Solving the mystery of why some Indigenous policy works

By David Donaldson

November 17, 2016

Kevin Ronberg, who has a small farming business, is pictured outside his home on an outstation near Alice Springs, Thursday, May 28, 2015. The Northern Territory government is considering a federal budget offer from the Commonwealth for a $155 million one-off payment to take over the delivery of essential services to remote communities, in line with similar deals made by WA, SA, Queensland and Victoria. (AAP Image/Dan Peled) NO ARCHIVING

There is an “urgent need” for more evaluation of successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs to identify common attributes for success, says the Productivity Commission.

ATSI programs that have undergone full evaluation are “relatively scarce”, according to the PC’s seventh Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, released Thursday.

The report echoes concerns raised by the head of the federal department responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Dr Martin Parkinson, after taking on the head APS job. He also called for more partnerships to share skills and knowledge.

There is a lot of data available on outcomes, however. Progress is being made across many key indicators of Indigenous advancement, while some have stagnated. A few indicators — mental health, substance use, suicide and self harm and imprisonment — have gone backwards in recent years. Several are unclear due to inadequate data.

Many key indicators have shown progress, but plenty of others are stagnant or unclear.
Many key indicators have shown progress, but plenty of others are stagnant or unclear.

There have been improvements in many areas of health, economic participation and aspects of education since the last report two years ago, though backsliding in other areas is concerning, said Peter Harris, chair of the Productivity Commission and of the Steering Committee.

“It is encouraging to see improvement over the last decade in rates of year 12 completion and post school education. But alarmingly the national imprisonment rate has increased 77 per cent over the last 15 years, and hospitalisation rates for self-harm have increased by 56% over the last decade,” Harris explained.

In an effort to spread useful lessons, the report includes some case studies on things that work to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Yet there is a need for more evidence, explained deputy chair Karen Chester.

“If we are to see improvements in outcomes we need to know which policies work and why. But the overwhelming lack of robust, public evaluation of programs highlights the imperative for Indigenous policy evaluation,” she said.

Several reports have identified the lack of robust evaluation of government programs for Indigenous people and encouraged a much greater investment in evaluation.

Principles for better Indigenous policy

Despite a lack of definitive evidence, there there have been attempts at quantifying what makes good Indigenous policy and implementation. The PC suggests that “good government governance, such as improved coordination among agencies, removing duplication of services, adapting to change, a stable policy environment and effective processes, and learning from evidence drawn from past evaluations,” all impact on the governance and implementation of services for ATSI people.

The Closing the Gap Clearinghouse identified the following high level principles and practices as underpinning successful Indigenous programs:

  • flexibility in design and delivery so that local needs and contexts can be taken into account
  • community involvement and engagement in both the development and delivery of programs
  • the importance of building trust and relationships
  • a well-trained and well-resourced workforce, with an emphasis on retention of staff
  • continuity and coordination of services.

These principles are similar to the governance success factors identified in previous PC reports:

  • cooperative approaches between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and government — often with the non-profit and private sectors as well
  • community involvement in program design and decision-making — a bottom-up rather than top-down approach
  • good governance — at organisation, community and government levels
  • ongoing government support — including human, financial and physical resources.

The commission also cites the problems raised in a recent book examining the history of ATSI policymaking, Mark Moran’s Serious Whitefella Stuff: when solutions became the problem in Indigenous affairs:

  • continual purging of previous policies as new policies are implemented often without evaluation or learning from what has gone before
  • periodic swings in policy, such as from more decentralised to more centralised approaches without consideration of what would work best in a particular place
  • mimicking of a policy that may have worked in one place and implementing it elsewhere without consideration of local contexts
  • contradictions in policy between one program, agency or level of government and another so that what one policy aims to achieve is undermined by another program or policy.

The data: key findings

Outcomes have improved in a number of areas for the approximately 3% of Australians who are Indigenous. This report uncovered some success stories:

  • Mortality rates for children improved significantly between 1998 and 2014, particular for 0<1 year olds, whose mortality rates more than halved (from 14 to 6 deaths per 1000 live births).
  • Education improvements included increases in the proportion of 20–24 year olds completing year 12 or above (from 2008 to 2014-15) and the proportion of 20–64 year olds with or working towards post-school qualifications (from 2002 to 2014-15).
  • The proportion of adults whose main income was from employment increased from 32% to 43% between 2002 and 2014-15, with household income increasing over this period.
  • The proportion of adults that recognised traditional lands increased from 70% to 74% from 2002 to 2014-15.

However, there has been little or no change for some indicators:

  • Rates of family and community violence were unchanged between 2002 and 2014-15 (around 22%), and risky long-term alcohol use in 2014-15 was similar to 2002 (though lower than 2008).
  • The proportions of people learning and speaking Indigenous languages remains unchanged from 2008 to 2014-15.

And outcomes have worsened in some areas:

  • The proportion of adults reporting high levels of psychological distress increased from 27% in 2004-05 to 33% in 2014-15.
  • Hospitalisations for self-harm increased by 56% over this period.
  • The proportion of adults reporting substance misuse in the previous 12 months increased from 23% in 2002 to 31% in 2014-15.
  • The adult imprisonment rate increased 77% between 2000 and 2015, and whilst the juvenile detention rate has decreased it is still 24 times the rate for non-Indigenous youth.

Top image: Kevin Ronberg runs an outstation near Alice Springs. AAP Image/Dan Peled.

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