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Learning to work in partnership with First Nations communities

16 May 2024

News and media


Many non-Indigenous public servants want to work more effectively with First Nations communities, and build stronger partnerships, but lack the confidence and cultural understanding to take the first steps. 

With all Australian governments committed to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and its Four Priority Reforms, changing the way public services work with First Nations is now a requirement for all agencies and public servants. 

ANZSOG’s Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms program began in 2023 in response to demand from our member governments for a program that provided an introduction to First Nations culture, and the new ways of working outlined in the National Agreement. 

Registrations for the next delivery of Working with First Nations will close on Monday 20 May, with a second delivery in October 2024. 

The 2024 program will again be presented by Geoff Richardson PSM and Professor Catherine Althaus who bring a mix of academic and practitioner experience to First Nations issues. 

Paul Flynn is currently Executive Branch Manager, Strategy and Governance with the ACT Emergency Services Agency, and was a participant in the first iteration of Working with First Nations in 2023. His agency has now decided to send two more staff members to the upcoming delivery of the Working with First Nations program in June 2024. 

He has had a role as the Department’s Indigenous Engagement Officer since 2021, working on initiatives including the Indigenous Fire and Rescue Employment Strategy (IFARES) program to recruit Indigenous firefighters. 

He said that doing the ANZSOG program was part of the ‘journey of learning’ he was on to understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and points of view. 

“I found Geoff and Catherine really easy to understand. With Geoff it was just simple, practical things that you could start to incorporate into your day-to-day practices and your day-to-day organisational habits that weren’t going to be controversial. 

“As they pointed out – to start making genuine progress doesn’t take an overhaul of the system. It’s just little bits and pieces each and every day that start changing culture.” 

Geoff and Catherine will be joined by a range of guest presenters who bring their knowledge and lived experience to the program. 

Presenters include Gordon de Brouwer, Australian Public Service Commissioner, Jody Broun, CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency, as well as Julie-Ann Guivarra, Deputy CEO of NIAA, Katie Kiss, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Prof Maggie Walter, Distinguished Professor of Sociology (Emerita). 

The First Nations community sector will be represented by a range of speakers, including Catherine Liddle, CEO of SNAICC National Voice for our Children and Donnella Mills, Chair National Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisations. 

Mr Flynn said the ongoing benefit of the program was that it had encouraged him to think more about what things he and his agency could do to benefit First Nations and encourage reconciliation.  

“I’m thinking about this, I would say 80% of every day now, just thinking about what we can do differently. I would like to think my language and the things I’m talking about each and every day are very tied to the whole idea of reconciliation.”  

“For example, lately here in Emergency Services Agency, we’re trying to, or we’re thinking about doing Acknowledgement of Country in traditional language. So, day-to- day it’s these ideas, sort of bubbling to the surface, which never were before. And as an organisation, we’ll start to get a whole lot more fluent in the language we’re trying to talk.” 

He said that the program had given him the understanding and confidence to tackle these issues.  

“It can be a scary world to step into. First of all, us white people are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, and you really need to have a few conversations and immerse yourself in culture for a little while before you start to relax and realise that people aren’t going to jump all over you, provided you have good intent.” 

Working with First Nations consists of six online sessions (plus an orientation session), 4-27 June, or later in the year, 10-31 October. The program is designed for public servants from mid-levels to senior executives from policy, program delivery, procurement and other areas who want to improve their understanding of First Nations issues. 

The program will provide an understanding of the perspectives and cultures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and how they can contribute to contemporary society, as well as build capability to engage effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, organisations, and communities, and building genuine partnerships with shared decision-making. 

Registrations for Working with First Nations are now open and more information is available on the Working with First Nations webpage. This includes a free video ‘Starting your journey to working with First Nations’ which sees Geoff and Catherine outline the themes and approach of the program.