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Cutting the churn: development for indigenous workers

Indigenous public servants experience a higher turnover rate than their non-indigenous peers. A new course aims to change that.

The 2012-13 Australian Public Service State of the Sector report found that 20.5% of indigenous employees left the APS after less than one year  — almost four times the rate of non-indigenous employees (5.9%).

Typically, departments have responded by focusing on recruitment and retention strategies. But recent research by the Institute of Public Administration Australia and PricewaterhouseCoopers found that better professional development opportunities could reduce the churn.

Terry Garwood
Terry Garwood

“Often indigenous public servants are pigeonholed into indigenous-specific roles and are not able to progress further and become frustrated,” said Terry Garwood, deputy secretary at Victoria’s Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure.

Garwood, Victoria’s most senior Aboriginal bureaucrat serving outside an indigenous-focused portfolio, says giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees the opportunity to broaden their skills base and confidence is important in overcoming this.

“The key point is professional development,” he told The Mandarin. “That’s what we’ve got to focus on. That’s what will help reduce the churn factor.”

That’s exactly what a new course being run by IPAA Victoria, in partnership with Latrobe University, has been set up to achieve. The course will offer indigenous public servants the opportunity to gain a formal post-school qualification by studying areas that include entrepreneurial business planning, public sector accounting, leadership and public policy.

It’s hoped it will give the 34 students — from a range of departments and rural and urban areas throughout the state — the capacity and confidence to move into more management and policy-focused positions both within and outside indigenous-focused areas.

“It’s about enabling meaningful professional development to keep people in the job,” Travis Lovett, one of the course’s students and the current manager of the Koori Courts Unit at Victoria’s Department of Justice, told The Mandarin on the program’s first day.

“A lot of us would like to have the opportunity to move to more mainstream areas. For two reasons: first, for our own development; second, because then that opens up another position for someone else in indigenous-focused areas.”

Lovett adds that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees “feel we can only contribute to indigenous areas” — often in service delivery, and often at lower classifications than other public servants — and are seen by others as only being focused on those areas. Additionally, many do not hold the same level of educational qualifications as their non-indigenous peers, making it difficult to progress past a certain point without further study.

[pullquote] “I worked for over 20 years in indigenous areas. It set me up very well for the broader service system.” [/pullquote]

“But,” he said, “working in indigenous affairs, you learn a lot of skills that are transferrable.”

Terry Garwood agreed: “I worked for over 20 years in indigenous areas. It set me up very well for the broader service system. Skills like relationship management and change management are very useful in the broader service system. We just need to provide a bit of a leg up.”

Lovett cites the Koori Court as an example of an entrepreneurial approach to public administration — one of the key areas of the course — and the benefits of having indigenous input in program design. “It makes programs stronger,” he said.

Part of the challenge is making indigenous public servants aware of the professional services available to assist career progression, such as the Department of Justice’s Koori Staff Networks and IPAA Victoria’s Professional Indigenous Network.

Lovett, having completed the first day, is excited about the course. “We want to acknowledge the secretaries and deputy secretaries who’ve made this opportunity possible. We’ve all been supported well, including in our local workplaces,” he said.

Garwood, who is also chair of IPAA Victoria’s Indigenous Network Advisory Committee, said the results so far are encouraging: “We’re promoting the approach from this course in other states. We’re working with New South Wales, where there are similar issues.

“I was wondering whether we’d get the 20 people that would make the course viable, but we were oversubscribed in the end, so it looks like we were on the money.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.