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Public services need to invest in Indigenous leadership: ANZSOG CEO Ken Smith

14 November 2019

News and media


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The following speech was delivered by ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith at the ANZSOG 2019 Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum. The forum was held in Canberra on 14-15 November and brought together Indigenous public servants from across Australia and New Zealand to discuss public service reform, ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and culture into public sector practice and to build Indigenous leadership capacity. Find out more at ANZSOG’s Indigenous Engagement web page.

Thank you to old and new colleagues and friends for the chance to be with you today and tomorrow at this third forum for senior public servants.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders: past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to all Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Māori leaders here. It is a great privilege to be here with you.

The shocking recent and tragic death on Saturday night of a young Warlpiri man from Yuendumu in the NT reminds us of the massive issues and responsibility we all have to ensure we fundamentally change the way the full range of our public services operate. We can’t simply allow the worst incarceration rates of our First Peoples of any community in the world to continue unchallenged. I am sure all our thoughts are with our NT colleagues and communities at this extremely sad time.

We are all here because we recognise that public services need to make a long-term investment in Indigenous leadership, both for the benefit of First Peoples, and for the total Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand communities. To our NZ colleagues:

Kia Ora, Tena Koutu, Tena Koutu, Tena Koutu Katoa.

To do this, the public services must continue to evolve and change both their structures and cultures. It is essential public services do more to recognise the value of having Indigenous leaders, recruit and support those leaders, create pathways and change definitions of leadership to reflect how Indigenous people work between government agencies and NGO’s (NFP’s, mutuals and the private sector) and individual communities.

This is the third Senior Indigenous Public Servant Forum ANZSOG, with in particular, the support of the Australian Government, and NZ and each state and territory, has held, because we strongly believe this change must be driven by the views and experience of Indigenous people, especially by you as senior Indigenous leaders.

I would like to particularly put on record the support of Ian Anderson and the NIAA for his personal support for the development of a strong cross-jurisdictional network through funding support for this forum and a broader annual conference.

It requires innovation and thinking outside the boxes and siloes that the public sector loves to construct in all areas of policy and service delivery and particularly in the ‘churn’ of Indigenous policy and service delivery.

We need to acknowledge there will always be tensions in using the structures of colonisation to amend and redress the damage that colonisation has done to Indigenous communities.

But encouraging Indigenous leadership and embedding Indigenous values and approaches across the public service, can help build organisations that are culturally competent, innovative and serve communities more sensitively and appropriately.

It is critical that we have Indigenous voices front and centre, in positions of real power, and that the public service listens, learns and builds relationships in the way Indigenous people want. In this regard, the WA Minister and Treasurer, Ben Wyatt in yesterday’s Australian newspaper wrote of the impact of the Australian government’s income management debit card on the Ngaanyatjarra people, many of whom live hundreds of kilometres from where the cards are accepted by vendors in Kalgoorlie.

Indigenous public servants face unique challenges in operating in western institutions while maintaining their commitment to culture and communities.

Many public sector agencies struggle to recognise and accommodate this, let alone appreciate the value of those connections, and this failure in turn causes Indigenous public servants to leave.We are all losers from this failure.

I hope this year’s forum can come up with fresh ways to address the priorities that have been identified in the last two forums: building support networks, developing leaders, increasing representation, holding individuals accountable and building culturally competent workforces.

This year’s forum focuses on broader reform agendas across jurisdictions and the capability investment we need in a changing public sector and the trust deficit it clearly faces. Today we have also heard about the major changes underway in Indigenous Affairs across Australia and New Zealand. As governments grapple with treaty (including ongoing negotiations on the Treaty of Waitangi), the voice to parliament, and stewardship of its relationship with First Peoples- this group will be vital to share lessons and work together for a truly cross-jurisdictional approach to meet the challenge of these changes.

These issues cannot be ignored by our public services or relegated to second-order business. They must be part of the activities of every agency. One thing I am keen to discuss at this year’s forum is an emphasis on broadening the focus from the public sector to the ‘public purpose sector’ – not-for-profits, mutuals, the private sector and Indigenous communities, and the other actors involved in Indigenous affairs.

We need to support leaders who can easily move between government and other parts of the public purpose sector, share and transfer skills, and attack mutual challenges from fresh perspectives.

ANZSOG’s role is to deliver public value by improving the quality of public management in Australia and New Zealand. Our focus is to ensure we have positive impact on the intersection of Education, Research and Thought Leadership and see our work with First Peoples and with your and the broader community’s’ authorisation, as an essential part of this mission.

As well as the Forum, we have run two major conferences on Indigenous Affairs bringing together academics, public servants and community leaders. This year’s conference in Melbourne was attended by over 450 people and, as well as being an inspirational event, has started a range of connections between attendees looking to share best practice, and better ways of working to improve outcomes for communities.

I would ask you all to consider getting involved in our 2020 First Peoples conference, to be held at the Brisbane Convention Centre on 26-27 May, with a focus on community partnerships and local solutions. In this regard, I would particularly like to thank the tremendous work of Sharon NK, Aurora Milroy and Kiel Hennessey – all members of the ANZSOG team.

In our own educational programs, we have increased our use of Indigenous faculty and guest speakers, to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into public management. We are working to build the cultural competency of our own staff.

In conjunction with the Churchill Trust in Australia and New Zealand we have sponsored two Fellowships for Indigenous leaders to undertake research overseas and build their own leadership capacity.

We, through the leadership of Aurora Milroy, made a submission to the Thodey Review of the Australian Public Service on how to ‘Indigenise’ the APS and improve its ability to engage with Indigenous peoples and issues.

Earlier, I announced a number of new ANZSOG Fellows– chosen for their ongoing contributions to public value in Australia and New Zealand. These Indigenous leaders have shaped public administration in and out of Indigenous Affairs.

The meeting of this cross-jurisdictional network is a unique opportunity to channel the collective wisdom of Indigenous public sector leadership and use ANZSOG’s influence to turn it into positive action to work across the 10 jurisdictions to achieve much needed significantly better results for the communities we serve.

ANZSOG is committed to working with communities across Australia and New Zealand to promote and prioritise the perspectives and contributions of First Peoples. Find out more at ANZSOG’s Indigenous Engagement web page. Sign up to ANZSOG’s Indigenous News mailing list.