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Walking in both worlds: Indigenous public servants’ challenges and strengths

For Indigenous public servants, having to “walk in both worlds” presents challenges — but can also be a significant source of strength and leadership.

Navigating the expectations of Indigenous communities and the norms of the public service means Indigenous public servants can bring different perspectives, but also sometimes experience isolation, a report released by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government reveals.

The report, which is based on discussions that brought together more than 300 Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Maori and non-Indigenous public servants, argues that boosting Indigenous leadership is vital to improve outcomes for Indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand.

Many participants expressed a hope that Indigenous leadership would come to be seen as business as usual in the public sector.

“Normalising Indigenous leadership will require overturning deficit narratives as the typical frame through which government approaches communities,” said the report. Instead, “governments could focus on the strengths and success of Indigenous people and communities, encouraging the co-production of policy and the engagement of more First Peoples as actors within the public sector at the SES level”.

Delegates from all jurisdictions also discussed the need for the public sector to be more proactive at creating career pathways and improving retention, arguing that the public sector must actively seek out Indigenous people and support them into the SES if it is to break out of the pattern of “like-by-like” recruitment and appointment.

“We do not just need to render our system attractive to people, that’s a really passive thing to do, we need to do what the private sector does every day: identify talent, go after talent, and actively recruit bright young Indigenous people,” said Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Participants also discussed the difficulty of finding a balance between ignoring Indigenous public servants’ indigeneity and expecting them to be “the sole representatives of a pan-Indigenous culture”. While being expected to speak on behalf of a diverse community can be isolating, Indigenous public servants can also play an important role in bringing diverse perspectives.

Delegates talked about the necessity for Indigenous public servants — particularly at the leadership level of the SES — “to learn skills around communicating to non-Indigenous public servants and mainstream agencies about their expert, first-hand knowledge of Indigenous affairs”.

But it’s also incumbent upon agencies to develop non-Indigenous employees’ understandings of Indigenous cultures and communities in a meaningful way, ANZSOG suggests.

“It’s not just making room in ‘our’ institutional world … here’s a little spot for the Indigenous people,” says Ritchie, “it’s actually bringing those people with their skills and capabilities into our institutions and letting our institutions be changed by that. And that’s much more powerful and for me a much more appealing approach than the idea of mainstreaming.”

Balancing aspirations for community development with the public service norm of impartiality is another point of tension — but one that, if well-managed, can be highly productive. Indigenous public servants make the calculation that it is more useful to push for change from inside the system, despite the possibility that such priorities may clash with those of the government of the day. And yet the work of trailblazers such as Charlie Perkins, Pat Turner and Tom Calma show that progress can be made.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith, who was an observer of the forum that informed the report, said he hoped it would be the first step in creating an active network of senior Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori public servants to share knowledge and experience, and support Indigenous leadership across all areas of the public sector.

“We can’t talk about improving the public administration of Indigenous affairs without thinking about Indigenous leadership in the public sector,” he said.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.