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Productivity Commission report shows why governments must change how they work with First Nations

22 February 2024

News and media


A damning review by the Productivity Commission has found that Australian governments are failing to meet their obligations to First Nations under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. It says a paradigm shift is needed because governments have failed to fully grasp the nature and scale of change required to share power with First Nations communities.

This is a major wake-up call for anyone who wants to develop and deliver better policy for First Nations because the Agreement, which was signed in 2020 by all Australian governments, along with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations, is designed to be the blueprint for transformative change.

Unless governments address the power imbalance in their systems, policies and ways of working, the Agreement risks becoming another broken promise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

ANZSOG is working to build understanding of the National Agreement and prepare public services for the changes required, through events such as our First Peoples to All Peoples conference in Brisbane last year.

Last year the inaugural delivery of our Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms online program presented by Geoff Richardson PSM and Professor Catherine Althaus, gave over 180 public servants an introduction to the Agreement, First Nations culture, and strategies for immediate practical change. The success of the program means it will be offered twice this year in June and October.

Mr Richardson said that nothing to date had ‘closed the gap’ despite 50 years of Indigenous Affairs policy at the federal level, and that what was required was significant transformations of all public service.

“Governments need to understand that the ultimate goal of Priority One of the National Agreement is to achieve self-determination, which extends beyond policy and place-based partnerships.”

“Our ANZSOG program aims to help public servants understand the ‘what’ of the National Agreement but also gives them some of the ‘how’ around how to implement it in their work.

The National Agreement is based on the premise that strong First Nations cultures are fundamental to improved life outcomes, so government policies and programs should be implemented in a way that takes full account of, promotes, and does not diminish in any way First Nations cultures.

The Agreement is built around four Priority Reform outcomes:

  • formal partnerships and shared decision-making
  • building the First Nations community-controlled sector
  • transforming government organisations, and
  • shared data and access to information

The PC report states that: ‘although there are pockets of good practice, overall progress against the Priority Reforms has been slow, uncoordinated and piecemeal’ and that many of the so-called initiatives governments are promoting are things they have been doing for years.

“It is too easy to find examples of government decisions that contradict commitments in the Agreement, that do not reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s priorities and perspectives and that exacerbate, rather than remedy, disadvantage and discrimination,” the report says.

“There is, for the most part, no strategic approach that explains (and provides evidence for) how the initiatives that governments have identified will achieve the fundamental transformation envisaged in the Agreement. This makes it near impossible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the broader Australian community, to use these plans to hold governments to account.”

“In addition the existing accountability mechanisms in the Agreement lack ‘bite’ – they are not sufficiently independent, do not contain timely and appropriate consequences for failure, obscure the individual responsibilities of each party and are not informed by high-quality evaluation.

The report finds little practical sharing of power or recognition of the importance of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOS) despite their track record of delivering better outcomes than government programs.

It says that while place-based partnerships are still in their very early stages, they show promise and that First Nations are being involved in decisions about where they should be located.

“Little attention is paid to the diversity of regional needs, cultures and governance structures within the jurisdiction (such as the unique needs of people living in the Torres Strait),” the report says.

Helping public servants change their mindsets

Working with First Nations program co-presenter Professor Catherine Althaus said that the PC report could not have come at a better time and had put all public services on notice.

“This report sends a clarion call to clear action in light of PMC head Glyn Davis’s call for the Australian Public Service to ‘follow community’ and his comments that the ‘future of public administration is place-based policymaking’,” she said.

“If we are not achieving the Priority Reforms we are failing everyone. The Productivity Commission notes that paradigm shifts in how we operate are necessary to address the severe lack of progress made to date.

“There is clear licence to experiment and take bold and intelligent action to share power, shift accountabilities and creatively dig into system change to achieve the kind of shared decision-making, coordination and wide-scale change that the PC has mapped out. Individual public servants can become galvanising forces to achieve widespread and momentous change.”

Mr Richardson said governments were still operating in silos and applying reductionist approaches to complex challenges that ignored the interdependencies between issues.

Part of the ANZSOG program involves Mr Richardson exploring how governments can shift from a ‘service delivery modality’ to one of community development that focused on strengthening agency and capability within communities.


Working with First Nations will give public servants at all levels the chance develop new skills, mindsets and capabilities to work effectively with First Nations peoples and communities. It uses a ‘two-eyed seeing’ model to respectfully recognise and embed the strength of Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews. The program will be delivered twice in 2024 in June and October and registrations are now open. The program’s webpage contains a freely available introductory session featuring Geoff and Catherine.

ANZSOG has also produced a range of other free resources to help the public sector understand the National Agreement and First Nations policy. These include: