When the landmark National Agreement on Closing the Gap was signed in 2020, Pat Turner AM, lead convener of the Coalition of Peaks and CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation called for celebration – and hard work.
“Today we celebrate this historic Agreement and those who fought hard to make it a reality,” said Turner, at the time. “But tomorrow, the true work begins when we start to implement its commitments within our communities.”
Tomorrow has well and truly arrived. And so, while we continue to applaud the intent of the agreement between federal, state/territory and local governments, and the Coalition of Peaks; it’s time to get down to work.
The key, however, will be working differently.
Working together, differently
There’s a shared understanding that working together should look different in 2022. Australian governments have committed to working in new ways with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so they can achieve self-determination.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, meanwhile, have expressed a desire to work alongside governments to design and implement outcomes that are identified by – and with – Indigenous communities.
This new approach is not about changing Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. In fact, it’s about embracing them. This change is about governments and Indigenous communities finding ways to work in the ‘middle space’ together.
It’s about collective decision-making and shared accountability. And it’s about common outcomes and positive change.
What do we mean by the ‘middle space’?
The Closing the Gap Agreement is built around four Priority Reforms, and 17 socioeconomic targets and outcomes. The challenge is how to translate those Priority Reforms into concrete ways of working, and how to establish true partnerships between governments and Indigenous communities.
Enter: the concept of the ‘middle space’. This is where governments and communities can find common language and develop common goals together. It’s about recognising that although governments and communities may see things differently, both groups are prepared to listen to one another, learn from one another, and co-design new ways of working together.
For governments, this means relinquishing old methods and paradigms, and coming to the table willing to listen, learn, and commit to implementing solutions that are identified by Indigenous communities. The middle space challenges old ways of working, to promote and enact shared decision-making based on shared understanding.
Government agencies may grapple with the tension between the idea of shared decision-making and accountability versus the current frameworks that guide the use of public resources (such as the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, or equivalent state or territory legislation). We recommend that consideration be given to a new framework – one that has shared decision-making enshrined, while still ensuring transparency and accountability for the use of public resources.
In other words, both things can be achieved.
5 steps towards a new approach
At PwC’s Indigenous Consulting, what we have learned (and continue to learn) about working in the middle space is that it requires a shift in mindset from government in order to make progress. Practically speaking, governments can:
1. Empower Indigenous leadership and cultural authority at a local level
When it comes to implementing Closing the Gap (CTG) commitments, much of the work needs to happen with communities at a local or regional level. This involves not just consulting with service delivery organisations in a community but taking the time to really engage and work with community leadership at a local and/or regional level. This is what working differently with community means.
Communities need time and resources to set up their own meaningful, representative structures to engage with government, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Cultural authorities will vary according to different locations. Also, some communities will already have existing structures in place, while others won’t. What they do have in common, however, is a need for governments to respect and work with Indigenous leadership at a grassroots level.
2. Embrace genuine co-design
It’s impossible to realise shared decision-making and accountability if governments enter communities with a predefined agenda. The same goes for any preconceived ideas about program design and outcomes.
To meet in the middle space, governments need to let go of existing accountability frameworks and processes, moving from consultation to genuine co-design. This means incorporating the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous communities to develop a shared agenda and way of achieving agreed outcomes.
3. Let go of predefined KPIs or outcomes
As part of genuine co-design, governments must be open to new approaches to setting KPIs and defining outcomes, including different methods of measurement.
For instance, governments can improve the ways they value cultural determinants, instead of relying solely on measuring the social determinants of health. Or they can improve the ways they recognise experiential data, rather than exclusively using quantitative data. And communities can be instrumental in collecting and interpreting such data.
4. Adopt a systems approach
Indigenous communities feel frustrated when different government agencies and/or levels of government approach them separately in relation to similar policies, programs and/or services, especially as many of the targets and outcomes being sought through CTG are linked.
Meeting in the middle space requires a ‘joined-up’ approach, where representatives from various agencies and levels of government work together consistently with communities and build relationships over the long term. This is critical in creating genuine partnerships to implement the CTG Priority Reforms.
5. Develop a shared understanding of language and concepts
The way governments describe things is not always the way communities describe them, and words can be easily misunderstood if time is not spent listening deeply.
Working in the middle space means finding a common language – in spoken word, written word and via visual concepts – to describe the issues and strategies that communities want to work on. That way, when those ideas are converted into action, they move everyone forward to their shared outcomes.
In short: it all comes down to working together, differently.
Government agencies are transforming the way they work with Indigenous peoples; however, these transformation journeys have different starting points and varying levels of maturity. Government agencies can boost their ability to work differently with Indigenous communities. The first step is to undertake a capability assessment and develop a capability building plan. For more information contact PwC’s Indigenous Consulting.