Indigenous mentoring goes service wide as APS chases 3% diversity target

By Stephen Easton

Monday September 5, 2016

The federal government has established a new service-wide mentoring program for Indigenous public servants, as its workforce agency tries to implement the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy.

The Australian Public Service Commission is seeking expressions of interest from junior employees who’d like some mentoring, and from “energetic and experienced” APS leaders who are keen to share their wisdom.

Other mentoring programs for APS employees of Indigenous background have been run by individual agencies such as the Department of Human Services, Department of Social Services and Australian Taxation Office. This is the first time, however, that mentoring for Indigenous public servants has been offered through a single program across the whole of the APS.

The new employment strategy, which was developed with reference to the advice of mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, sets measures to meet the target of 3% Indigenous employment in the wider Commonwealth public sector by 2018. It states:

“We need to offer Indigenous Australians a range of entry pathways into the public service and better career development opportunities for existing Indigenous employees. We must also increase the representation of Indigenous Australians in senior leadership positions.”

Like other workforce diversity targets, the 3% goal is explained as an effort to break down unconscious bias and outright discrimination against certain groups, in line with the principle that the public service workforce should be somewhat reflective of the society it serves.

HR as outcomes-focused policy

But in the case of Indigenous employment, the target is also linked with wider efforts to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and progress toward it is now included in the federal Closing the Gap Report. The idea is that having a greater number of Indigenous public servants will naturally lead to better outcomes for Indigenous communities, but it is not clear how this is supposed to work in a practical sense inside the APS.

Research commissioned by the APSC to explain why Indigenous public servants leave their jobs at a surprisingly high rate suggests their Indigenous background is not valued as much as they were led to expect at the outset.

Among the Indigenous staff they interviewed, the researchers from the Australian National University clearly detected “a sense that any potential to make a difference through their participation in the APS – notably in terms of advancing the interests of Aboriginal people and their communities – was quite delimited or postponed”.

One interviewee, however, spoke highly of a previous nationwide Indigenous mentoring program, which was stopped when Indigenous affairs bureaucrats were moved into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

“Before we MoG-ed we had an Indigenous mentoring program nationally, it was an opt in voluntary basis. I had a mentor … and I used to meet with him on a fortnightly basis and we’d talk through career aspirations … and I found that fantastic because he was a completely different person separate to the office … and that got cancelled as soon as we got MoG-ed. Hasn’t been in place since.”

The research also suggests that “cultural awareness” and connections to Indigenous communities should be far more important attributes to attain senior positions in the IA policy space than they have been.

Improving cultural awareness in government workplaces is one of four key action areas in the strategy, along with providing more job opportunities to people from Indigenous backgrounds, investing in their professional development, and getting more Indigenous bureaucrats into senior roles — the goal which mentoring is chiefly expected to support in the long run.

The APSC has a range of other measures to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy including an implementation guide, quarterly forums for HR managers on Indigenous employment matters (the next is November 24), and a dedicated Indigenous careers portal.

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