by Smith. Of over 2300 APS senior executives, Anderson is one of just over 1% who identify as Indigenous. Australian National University researchers reported there were only 25 midway through this year, and the number has barely changed in a decade.


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


“It requires innovation and thinking outside the boxes and siloes that the public sector loves to construct in all areas of policy and service delivery and particularly in the ‘churn’ of Indigenous policy and service delivery,” said Smith.

“We need to acknowledge there will always be tensions in using the structures of colonisation to amend and redress the damage that colonisation has done to Indigenous communities. But encouraging Indigenous leadership, and embedding Indigenous values and approaches across the public service, can help build organisations that are culturally competent, innovative, and serve communities more sensitively and appropriately.”

The ANZSOG chief executive suggested that if more Indigenous leaders were “front and centre in positions of real power” there would be more chance of policy-makers actually listening and learning through genuine relationships, and avoiding failures like the federal government providing income-management cards to people who live hundreds of kilometres from where they are accepted.

“Indigenous public servants face unique challenges in operating in western institutions while maintaining their commitment to culture and communities,” he said in a speech opening the November forum.

“Many public sector agencies struggle to recognise and accommodate this, let alone appreciate the value of those connections, and this failure in turn causes Indigenous public servants to leave. We are all losers from this failure.”

NIAA chief executive Ray Griggs, a retired Navy Vice-Admiral who was formerly Vice-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, also endorsed the trans-Tasman staff network’s goal of “changing the way government bureaucracy works” by getting more Indigenous people into its senior levels.

“We can’t shy away from the fact that working together in genuine partnership is hard – it demands that public servants at all levels need to approach things differently,” Griggs said.

“But we have to change the system so that we can facilitate authentic and accessible discussions and collectively deliver real and lasting improvements for Indigenous people.

“Our plan is to make NIAA a proving ground for this. We need to ensure that the Indigenous perspective and experience is embedded into policy-making at all levels and from the very beginning to help make sure we get our policies and programs right.”

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