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Public sector leaders call for greater focus on Indigenous leadership development

20 June 2019

News and media


Image of a group of people standing.

Senior Indigenous public servants have recommended a greater focus on Indigenous leadership development, organisation-wide targets, and a greater focus on cultural competence, as ways for public services to meet their goals of recruiting and retaining more Indigenous employees.

The recommendations are contained in the official report from ANZSOG’s 2018 Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum, a forum created to give Indigenous public servants an opportunity to connect across jurisdictions and develop solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Indigenous public servants, and the public service.

Public services across Australia and New Zealand are attempting to improve Indigenous policy and work more closely with Indigenous communities. ANZSOG understands that a key part of any path to success in Indigenous affairs must be to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are represented at all levels of the public service, and that Indigenous perspectives and knowledge are used to drive culture change.

The 2018 Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum was held at Old Parliament House, Canberra, on the lands of the Ngunnawal people. It brought together 65 Indigenous public servants, and was sponsored by the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), and the New South Wales and Tasmanian Governments. All other governments contributed by supporting delegations from their jurisdictions. The forum built on the work of the inaugural 2017 forum, held in 2017, which produced a report highlighting the need for better career pathways for Indigenous public servants.

Forum recommendations

The delegates developed a set of recommendations specifically for the heads of the Public Service Commissions, State Services Commission, and all public service departments and agencies across Australia and New Zealand.

Although many of these agencies already have existing strategies, targets or plans for increasing Indigenous employment, delegates agreed public services still have a long way to go, as well as a collective and individual responsibility to set more ambitious targets and actively work to achieve them.

Support networks: Resource and support opportunities for cross-jurisdictional collaboration among Indigenous public servants, including the Forum.
Develop leaders: Invest in leadership development for all Indigenous SES and executive staff demonstrating potential to progress to the SES.
Increase representation: Set targets equalling at least population parity for Indigenous representation at all levels and across all agencies, including Secretaries, CEOs and SES and to take steps to achieve targets that have not been met.
Hold individuals accountable: Require all SES (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) to demonstrate how they have attracted and retained Indigenous staff through Key Performance Indicators in their performance agreements.
Build culturally competent workforces: Include cultural competency as selection criteria for new positions, and support and reward the cultural competence of existing staff.

A statement from delegates said that as senior Indigenous public servants they were committed to supporting “our brothers and sisters across jurisdictions, to share best practice, be leaders in our agencies, nurture the development of future leaders, and continue to support our agencies to affect positive change. We are governed by the principles of accountability, inclusion and respect.”

The two days of the forum were a mix of presentations and group work, facilitated by Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) CEO, Craig Ritchie, and former Director of the University of Melbourne Indigenous Health Equity Unit, Dr Kerry Arabena. A forum dinner included a keynote address from Dr Mary Graham Aboriginal affairs policy to be in the hands of Aboriginal people.

Dr Graham said that there was a need to “Aboriginalise” the APS by incorporating Aboriginal values into and alongside the APS values – a theme which informed ANZSOG’s submission to the Thodey Review of the Australian Public Service, Indigenous Values for the APS.

Other forum discussions revolved around:

Barriers and enablers to Indigenous employment: Including a presentation by Samantha Faulkner on her joint research with Julie Lahn, which has now been published in the Navigating to Senior Leadership in the Australian Public Service report, which identified the barriers and enablers to Indigenous employment in the Australian Public Service.

Attracting Indigenous talent to the public service: Delegates noted a need to rethink the pipeline to attract Indigenous talent to the public service and to create in high level targets across government, including at the Secretary, CEO or Director General level: “If you have a good Aboriginal person at the top, the rest will follow”.

Cultural safety: Delegates agreed that all agencies must improve the way they work with Indigenous communities, and need to build the cultural competency of their organisation and workforce to ensure Indigenous staff are supported and feel culturally safe.

Leadership development: Delegates identified the need for public service agencies to invest more thoughtfully in leadership development for Indigenous staff to ensure they succeed in non-Indigenous institutions.

Find out more in the full Indigenous Forum report now available:

Indigenous Forum Report (Word) Indigenous Forum Report (PDF)

ANZSOG priorities

ANZSOG is committed to working with its owner governments to realise the recommendations from the 2018 Forum.

Our priorities for the next 12 months are to:

connect all Forum delegates across jurisdictions through an online platform
develop the capability of Indigenous and non-Indigenous public servants through our education programs
work with governments to invest in the leadership development of senior Indigenous public servants through tailored programs including future Forums
inspire governments to create professional development opportunities for Indigenous public servants in middle management to participate in ANZSOG programs.