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ANZSOG APS Review submission: bringing Indigenous values into the APS

29 May 2019

News and media


Participants at indigenous conference

The APS has the opportunity to “Indigenise” the Public Service Act 1999 to reinforce cultural changes and actions aimed at recruiting and retaining Indigenous employees and incorporating First Peoples knowledge, values and culture into public sector practice.

The suggested changes are outlined in an ANZSOG submission to the Independent Review of the Australia Public Service (APS), chaired by David Thodey, entitled Indigenous Values for the APS.

The Public Service Act is the cultural foundation for the APS and plays an important role in signalling expected behaviours, practices and approaches for APS agencies.

The proposed changes are necessaryto recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupy a unique position as the first sovereign peoples of Australia. The submission also calls for the APS to recognise that its relationship with Indigenous Australians is fraught and lacking in trust due to the history of colonisation and successive policies and processes that have had a devastating and ongoing impact on Indigenous peoples, societies and cultures.

All changes to the Act must be supported by actions which fundamentally change the ways the APS engages with Indigenous peoples and issues.

Pathways to change

The submission recommends changes in five areas of the Act, to be madein consultation with Indigenous communities.

Recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the APS (new clause to be co-created with communities).
Consider adding the value of “relationality” to APS values (clause 10) to signify that the APS is in a two-way relationship with Indigenous communities, where both parties have rights, responsibilities and expectations, and where the APS works collaboratively with communities. Agencies should also prepare strategies for how they will build trusting relationships with communities, including through devolution of power, co-creation and co-design.
Work with Indigenous communities to develop a new set of APS principles consistent with an Indigenous worldview. These could include definitions of merit, service and stewardship consistent with Indigenous values.
Draft Indigenous representation clauses and test them with communities.To change the values and approaches of the APS, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must be represented, including at senior levels. An additional sub-clause could be added to Section 10A of the Act to enshrine the APS commitment to representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the workforce.
The APS Review Panel could consider including sub-clauses that articulate the responsibilities of the Commissioner, Secretaries and Agency Heads to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The submission recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander approaches to governance are rooted in an Indigenous worldview, which gives rise to key values and concepts such as Caring for Country, the importance of Kinship and a focus on collaboration, inclusive process and consensus decision making. 

As Palyku authors Ambelin and Blaze Kwaymullina write:

“In Aboriginal philosophy the universe is a pattern comprised of other patterns, of systems inside systems. It is a holistic view in which everything is interrelated and interdependent. Nothing exists in isolation. All life – and everything is alive in an Aboriginal worldview – exists in relationship to everything else.”

Governing in the interests of all Australians

Australia is a nation of great cultural and ethnic diversity and incorporating Indigenous values into the Act will not only benefit Indigenous Australians but would further serve as an act of leadership, inclusion and stewardship in the interests of all Australians, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background.

The Review panel has highlighted the need to reset the APS’ relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a priority for change. The APS cannot meet its purpose of serving all Australians unless it works openly and with integrity with partners across the community. Nowhere is this truer than in supporting the outcomes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In thinking about how the Act could recognise Indigenous perspectives, it is important to note that New Zealand is currently undertaking a similar process with its State Sector Act Reforms and is further along in the journey. The New Zealand State Services Commission has acknowledged “the Public Service has an important stewardship role to support the Crown through the government of the day, to foster a strong relationship with Māori.” It has also suggested a number of changes to the way it works to support this relationship, including increasing engagement and partnership with Māori, and collective accountability for a culturally competent Public Service that delivers with and for Māori and is committed to support Māori in leadership and decision-making roles

As part of the preparation of the submission, ANZSOG consulted widely with Indigenous public servants, academics and community leaders. Among the practical suggestions raised to improve the APS’ ability to work with Indigenous peoples were:

Devolution of power, co-design and co-creation of policies and services
Build relationships with communities outside of projects/ transactions
All agencies develop cultural competency strategies and mandate cultural competency for all staff
Non-Indigenous staff are seconded to communities to understand lived experiences (and vice versa)
All agencies develop targets for Indigenous representation, and strategies for recruitment and retention
Make senior staff are accountable for representation in performance agreements

The submission concludes that by truly recognising Indigenous peoples, understanding our values, and looking at new ways to work, the APS can significantly advance Indigenous wellbeing and improve its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and develop better practices for engaging with all citizens. 

Creating an APS that serves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will take time. Examining opportunities to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into the Act, and co-creating these changes with communities, is an important first step in the longer journey.

The ANZSOG submission was written by Aurora Milroy, Advisor, First Peoples Programs and Strategy, ANZSOG, with the assistance of ANZSOG’s First Peoples team.