Indigenous public servants edge closer to federal target

By Harley Dennett

April 12, 2016

While it’s not the nation’s most ambitious indigenous personnel target in government, the Australian Public Service is drawing closer to reaching its 3% target by 2018.

The latest APS snapshot from the Australian Public Service Commission shows that at the end of 2015, some 3818 or 2.88% of federal public servants identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Last year Indigenous Affairs Minister announced the target for each federal mandarin to reach in their agency or department, but later amended the directive so that that portfolios didn’t need to reach the overall target individually. The Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy instead sets each agency a target that reflects its current representation and regional footprint.

A spokesperson for the Australian Public Service Commission says this is the first time the government has set agency-level targets for indigenous representation. Progress towards targets will be published by agency on the PM&C website from this year.

Two departments currently hold most of government’s indigenous talent, both in count and percentage of their workforce: the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with 339 indigenous employees (14.4%) and Department of Human Services with 1565 (4.5%).

Not content with leading the pack, PM&C told The Mandarin it has an even more ambitious target for itself. A spokesperson for the department said in a statement:

“The Department takes the role of leading the Indigenous Affairs portfolio very seriously and has committed to achieving a stretch target of 17% indigenous representation by 2018.

“A dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employee Strategy has been developed which outlines how this will achieved … [and] to strengthen retention initiatives we are also reviewing our advancement and talent programmes for indigenous employees.”

PM&C progress towards that target was set back, however, by the now-closed redundancy round. 17% of accepted redundancy offers were from its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

Outside the Indigenous Affairs portfolio, PM&C still has approximately 2.2% indigenous employees across the remainder of the department, putting it in the upper half.

APSC are helping agencies reach their self-determined targets with indigenous recruitment, mentoring or talent development programs, including the Indigenous Pathways Graduate and Trainee Programme, Indigenous Australian Government Development Programme and the Indigenous Apprenticeship Programme.

The commission also published an implementation guide to its ATSI employment strategy that could be used in any jurisdiction.

Targets don’t address the problem

An ANZSOG forum earlier this year heard that indigenous employees bring skills in intercultural fluency, networks and complex policy challenges, but not all Aboriginal staff are keen to be employed just to fill a KPI.

“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 public servants, who agreed to have his comments published by The Mandarin on condition of anonymity.

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.”

Choosing to work with or inside government is a more complex decision for many indigenous Australians because of the legacy of colonialism.

A repeated concern is that the drive to recruit 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.

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