Time to Change the Paradigm

Public Servants and Aboriginal Communities

Wendy Jarvie

Closing the Gap is the current Commonwealth and State government strategy for improving indigenous outcomes in Australia. Its focus is on reducing the marked disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, in opportunity and outcomes, including in health, education, infrastructure, employment and justice. Money, energy, time and government commitment are there.

However this strategy, like so many before, will fail unless public servants and their governments use a new paradigm. One drawn from research, including from earlier failures, and not from prevailing public sector management mindsets. Drawing from the COAG trials in Shepparton and Murdi Paaki, we suggest that the focus on outcomes needs to be tempered by three key elements:

1   Acknowledge that every community is different.
Before any strategy or action is implemented in a community or location, it must first pass the “Do No Harm” test. Actions may look good on paper, be intellectually coherent and sensible, or have even been successful in another location, but ignore the reality of a community. The abolition of CDEP was a case in point: sensible in some locations, problematic in others.

So, achieving outcomes requires action that is tailored to the circumstances of each community. Different histories, different people, different economic and environmental conditions can all affect the trajectory of a community or group.

2   Work with communities on a transparent basis
A particular issue is social dysfunction – a problem in many Aboriginal communities, arising from a myriad of causes including impoverished culture, limited economic opportunity, drug and alcohol abuse, multi-clan communities, dominant and exploitative individuals and families, personality clashes, and weak leadership. It is easy for a government action which further empowers particular individuals or groups to actually increase the dysfunction and lack of community cohesion.

In the search for rapid employment outcomes, there is a risk that public servants will increase community members’ distrust of each other, and of government. So

  •   No special deals with one family or clan or group.
  •   No giving power to one group
  •   If wanted, assist with community healing.

3   Be patient and listen!
Every action of government and public servants must build the trust and knowledge of the communities and members. And no action, or words, should reduce trust. In practice this means for public servants ALWAYS

  • keeping their word, and any commitment.
  • taking the time and providing the opportunity to argue, respectfully, with Aboriginal community members
  • taking time to listen and acknowledging other points of view
  • acknowledging, and if possible supporting, the cultural priorities of communities.

Sounds simple, but in the search for outcomes and quick action agencies are more likely not to do any of these.

Creating partnerships between governments and communities, and fora where they can be negotiated, are the key objectives. Clearly the more dysfunctional the community, the harder this is. It is helped by having public servants available, on the ground, and prepared to invest in relationships, for them to “leave their money and their power at the door”, and for governments to be prepared to work flexibly. Working this way has side benefits of empowering public servants and unleashing their energy, as happened in education and health in Murdi Paaki.

Note this doesn’t mean doing everything that a community, or members, might want. But it does mean that public servants acknowledge the wishes and priorities of communities.

In conclusion…
Focusing on outcomes (“the end justifies the means”) is futile alone. Even worse, if it means that working relationships are not established with communities, there is a risk that little will be achieved.

The three elements described here are necessary, but not sufficient. Often another element is needed too: building of capacity in public servants, communities and individuals; the community creating a vision – cultural, social and economic – for themselves; the engagement of non-government organisations and business; the exposure of public servants and communities to new ideas and partners; and for the development of Aboriginal leadership embracing an entire community or communities.

A final point: This approach does not assume perfect or superhero public servants or Aboriginal communities. Murdi Paaki showed that “good enough” governance in communities and governments is sufficient: good enough in the sense of being able to work through problems and setbacks, and not be paralysed.

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