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New ANZSOG program to give public servants skills and knowledge to work with First Nations

14 June 2023

News and media


It’s a time of rapid change in First Nations policy in Australia: debate around the Voice, the progression of Treaty, and the National Agreement on Closing the Gap which has been signed by all Australian jurisdictions. 

Public servants in this environment will need new mindsets, skills, knowledge and strategies to work with First Nations and develop partnerships that share power. 

A new ANZSOG program Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms will help equip both non-Indigenous and Indigenous public servants with those skills and prepare them to make real change in the way they work. 

The program coordinators are former senior public servant and current head of First Nations Development Services Geoff Richardson PSM and Professor Catherine Althaus an expert in adaptive leadership with expertise in working with First Nations communities in Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and Canada 

The program will guide participants through the Four Priorities of the National Agreement – Formal Partnerships and Shared Decision-Making, Building the Community-Controlled Sector, Transforming Government Organisations and Shared Access to Data and Information at the Regional Level – which should be incorporated into the daily work of all public sector agencies.   

Participants will learn about cultural responsiveness, engagement, co-design and co-production, and place-based community development. The program adopts the Canadian Two-Eyed Seeing approach to respectfully recognise and embed the strength of Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews. 

Mr Richardson said that to implement the National Agreement, which was signed in 2020 as the second iteration of Closing the Gap, there needed to be structural changes at all levels around how governments and public servants work with First Nations people and their communities. 

“From my experience, Priority Reform Three – Transforming Government Organisations, will be the hardest of the Four Priorities reforms to achieve. We still see governments operating in silos and applying reductionist approaches to complex challenges, where the complexity is reduced to a series of manageable parts that ignore the interdependencies between issues,” he said. 

“The problem with silos, is that even when you support or deliver a quality body of work, it is often rendered unsustainable because other critical interdependencies are not being addressed.” 

“We are also still seeing the problem of uncertainty of funding, where organisations are funded on a one, two or three-year term and are required to produce quick results in order to secure the next tranche of funding. This forces them to ’chase low-hanging fruit’ which detracts from implementing a development process which requires much longer timeframes. 

“There is amazing work being done across the land, and the vibrancy of the community-controlled sector is part of that, but the question is why is that amazing work not closing the gap? What’s the blockage that is stopping us breaking through? 

“The course will go to the heart of the impediments to Closing the Gap. We are dealing with serious challenges that will require serious thought and action if we are to overcome them.” 

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

“You can’t do what you don’t know. The first element is being able to ensure that everyone is aware of what we need to do, combat the ignorance and build that knowledge.” 

“The next element is about purpose and motivation – to throw out the challenge to say that we need to move the dial. The priority reforms have been shaped by First Nations people, so we need to start doing it, the directions are clear, and the priorities are clear.” 

She said that while there is a need for major structural change, there was more that individual public servants could do. 

“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. 

“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. 

“Our entire governance institutions in Australia have been one-eyed, they are premised on a Terra Nullius concept that did not see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We didn’t look to the People who were here, or to the country itself. This moment is a chance to broaden our worldview.” 

Building partnerships and moving beyond service delivery

Mr Richardson said that the National Agreement focused on two kinds of partnerships – place-based partnerships and policy partnerships. Implementing these will require a major shift in the power differential because, at the moment, the public sector has all the decision-making power. 

He said that public servants need to find a balance between conventional service delivery modes of delivery and ‘community development modalities’. 

“There are two modalities of government – service delivery and development – and they need to work together. The first delivers the necessary services, but the second focuses on strengthening capability and agency within communities, through the design and delivery of projects and initiatives,” he said. 

“An example of a service delivery modality is a community needs 20 houses, so the government engages a contractor to build them. Once they’re completed, the job is finished.  

“In a development modality, the government recognises that the community in question needs to have skin in the game and that the housing crisis is their issue to address. 

“Under this modality, Government does not become a rescuer by taking ownership of the issue and providing the houses; rather it works with the community leaders to co-design and co-produce the housing solution with the community being in control at every step of the process.” 

“When we approach aid in response to a disaster overseas, we send money and expertise on the basis that our time in that location is temporary and we need to hand back control to local authorities. We have a clear exit strategy. Unfortunately, we struggle to take a similar approach here in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.” 

The future role of public servants

Professor Althaus said that part of the focus of the course was to prepare non-Indigenous public servants to take on the ‘bridge’ role of navigating and interpreting between government and communities that was often performed by First Nations public servants. 

“This work is often undervalued or under-rewarded, and First Nations public servants can often see themselves as the ‘ham in the sandwich’,” she said. 

“We want to help and encourage non-Indigenous public servants to step up and become bridges in the same way, because First Nations public servants have been carrying that burden of representation unsupported for too long.” 

Mr Richardson said that he wanted public servants who participated in the program to take what they learn and share it inside their department or agency to help make change. 

“We want them to meld what they learn to the expertise they have as high-level public servants, because they know how their systems work better than outsiders.  

“We want them to leave re-energised, not overwhelmed, because we need them and their agencies to realise that implementing the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is everybody’ business and that can play a leading role in transforming their workplace.” 

Professor Althaus said that they hoped to 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 8-24 November 2023 and registrations are now open.


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 centering the voices, stories and insights of Canadian and Australian Indigenous public servants.