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Knowledge, policy design and impact in Indigenous policymaking

4 October 2021



Image of pen on a piece of paper

A paper in Policy Design and Practice argues policy impact in Indigenous affairs has been scandalously minimal. The problem is not a technical one of implementation, leadership failure or lack of resources, according to the paper, instead, there is something fundamentally wrong with policy design related to Indigenous Australians.

Positioning the analysis

Craig Ritchie is the paper’s author. He writes from three separate but interrelated perspectives. First as an Aboriginal person, a member of the Dunghutti and Biripi nations of the mid-north coast of New South Wales in Australia. He describes his analysis as informed by an Aboriginal perspective that recognises policymaking as a profoundly cultural endeavour.

Second as a senior bureaucrat with a long career in Indigenous public policy at state and national levels ranging across the health and education policy domains. Third as a former teacher and doctoral scholar with an interest in transformative understandings of policymaking in respect of Indigenous people.

A question of design

There is an unbreakable link between policy impact and policy. Poor design produces poor policies which in turn deliver poor outcomes. Despite this, the issue of policy design has been severely neglected in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues in favour of a more technocratic approach.

Policy design refers to the blueprints, architecture and structures that direct policymaking. Attention is focussed on the ideas, networks and institutions through which policymaking takes place. With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy failure, the power of a policy design perspective is that it asks critical questions about the blueprints operating in this space.

Knowledge and policy design

Policy design is fundamentally a knowledge-based endeavour involving questions of not just what we know, but also how we know what we know, and how this knowledge is mobilised in and through policymaking. Knowledge involved in policymaking is a socially constructed phenomenon, emerging from interaction within social networks. These constructions both enable and limit human insight, shaping the knowledge we bring to policymaking.

If policy failure stems from policy design, and policy design is inevitably about the knowledge we deploy, then the imperative is to focus on knowledge and its role in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy.

Metis – the missing piece of the puzzle

The paper uses the ancient Greek concept of metis to highlight a category of knowledge and practice excluded in policymaking, Metis is knowledge embedded in local experience and belonging, and it is this form of knowledge that the paper argues the state excludes in its efforts to transform social orders and improve human lives. This exclusion is acute in settler-colonial states where the elimination of the ‘native’ is the central imperative.

The paper argues policymaking in relation to Indigenous people must embrace Indigenous peoples’ metic knowledge rather than continuing the settler colonial practice of elimination, and exclusion of the Indigenous. Policymakers need to engage with this form of knowledge as it is fundamental to effective policymaking.

Understanding metis

There are six distinguishing qualities of metis:

  1. Vernacular: Metis is knowledge that is every day, and of the people. It exists within networks of social relationships and is embedded in local experience.
  2. Particular: Metis is knowledge acquired in belonging. This kind of knowledge is only accessible through membership of, and participation in, the networks of relationships that constitute the community.
  3. Ecological: While metis is a knowledge that belongs to particular peoples, it equally belongs to particular places. It is grounded knowledge and practice.
  4. Purposeful: Metis focus is on practical solutions to everyday challenges. A pragmatic focus leads to questions about values and assessments of what really matters for people.
  5. Adaptive: The link to place and context means the knowledge that context produces will change and adapt.
  6. Economical: Metis says what it needs to say to achieve its purpose and no more. It inclines towards parsimony rather than elaboration.

Metis as Indigenous knowledge

The work of Australian First Nations scholars and their analyses closely match the contours of metis. Indigenous knowledges are grounded in the importance of relationality. It demonstrates how the social embeddedness of knowledge is not just true of metis but also of Indigenous cultures.

In the field of education, westernised education systems are systematically failing Indigenous students by applying broad stroke/mono-lingual/mono-cultural understandings of teaching, education and students. Culturally responsive pedagogies help to further inform and produce greater outcomes for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students.

Research has shown the harm that results from the failure to examine the knowledge and experience of Indigenous people in access to and delivery of health care and health promotion.

What this means

The paper argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policies fail because they pay no attention to the knowledge, perspectives, and practices embodied in and created by Indigenous people. Suppressing metic knowledge and the particular ways of knowing this generates is a fundamental flaw in policymaking.

This suppression makes insights and knowledge inaccessible to state and non-state actors. In doing so, it weakens policymaking and perpetuates the persistent colonial relationship between the Australian state and First Nations peoples. Improved impact in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy hinges on bringing the metic knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to bear in policymaking.

The 2020 agreement between Australian governments and a coalition of Indigenous peak bodies representing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services sector is a necessary first step. It is a first step because placing Indigenous people at the table in the way the agreement outlines can only ever be a starting point.

Lasting policy impact stems from policymaking that has an Indigenous social vision – the good life – at its core. Then follows the deliberate application of metic knowledge to understanding the dimensions of that vision and formulating a path toward achieving it. It will require something of all those who work in public policy.

Want to read more?

This path is made by walking – Knowledge, policy design and impact in Indigenous policymaking – Craig Ritchie, Policy Design and Practice, September 2021

This paper arose from a workshop on impact co-hosted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University Crawford School and the Analysis & Policy Observatory. Read more about the workshop and other papers.

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Published Date: 4 October 2021