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Implementing indigenous policy can work, says Fred Chaney

Australia has already learned how to fix many of the problems that bedevil bureaucratic intervention in indigenous welfare, according to former minister for Aboriginal affairs Fred Chaney. The trouble is that we “seldom, if ever” act in accordance with that knowledge.

Chaney, a former deputy chairman of the Australian Native Title Tribunal, told The Mandarin that normal bureaucratic processes are unlikely to be effective at dealing with “wicked” problems like indigenous disadvantage “because the problems are multi-factoral, and usually the program only authorises acting within a very defined space.”

This, he says, “has been acknowledged and lots of attempts have been made to deal with that”, though they have been largely unsuccessful. He believes the Abbott government’s decision to bring Aboriginal programs into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is well-intentioned and a move in the right direction, provided it can be pulled off.

“In the same way the notion that administration should be regionalised is a move in the right direction, so the Commonwealth has set itself an extremely ambitious target of major structural reorganisation of programs and major structural reorganisation of the bureaucracy, on what is a reasonably tight timeframe,” he said.

The government announced in the budget that from July 1, 2014 more than 150 individual programs and activities involving around 1400 organisations would be replaced with five streamlined programs worth $4.8 billion over four years.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is currently on a five-day trip to Arnhem Land as part of his promise to be a “prime minister for indigenous affairs”.

Giving the 2014 John Button oration last month, Chaney mused:

“Do we know how to do this work and how we should do business?  Do we have the required skill base in PM&C? What have we learned over 50 years?

“In my view we have learned a lot, with academics, bureaucrats, and the Productivity Commission finding a lot of common ground about what works.  What I believe we should learn from the past is that the failure of funding agencies, whether they are an ATSIC or a line department, to apply what has been learned is a consistent issue. How to do it is written down but in the past governments have not acted in accordance with what is written down.”

He told The Mandarin last week there is a need to re-skill and re-culture public servants away from an “understandably defensive” box-ticking mentality, towards a more outcome-focused, project management approach.

Chaney highlights two requirements to help this happen: ensuring civil servants’ duty statements are clearly defined and properly oriented towards the task, and restructuring lines of accountability to “hold people accountable to the pursuit of the government’s objectives, rather than a detailed prescription of how those objectives are to be met — because the circumstances in different parts of Australia are so utterly different, [the prescriptive approach] is doomed to failure”.

He is also critical of what he calls the “audit and punish” mentality of much evaluation, stressing that such exercises should be about learning. “How many times have things been evaluated and given high marks and then the funding disappears? A lot of people in the field would say there’s often very little relationship between evaluation and whether or not there’s continuity in our tasks. It’s almost as though that exists in a world of its own,” he said.

Chaney believes Andrew Forrest’s report on indigenous disadvantage “takes a Whitlam-like approach”, and notwithstanding some questionable parts, provides many good ideas. “The first part of the report is, in my view, some of the most soundly-based policy you could imagine,” said Chaney, “because it’s all drawn straight from the Telethon Institute of Kids Health.

“If you want a formula for starting a process where Aboriginal people not only attend school, but actually get an education at school, you can’t really fault what Twiggy’s saying. Is it doable? That’s another question. That falls back to the old problem of implementation. But it’s a more sophisticated target on which you could build long-term commitment across election and party lines.”

Preconditions for success

Discussing how he thought government could improve the way it implements indigenous policies, Chaney cites the preconditions for success set out in the 2011 steering committee for the review of government service provision report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators:

  • Co-operative approaches between Indigenous people and government — often with the non-profit and private sectors as well;
  • Community involvement in program design and decision making — a bottom-up rather than top-down approach;
  • Good governance — at organisation, community and government levels; and
  • Ongoing government support — including human, financial and physical resources.

In the 2012 Productivity Commission roundtable report Better Indigenous Policies: The Role of Evaluation, Chaney wrote that:

The Commonwealth has acknowledged the interconnectedness of the problems it seeks to address, and concluded that whole-of-government approaches are required. Two management advisory committees have described the changes in organisation and processes that are essential if whole-of-government is to work. The changes included five basic imperatives:

  • Substantial initial cross-agency-stakeholder agreement about the broad purposes to be pursued;
  • Use of the outcomes budget framework to pool resources and to create appropriate accountability frameworks;
  • Lead-agency staff empowered with sufficient authority to manage whole-of-government settings and to lead the engagement of local stakeholders;
  • Empowering these same managers to engage with relevant individuals and interests;
  • Ensure the individuals engaged in those latter roles have the appropriate networking, collaboration and entrepreneurial skills.

His chapter of the Productivity Commission report concludes that:

“Any successful approach has to be local — suited to local circumstances and realities. It has to start where the people are if they are to be engaged. As Noel Pearson has sagely observed, things have to be done in the right order, as circumstances require — another reason why approaches will be different from place to place. To be successful, an approach has to be supported by all levels of government. If, as at present, there is intergovernmental tension and rivalry, the game is lost. The approach has to have a legal framework that allows sufficient flexibility to do what has to be done to involve the people concerned in the design and delivery of programs, which in turn must take into account cultural perspectives. There has to be local capacity to manage towards agreed objectives and to deploy available resources accordingly. There has to be acceptance that mistakes will be made and that they will be used as learning experiences. There has to be local accountability. Government has to use employment rather than welfare approaches.

“We are a long way from meeting those conditions.”

More at The Mandarin: A road to real reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.