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The First Nations devolution dilemma

15 March 2023



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Governments need to change the way public servants work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities to meet their commitments under the 2020 Closing the Gap National Agreement. As with any significant change agenda, there are several real and perceived risks and barriers to working differently. An ANZSOG-commissioned paper from Charles Darwin University explores what barriers and opportunities will most impact Australian Governments as they seek to share power, and engage with First Nations as equals, to achieve the potential benefits of the National Agreement. 

About the Closing the Gap National Agreement 

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments committed to six ambitious targets relating to Indigenous life expectancy, health, education and employment. These were contained within an overarching Commonwealth and state and territory agreement called the National Indigenous Reform Agreement 

In July 2020, the First Ministers of all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations endorsed a refreshed National Agreement. The objective of this agreement is to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and governments to work together to overcome the inequality experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and achieve life outcomes equal to all Australians. 

At the centre of the National Agreement are four Priority Reforms that focus on changing the way governments work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Priority Reforms will: 

  • strengthen and establish formal partnerships and shared decision-making 
  • build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector
  • transform government organisations so they work better for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 
  • improve and share access to data and information to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to make informed decisions. 

About the research 

There are several barriers that confront public servants when they seek to partner and share decision making with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and  organisations. This includes the need to operate within public service structures involving ministerial accountability, audits, procurement and grant rules and regulations – safeguards that govern the expenditure of and accountability for public funds.  

These types of ‘safeguards’ often mean that public servants are incentivised or trained to become risk averse and deliver programs that comply within a formal structured rules-based system. This does not favour program delivery that is localised or devolved for communities to control. 

The research set out to explore the barriers and solutions in working in this devolved policy environment. It involved: 

  • a literature review identifying structural and implementation challenges associated with the First Nations devolution agenda. 
  • interviews with current and former senior public servants and managers of First Nations service organisations around their perceptions of the devolution dilemma. 

Literature review findings 

The literature review identified that devolution, administrative decentralisation, governance and co-design are closely inter-connected in understanding the basis for self-determination. It also identified the following challenges to devolution: 

1. Internal bureaucratic resistance to change is likely and must be prepared for. 

2. Resistance from local stakeholders, regional private enterprises, communities or regional authorities could occur and should be prepared for. 

3. Doubts about the fundamental aspiration of governments to undertake comprehensive devolution will surface and need to be addressed as they arise. 

4. The politics of government funding create perverse incentives and/or directly limit Indigenous communities’ ability to plan for a different future. 

5. Resourcing challenges will prevail among practical implementation barriers. They will stem in part from 

  • the significant yet often under-budgeted costs of the transition process itself. 
  • the implications of shifting services delivery responsibilities without matching self-funding powers. 

6. Cultural tensions will permeate negotiations over the division of ‘decision powers’ during the devolution implementation period. This reflects distinct decision-making approaches featured in Indigenous forms of governance in contrast to orthodox bureaucratic approaches. 

Interview themes 

Six interrelated themes were identified in the interviews with senior managers of prominent First Nations and community-controlled organisations, as well as senior executives of government agencies with responsibility for Indigenous social and wellbeing services. 

These themes are shown in Figure 1 below and represent the major challenges that governments will face in fulfilling their commitments to the National Agreement. (Source: Anthony Cowley and Paul Tremblay, The Devolution Dilemma, 2022, p. 7) 

1.Accountability of systems, organisations and leaders. The concept of accountability was identified as having the potential to be a force for good, However, when mechanisms to facilitate accountability are unbalanced, overly burdensome red-tape is a common unintended outcome. This can hinder efficient service delivery.  

2. Partnerships and the capacity of entities to partner. This is an issue due to: 

  • agency capacity being hindered by churn of roles and loss of critical staff and expertise from dedicated roles. 
  • disproportionate challenges for many First Nations enterprises in terms of poor relationships and comparative size and organisational capabilities.

3. Power and decision making. Governments are seen to routinely share power due to probity requirements, a ‘cult of managerialism’ within government, fear of letting-go of authority, power imbalances, and capability gaps in the community-controlled sector. 

4. Identifying and engaging with the right partners. Effective engagement is hindered by government knowledge of First Nations organisations and existing regional governance arrangements and cross agency/government or jurisdiction coordination. 

5. Cultural change of organisations. Significant cultural change is required to embed the National Agreement. This includes a shift from transactional servicing to community development models and overcoming racism through better understanding of culture and history. 

6. Data availability and quality. There is a need to improve the information government receives through structured community input to need analyses, evaluations and performance monitoring which can be enhanced through community sourced qualitative and quantitative data. 

The bottom line 

Co-designing policies and instigating devolution of decision-making to First Nations organisations means public servants must implement inclusivity from within their government and bureaucratic systems. This will include implementing sets of cultural and procedural changes that will potentially shift decision making power away from their primary stakeholders (Ministers) and themselves. 

Indigenous people must be involved decision making at the level of policy design and service delivery necessary for devolution to be meaningful. Power imbalances should be acknowledged respectfully and prepared for by investing in policies and programs that help changing the balance of power – political, administrative and financial. 

Want to read more? 

The Devolution Dilemma – Anthony Cowley and Paul Tremblay, Charles Darwin University, February 2023. 

This paper was commissioned by ANZSOG and presented to attendees at its First Peoples to All Peoples Indigenous public administration conference, held from 1-3 March, 2023 

Want to read more? 

Recent Research Briefs on First Nations issues include: 

Knowledge,policy design and impact in Indigenous policymaking 

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Published Date: 15 March 2023