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Learning to listen- Relationality is key

4 May 2021



Woman using laptop and listening music on a headphones

By Lisa Carson

When it comes to government learning to listen again, one must first reflect on who government listens to, and recognise that for some, it’s a matter of learning to listen, rather than having ever listened. Just as with any relationship, relationality is key. The intention and time to genuinely listen, rather than be seen to listen is fundamental. How government can begin to listen and meaningfully act on what is heard remains a challenge, especially for those marginalised in society. In Australia, we’re at a historical juncture with momentum and scope for significant change in the way government can do this. Here, I give just one example of how doing things differently by genuinely listening to community and sharing power can quite literally save lives and bring about better outcomes.

Take for example the First Peoples led response to COVID-19 in Australia, as Dr Dawn Casey PSM recently described at the 2021 ANZSOG First Peoples Conference in her role as Deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). As one commentator highlighted, despite decades of government neglect, poor policy, and a lack of funding, the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector sprang into action—creating a tailored response. At the community level, Aboriginal community-controlled health services across Australia ensured that local language health messages reached communities, with some remote communities shutting their borders before any word from government, in effect exercising sovereignty never ceded but rarely evoked (see Cousins, 2020).

Simultaneously, the federal government set up a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group on COVID-19 co-chaired by NACCHO and the Department of Health, with representatives from the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, and the National Indigenous Australians Agency, among others. Together they developed the Management Plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations which supports health care delivery that is locally led, holistic, comprehensive, and culturally safe. To date, as far as we’re aware not a single death has occurred due to COVID-19 in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. According to epidemiologist Professor Fiona Stanley, the extremely low rate of COVID-19 among Australia’s First Nations peoples was the ‘best result for any Indigenous population in the world’.

As the 2019 ANZSOG ‘Delivering Local Solutions’ paper for the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS) detailed, this example shows how a range of services need to be shaped with communities in new, co-governed ways, if we are to see any substantial and sustained improvement in local solutions. Whilst elements of success can be claimed in regard to COVID-19, the reality is that deep transformative change is required on multiple fronts, just as the 2020 Closing the Gap Report re-affirms and authentic steps towards self-determination necessitate. In practical terms, some work on how things can be done differently has started, such as the Indigenous Values for the Australian Public Service, recognising the need to reset the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and how Indigenising the APS values can assist in doing so. Put simply, the opportunity now presents itself for government to learn from these successes to genuinely listen and have the confidence to start doing things differently.


Althaus, C, & McGregor, C. (2019). Delivering local solutions. An ANZSOG paper for the Australian Public Service Review Panel. Available from https://www.apsreview.gov.au/resources/delivering-local-solutions

Australian Government (2020). Closing the Gap Report, released February 12th. Available from https://ctgreport.niaa.gov.au/sites/default/files/pdf/closing-the-gap-report-2020.pdf

Cousins, S. (2020). Indigenous Australians avert an outbreak, Foreign Policy, May 19th. Available from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/19/indigenous-australians-avert-coronavirus-outbreak-for-now-aboriginal/

First Peoples Conference. (2021). Proud Partnerships in Place. Available online https://www.anzsog.edu.au/conferences

Milroy, A., & ANZSOG First Peoples Team (2019). Indigenous values for the APS. An ANZSOG submission to the Australian Public Service Review. Available from https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2019-05/apo-nid241186.pdf

Power, J (2020). When it came to COVID-19, Indigenous Australians sent it packing. The Sydney Morning Herald, November 13. Available from https://www.smh.com.au/national/when-it-came-to-covid-19-indigenous-australians-sent-it-packing-20201112-p56e5u.html

As part of our response to the challenges of COVID-19, and our mission to inspire public sector leaders with the latest insights and thinking, ANZSOG partnered with the Centre for Public Impact in 2020 to produce Reimagining Government – a series of webinars which brought together senior practitioners, academics, and leading thinkers from across the globe.

This series was part of the global conversation on what we learnt from COVID-19 and how governments could and should change as a result of those lessons. It was used by the OECD as part of their ‘Government After Shock’ event in November 2020.

Reimagining Government has returned for 2021, with four new webinars exploring how governments can become more innovative and responsive to the complex challenges of the 21st century.

Click here for more information on the second Reimagining Government webinar, ‘Learning to listen again’, which will take place on 13 May. More resources, including interviews and background articles on the theme of ‘Learning to listen again’, are available on the Reimagining Government Content Hub.

Published Date: 4 May 2021