Governments need to improve evaluation of Indigenous programs because we don’t know whether many of them even work, says the nation’s top bureaucrat.
“A high proportion of what we fund has, at best, a weak evidence base of how it affects Indigenous peoples,” Martin Parkinson told the audience at last week’s Dungala Kaiela Oration in Shepparton.
“We must gather evidence which shows we are improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. And if that evidence tells us otherwise, we must change our approach.”
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary wants public servants to question what the department does: what did we get right and what did we get wrong? And why?
“We need to come to discussions with communities with meaningful information that empowers them to make good decisions about where and how to invest. We also need evidence and robust evaluations to demonstrate to the public at large that we are achieving results in many areas, and changing direction to ensure resources are ending up where they are most effective.”
Economic drivers from within the Indigenous community
Government needs to commit to the economic development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples based on accumulated knowledge, Parkinson argues.
“We know that the keys to self-reliance, independence and improved social outcomes are: higher levels of employment; Indigenous business ownership; and the opportunity to use and develop culture, knowledge and land assets to generate wealth.”
Indigenous Land Corporation chair Eddie Fry last month outlined plans to do just that with better usage of the Indigenous Estate. But there remains a contentious relationship between community organisations and the public servants in Canberra.
Parkinson has also thought about that problem and sees fault in the way the relationship has been approached to date:
“We also need to move beyond a transactional approach to business, to one of true partnership. From one where the relationship is characterised by applications being submitted and considered against program criteria; contracts set; funds delivered; and reports provided — in other words, Indigenous people operating in the bureaucrat’s world.
“We want to move to a new approach with a focus on data; on evidence; on true community engagement; on flexibility; on accountability to the people being affected — an approach where bureaucrats operate in your world. To successfully deliver this agenda we need to focus more strongly, at every stage, on building the evidence base and evaluating our initiatives.
“We must be mindful that Indigenous Affairs cannot be viewed through a one-size-fits-all lens.”
Targets: essential for governance, powerful for impact
Targets are important, too, says the PM&C boss. Parkinson acknowledged that there is still much work to be done to get them right:
“While not everyone is a fan, well-designed, evidence-based targets developed in partnership with Aboriginal people are a powerful way of focusing Government action. For a national agenda such as Closing the Gap — with far-reaching, long-term implications for Indigenous policy — genuine engagement, partnership and collaboration with Aboriginal people are crucial. A collaboration and partnership built on honesty, respect and on shared responsibility and accountability.”
Coincidentally, Parkinson gave the speech a few days before this week’s release of a Centre for Independent Studies report which argues that fewer than 10% of the 1082 Indigenous programs identified by the think tank had been evaluated “and of those programs that were evaluated, few used methods that actually provided evidence of the program’s effectiveness.”
A report by the Productivity Commission last year also highlighted the importance of bringing more rigour to Indigenous program funding. Productivity Commission chair Peter Harris argued that current evaluation was inadequate:
“‘If we are to see improvements in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians we need to move further into the detail, examining which policies and programs work better than others and why. Our current focus is on setting targets and monitoring outcomes. This must be complemented by evaluation.”
The commission emphasised that we already know what the problem is — Indigenous disadvantage — so focusing on the problem, rather than the solution, will likely have diminishing returns. Harris believes there is a strong case for “rationalising” the current framework for reporting on Indigenous outcomes and disadvantage.
‘There is a wide array of information available to tell the story of Indigenous disadvantage, but surely the nature and significance of that disadvantage is not in dispute. Removing some of the duplicate reporting could be a means of freeing up resources for policy evaluation.”
The Dungala Kaiela Oration is hosted by the Kaiela Institute, which is a community investment organisation formed in 2011 by local leaders to provide an evidence-based holistic approach to step change improvements in the key areas of education, employment and inclusion for Indigenous people in the Goulburn Murray region.