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ANZSOG introductory session builds understanding of First Nations policy changes

10 August 2023

News and media


The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) has helped over a thousand public servants begin their journey of understanding the considerable changes underway in First Nations policy, with a free online introductory session delivered by Geoff Richardson PSM, chief executive of First Nations Development Services, and Professor Catherine Althaus.

The session ‘Starting your journey to working with First Nations’ is now available to the broader public in the form of a video recording and slides that Mr Richardson and Professor Althaus used as part of the presentation.

This session was designed to offer a ‘taste’ of the more in-depth, six session program, Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms, which Mr Richardson and Professor Althaus will present in June and October 2024.

The introductory session focused on the 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap, a unique agreement developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and negotiated between all nine Australian jurisdictions and the Coalition of Peaks.

It contains four Priority Reforms which must underpin the work of all government agencies with First Nations: Formal Partnerships and Shared Decision-Making, Building the Community-Controlled Sector, Transforming Government Organisations, Shared Access to Data and Information at the Regional Level.

Mr Richardson began the session by saying it aimed to give participants an insight into the significance of the National Agreement, examine major factors impeding governments from closing the gap and look at ways to overcome those impediments.

“The aim is to help you realise the power you already have to identify the barriers and impediments to closing the gap and to influence transformation in the system you work in.”

“We also want to encourage you to work on your capability so you can work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to close the gap.”

“Closing the Gap is possible, but it is not going to happen without a significant change in the way we do business.”


“I’m in my mid–thirties and in the middle of my career. I have never worked in a role where my work specifically impacted First Nations people. But I am starting to realise that understanding the perspective and needs of First Nations peoples, and ‘seeing with two eyes’, is necessary for EVERYONE in public sector roles. This session helped move me further along this journey of understanding.” – session participant


Professor Althaus noted how public servants at all levels needed to change the way they worked.
“Our governments have signed off on the National Agreement reforms at the highest level, so we (public servants) have the mandate to do things differently, and it is up to us,” she said.

“We are asking you to shift the very system that you have been successful in, and asking you to focus in on the strengths that you could bring to make positive change.”

She said that there were five ways public servants at all levels could contribute to meaningful change:

  • Start with leadership and responsibility (a commitment approach)
  • Partner with First Nations People (a relational approach)
  • Build on your experience (a strengths-based approach)
  • Change the narrative (a capacity strengthening approach)
  • Work on your cultural competence (a learning approach)

Mr Richardson said that over and above the challenges of remoteness and large numbers of discrete communities that needed servicing, there was no overarching policy or vision for how relations between governments and First Nations could work.

“This has been compounded by the long-running debate about government: is it a service provider and grant adminstrator or a community developer and a partner in self-determination?

“We see issues with siloisation, and the resulting narrow parameters of programs. There is always pressure to address symptoms and chase low-hanging fruit rather than the longer-term issues of community development.”

The graphic below outlines the difference between the modalities service delivery and community development modes (Credit: This graphic was created by The Smith Family).

Professor Althaus said that the full course would give public servants the knowledge and motivation to go out and make significant changes to the way they worked.

“One of the questions we ask in the adaptive leadership space is ‘what part of the mess am I?’ so that people can think about their role as part of the system and what they can do. You can identify cultural competence skills that you can improve, there is always more to learn and opportunities to open yourself up to Indigenous knowledges and experiences.”

The course will use a ‘two-eyes’ approach – a concept which emerged in Canada, and which Professor Althaus said was about opening yourself up not just to First Nations ideas but to non-Indigenous ones.

“It is not about pitting one against the other, or an either-or mentality, but about what is the best that we can learn from everyone,” she said.

She said that the full program would harness the cohort and their strengths and get people who are interested in making change together and build networks to achieve it.

“The course is focused on practical change. We are looking at an accountability piece, so participants will have a meaningful portfolio of ideas and accountability steps so they can have that confidence to put something not only tangible, but relatively significant, into action straight away.”

The Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms program is aimed at Senior Executives, middle level officers and other cohorts such as policy, procurement, human resources, and program delivery officers, and at both Indigenous and non-Indigenous public servants.

The course consists of six online modules to be held 4-27 June 2024, or 10-31 October 2024 and registrations are now open with early bird pricing available.


More about the program coordinators:

Geoff Richardson is a descendant of the Meriam people of Murray Island (Mer) in the Torres Strait and the Kuku Yalanji/Djabugay peoples of North Queensland. Prior to his retirement in 2017, Geoff spent 40 years in the Australian Public Service, all in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs portfolio (including 22 years at the SES level).

Geoff has been a leader in cross departmental advice on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community engagement, cultural protocols, cultural appreciation, and community development approaches. In 2014, Geoff was made an Adjunct Associate Professor (The University of Queensland) and in 2019, he was awarded a Public Service Medal, in recognition of his service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In early 2018, Geoff established First Nations Development Services as a vehicle to continue his work connecting Governments with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Professor Catherine Althaus is Director of the Adaptive Leadership Academy at UNSW and specialises in working with First Peoples communities across Canada, Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand and South Africa focusing on the leadership contributions of Indigenous public servants and opportunities to learn from and enact Indigenous ways of knowing and being in policymaking. Her recent co-authored book Leading from Between: Indigenous Participation and Leadership in the Public Service is the first international comparative volume centring the voices, stories and insights of Canadian and Australian Indigenous public servants.