Delivering services to Aboriginal communities, in a way that involves them as genuine partners and produces effective results, remains an ongoing challenge for public services across Australia.
A new publication, developed by ANZSOG students in conjunction with the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, looks at how the NSW public service can change the way it works with Aboriginal people and better devolve decision making to local communities.
Rhetoric to Reality: Devolving decision-making to Aboriginal communities focuses on what structural and attitudinal changes might be required to deliver better collaborative relationships with Aboriginal communities.
Interactions between Australian public services and Indigenous communities have historically been hampered by a lack of respect, trust and understanding.
As one of the participants in the research said: “There are three ways of dealing with people: you can do TO them, FOR them or WITH them. The historic experience for Aboriginal people is the done to, or done for, experience. We need to be doing it WITH them.”
The report finds that devolving decision-making to Aboriginal communities should not be seen as an end in itself. It should be a means of practising different ways of working with Aboriginal people that involve sharing knowledge and power, collaborating, and responding to local contexts. If this is done the ultimate result will be better shared outcomes for communities.
Whilst the Australian and international literature highlights many barriers to effective collaboration with Indigenous communities there are very few specific recommendations which go beyond ‘rhetoric’. Rhetoric to Reality provides a range of concrete approaches that NSW Government departments can consider.
The report’s three key recommendations are that:
- Cultural competence is most effective when it is localised, ongoing and taught on-Country. Local communities could benefit from being engaged in this teaching.
- Public-sector leaders who are fully committed to cultural competence are most likely to establish collaboration with Aboriginal communities as a routine approach within government. Examples of successful leadership of this kind should be recognised and publicised across the public sector.
- Aboriginal public servants should be supported and nurtured, and should be seen as critically important for a culturally competent NSW public service.
Rhetoric to Reality was prepared as part of the capstone Work Based Project subject by ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration students Laura Andrew, Jane Cipants, Sandra Heriot, Prue Monument, Grant Pollard and Peter Stibbard. It exemplifies the quality of applied research conducted by ANZSOG’s EMPA students and the potential impact when our students partner with a government agency to help drive change.
The research involved interviews and focus groups with senior executives and frontline public servants in Sydney and regional NSW, to get their perspective on what needed to change to lift the impact of programs on the Aboriginal community.
All recognised the importance of cultural change, and the value of ensuring that successful programs, designed in partnership with local communities, were used as examples to improve results elsewhere.
Rhetoric to Reality will be available across the NSW public service as a valuable resource to ensure that government support for Aboriginal people delivers benefits to those communities.