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ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration helps Charlene Davison keep advocating for Aboriginal people

1 August 2021

News and media


Photo of Charlene with Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin


Charlene Davison’s career has seen her combine her passion for education with her belief in the need for more Aboriginal people in senior public sector roles to improve services for Aboriginal communities.

After 20 years of working within the system to improve the way the NSW public service delivers for Aboriginal people, Ms Davison has stayed in the education space and taken up a new challenge as head of the not-for-profit GO Foundation.

The foundation, founded by former AFL legends Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, focuses on education as a way of creating opportunities for young Indigenous people.

In 2018, she began an ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration, which she says has given her the confidence to step up and take the next steps in her career.

Ms Davison is a proud Biripi/Gadigal woman who grew up on Biripi Country in the NSW town of Taree and now lives and works in Cameraygal Country in Sydney.

She says her upbringing taught her the value of the public service and the importance of working to help Aboriginal communities.

“My parents worked tirelessly both to provide for the family but also at the grassroots level to make a difference for our community,” she said.

“From a young age I heard those conversations at the kitchen table about making a difference for the community, and I feel very fortunate that I had a good, strong cultural upbringing in Taree, and I’ve always been strong in my culture and identity.”

After she left school, she worked as a trainee at the local hospital and saw Aboriginal people come to the doors and then be too scared to go in – an issue that on reflection, it appeared the health system was not dealing with.

“I helped a family take an auntie to emergency, she needed to be there but was too scared to go through the doors. There were only three or four other Aboriginal staff working at the hospital at this time and there was no one looking at this particular issue. So as a young woman, I realised that we needed to have Aboriginal people in the system working out how to get our mob though the doors and accessing culturally appropriate and responsive services,” she said.

That experience has led her to focus on the importance of having Aboriginal people in key positions in the public service to make sure programs and service delivery work for Aboriginal people.

“I wanted to make a difference – I knew that past policies didn’t work for our mob and I knew that to be an influence I needed to be on the inside of the system, bringing that Aboriginal perspective and my lived experience into everything I’ve been able to do.”

EMPA builds confidence and gives new perspectives

Ms Davison says that the Executive Master of Public Administration, which she began after being nominated by her manager, had shown her new ways of thinking about her work and how it fit into the bigger picture of helping Aboriginal communities.

“I went in with no expectations except that it was a great opportunity for me to get a formal qualification and extend my work in government,” she said.

“The tools and frameworks I learnt have been really important but the biggest thing is the confidence and self-belief. You understand that you are here for a reason, and that you’ve got a lot to contribute. I’ve come out of it with more confidence and more guts to stand up for what I believe in”

“I also learnt this other language of how to talk about and think about public sector problems.

“You are exposed to ideas from all over the world. One of the most amazing experiences was visiting Singapore and being exposed to public servants there and seeing how forward-focused their approach is, which made me think a lot about what we do in NSW.”

She said that the EMPA cohort had become like a personal ‘think-tank’ to help with professional challenges.

“The networking aspect is really important. You come out of it with lifelong friends and a really broad network across Australia and New Zealand. You develop relationships with people with different experiences and knowledge. When we have a challenge or a problem we can check in with each other – it’s a bit of a think tank”

EMPA course leaders had done a good job of listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and incorporating them into the program.

“I remember in the early part of the course we had a panel discussion in Melbourne which had couple of Aboriginal people on it which made me feel connected and think ‘this course really is for me’”

Ms Davison said she was fortunate to have an amazing mentor and remarkable senior leaders (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) who encouraged and supported her throughout her EMPA journey. And those people have not dropped off, they remain in her corner, something she is truly grateful for.

Improving Indigenous representation in the public sector the key

Ms Davison says that she has left a strong legacy behind her from her 20 year public sector career but that public services still need to do more to increase Indigenous employment and retention, to improve the way they work with Indigenous communities.

“There is still a lot more that governments need to do, a lot of listening both to communities, but also to their own workforce, because that’s why we are building an Indigenous workforce in the public sector,” she said.

“We don’t have enough Aboriginal senior leaders and that needs to be an area they should focus on if they want to have a genuinely collaborative approach.”

Part of Ms Davison’s work at the NSW Education Department early in her career involved recruiting and retaining Aboriginal teachers, with the number starting each year growing from about 30 to over 100.

“We had a focus on retention but we were able to shift beyond that to career progression and leadership, which not on saw an increased number of Aboriginal teachers but an increase in the number of those teachers moving into school executive roles.”

Ms Davison also developed and implemented a strategy to improve Aboriginal workforce development, leadership pathways and Aboriginal cultural competencies right across the NSW government, and which won her former team a Premier’s Award in 2019 in the Building a Strong Economy category.

Most recently she led the reshaping of long-standing Aboriginal Initiatives in vocational education and training, mentoring, employment and business advisory, to ensure these programs had stronger alignment with broader Department and Government priorities which would then result in increased impact and better outcomes for Aboriginal people.

Shifting to the NGO sector

Ms Davison said that leaving the public service to work for the GO Foundation was a big decision but the new challenge was extremely exciting, giving her an opportunity to work with an amazing team and Board to take GO to a new level of impact, including greater exposure and celebration of Indigenous excellence. It also meant a chance to continue her work in education, something she is deeply passionate about.

“They wanted someone to lead them on the next phase of their journey, which includes being an Aboriginal-led organisation, building deeper collaboration across sectors, working with the Founders and Board to develop a long-term strategy and continue to create pathways of opportunity and aspiration for our young mob, and that really appealed to me, and lets me continue to do what I love,” she said.

“Working inside the system is important. Whether it is government or the NGO sector we need to have Aboriginal people in leadership roles to make sure that our communities are represented and advocated for.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs

Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA)

A part-time postgraduate qualification developed and delivered by ANZSOG exclusively for high-performing public sector managers.

Executive Fellows Program (EFP)

A program that challenges senior public service executives working in the public domain to develop new leadership perspectives in a contemporary and highly interactive setting.

Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL)

A unique program that helps public service leaders develop the qualities needed to thrive in a senior executive role: a strategic outlook, political astuteness, personal resilience and the ability to reflect and learn continuously.

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