Indigenous staff: ‘bums on seats’ mentality decried

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 17, 2016

Too many public sector agencies take a “bums on seats” or “tick a box” approach to Indigenous recruitment, a recent Australia and New Zealand School of Government seminar heard.

“Bums on seats — have they thought beyond that to ‘once we’ve got them what do they want to do? Why are they going to come and work for us?’,” said one Indigenous participant under Chatham House rules.

He said not enough organisations ask themselves “who are we benefiting: the Aboriginal people who come and work for us, or ourselves because we can say we’ve got blackfellas working for us?

“Those are the fundamental questions that are never being asked.”

‘It’s like you’re a servant of a lesser public’

The speaker noted that there is still a tendency for public servants to see their Aboriginal colleagues as lower in the hierarchy.

“You do get looked at as a lesser public servant because you get branded as an Aboriginal public servant,” he said. “It’s like you’re a servant of a lesser public.”

This is particularly the case if you work in Indigenous affairs.

“If you’re Aboriginal and work in the Aboriginal affairs space in some nature, you could be working as the manager of traffic regulation in transport, you’re still branded an Aboriginal public servant — though it happens to a lesser degree.

“‘We’re expected to dance and do ceremonies — I don’t paint, I don’t sing. I define culture as my connection to other people on a daily basis.”

“But if you’re Aboriginal and work in the Aboriginal space … it comes with not just an additional set of issues, it comes with a multiplicity of issues. It’s a multiplier effect, not an addition effect.”

Aboriginal public servants can end up being sandwiched between government and a distrustful community. “Externally, particularly in the Aboriginal community, because you work for government somehow that forfeits your right to participate beyond what you do for a living … you don’t shove it off at the end of the day.”

This may help to explain what researchers call the notion of “pre-choice”: that Indigenous people must actively decide whether to go inside a governmental system born out of colonialism, one which many remain highly suspicious of.

“Oftentimes they will elect at different points in their career to opt out because they’re either sick of it or they believe they can do better things in other places. And that, we think, is actually what explains a lot of churn,” said another speaker.

A lived culture, not a glass cage

Recruiting more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into government needs to be accompanied by a stronger drive for cultural understanding to ensure Indigenous people feel they fit in in the workplace, several said.

But “culture” and cultural competence is about more than just art — it’s about bringing an Indigenous perspective of the world into the mainstream thinking of how the public service operates.

“People talk about culture and it’s universally ‘oh we have to dance and do ceremonies’. I don’t paint, I don’t sing — unless I’m drunk and there’s a karaoke bar,” said the first participant. “I define culture as my connection to other people on a daily basis. The relationships we have.

“So when people say that in the south of Australia that we’re not as connected to our culture, I think to myself, ‘no that’s wrong’. Our culture has been under intense evolution for the past 200 years, yet we are still a collective group of people who have very strong bonds with each other. Just because I can’t speak old language, I can’t paint, I don’t dance, doesn’t mean I’m not intimately connected with my culture and what it means in its fullness,” he said.

Agencies also need to consider how they prioritise certain skill sets. An unrelenting focus on brief writing skills, for example, may make it more difficult for some to get ahead.

Several speakers argued the public service does not appreciate the skills many Indigenous people bring, such as intercultural fluency, the ability to deal with complex issues and manage across networks.

“The ability to herd cats, as I call it. Nobody appreciates the difficulty — the skill you need to be able to bring an eclectic group of people together, keep them on a common path, manage all the stuff that’s going on, deliver on an agenda that government might have which isn’t probably well formed in the first place.”

This is part of a broader governmental problem of focusing on three or four-year terms, rarely pausing to imagine what the country will look like a generation or two from now. Australia has an inordinate focus on funding in Indigenous affairs, unlike New Zealand, which is moving more towards “co-creation” and “personalisation” in Maori issues, the seminar heard.

“Man cannot live by service delivery alone” commented one, referencing a 2003 Gerhardt Pearson paper.

Still underrepresented in senior ranks

Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Belinda Clark told The Mandarin the “bums on seats” mentality was not a problem she was aware of, arguing recruiters are keen to get Aboriginal staff on board. Nonetheless, she admitted pigeon holing and the lack of Indigenous officers at higher levels was still a problem:

“‘Box ticking’ is not an issue that has been raised to date with the Victorian Public Sector Commission. Rather, the VPSC’s experience administering the Aboriginal Pathway to Graduate Recruitment and Development Scheme indicates that managers are keen to recruit Aboriginal graduates and provide positive work experiences; and in the most recent intake the level of demand for Aboriginal Pathway graduates exceeded the number of applicants,” she said.

“That said, significant barriers remain in the public service. Aboriginal employees are relatively well represented at junior levels of the public service, but are less likely to occupy more senior roles, and can be ‘pigeon-holed’ into Aboriginal specific career paths.”

A newly established Aboriginal Employment Unit at the VPSC “is developing new pathways for Aboriginal recruitment and will then work with employees, managers and agencies to improve pathways for career development and progression across the Victorian public sector,” Clark added.

The Australian Public Sector Commission’s Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy outlines four key action areas to help reach its goal of 3% of Australian Public Service employees being Indigenous by 2018:

  • Expand the range of Indigenous employment opportunities;
  • Invest in developing the capability of Indigenous employees;
  • Increase the representation of Indigenous employees in senior roles; and
  • Improve the awareness of Indigenous culture in the workplace.

The APSC argues sustainable improvement in Indigenous representation will be driven by the following principles:

  • Accountability — the head of each Commonwealth agency is accountable for improving the representation of Indigenous Australians in their workforce;
  • Leadership — public sector leaders are to participate and take action to drive improvements in the employment of Indigenous Australians;
  • Cultural Capability — the public sector has culturally safe workplaces where Indigenous employees are supported and valued for their contribution and where managers are culturally aware; and
  • Partnership — between Commonwealth public sector agencies, state and territory governments, non-government organisations and the private sector, to improve Indigenous employment outcomes and share best practice.

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