Aboriginal Health : Rhetoric to Reality: Devolving decision-making to Aboriginal communities

Delivering services to Aboriginal communities, in a way that involves them as genuine partners and produces effective results, remains an ongoing challenge for public services across Australia.

 ” There are three ways of dealing with people: you can do TO them, FOR them or WITH them. The historic experience for Aboriginal people is the done to, or done for, experience. We need to be doing it WITH them.”

As one of the participants in the research said:

Download the report here : rhetoric-to-reality-report

Delivering services to Aboriginal communities, in a way that involves them as genuine partners and produces effective results, remains an ongoing challenge for public services across Australia.

A new publication, developed by ANZSOG students in conjunction with the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, looks at how the NSW public service can change the way it works with Aboriginal people and better devolve decision making to local communities.

Rhetoric to Reality: Devolving decision-making to Aboriginal communities focuses on what structural and attitudinal changes might be required to deliver better collaborative relationships with Aboriginal communities.

Interactions between Australian public services and Indigenous communities have historically been hampered by a lack of respect, trust and understanding.

The report finds that devolving decision-making to Aboriginal communities should not be seen as an end in itself. It should be a means of practising different ways of working with Aboriginal people that involve sharing knowledge and power, collaborating, and responding to local contexts. If this is done the ultimate result will be better shared outcomes for communities.

Whilst the Australian and international literature highlights many barriers to effective collaboration with Indigenous communities there are very few specific recommendations which go beyond ‘rhetoric’. Rhetoric to Reality provides a range of concrete approaches that NSW Government departments can consider.


Shift 1: Connecting to culture, connecting to Country

Key findings

The theme which emerged most clearly from our research was how important it is for public servants to develop and maintain genuine cultural competence. Almost all participants raised some aspect of cultural awareness or competence training as an example of what works and what does not.

Participants felt strongly that the current approach to cultural competence in the public service can be ad hoc, tokenistic, generic and static. Similarly, we found that ideas about cultural awareness, competence, safety or intelligence are not well articulated or understood in the NSW public service. The following statements provided by participants highlight these ideas:

“We’re underdone on comprehensive support for developing cultural competency.”

“I think we can all put our hand up, ‘Yep, job done,’ but then not actually spending any time with Aboriginal communities or adding on that extra layer to think about them.”

“Cultural competency training must be delivered in the most authentic way possible. It has to be real, practical and relevant for staff in their roles.”

“It needs to be honest and delivered by Aboriginal people.”

Research participants considered genuine cultural competence to be critical to changing public sector attitudes and structures. This finding is supported by the literature, which shows that cultural understanding (Zurba et al 2012) and culturally appropriate or safe service delivery (Thomas et al 2015) are important to building relationships with Aboriginal people. Studies have shown that a combination of practices can change structural racism in organisations (Abramovitz & Blitz 2015).

literature also supports the provision of cultural training for staff (Downing & Kowal 2011, Fredericks 2006, Paradies et al 2008). The limitations of cultural awareness training as a stand-alone activity were noted by our research participants and have been noted in previous research (e.g. Downing & Kowal 2011), including the risk of stereotyping, promoting ‘otherness’ and ignoring systemic responses. However, studies have shown it is possible to change prejudiced attitudes towards Aboriginal people through specific education activities (Finlay & Stephan 2000; Pendersen et al 2000 & 2004).

The local decision-making framework recognises that public servants need a level of cultural competence to participate. The Premier’s Memorandum M2015-01 Local Decision Making, states that “NSW agencies will adhere to the principles of local decision-making and ensure staff are educated to respond to the needs of Aboriginal communities in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner”.

While cultural competence was recognised by our research participants and supported by the literature as a key enabler, the lack of a current framework for the development of genuine cultural competence by public servants persists as a dominant issue in shifting public service structural and attitudinal frameworks.

“The key is having a culturally competent NSW government.”

Below we note a number of recurring ideas for improvement in the understanding and the application of cultural competence in the public service that were raised by research participants.

Accepting that racism and paternalism still exist in the attitudes and structures of the public service and which may be manifested in ‘unconscious bias’ was noted by many participants: “It’s hard to accept we have unconscious bias because people in the public sector are values driven.”

Participants were candid about what they perceive as paternalistic views and subtle forms of racism and bias shown by individuals and institutions: “I believe government and its agencies a lack of faith and trust in Aboriginal people’s ability to make sound decisions in the best interest of their communities.”

Understanding history and the historical trauma experienced by Aboriginal people was viewed as critical. “From a community perspective there is a lot of historical hurt or pain from previous government decisions… You have to let them vent their anger and frustration of the historical decisions that have been made that have had a significant impact on their communities.”

“[A] lot of our staff don’t understand the stolen generation.”

Re-conceptualising cultural competence in the public service as a lifelong journey was seen by many participants as necessary for meaningful change. This includes real experience of working alongside Aboriginal people and communities, and ongoing reflective learning. “We need our staff to keep asking, ‘Why is that the case?’” This finding is supported by the literature, which notes that enhancing a person’s awareness of their biases is critical in reducing modern forms of prejudice and discrimination (e.g. Perry et al 2015).

Building trust was seen as vital. For example, participants talked about public servants, including senior public servants, taking the time before getting down to business to build relationships with Aboriginal people, by having a cuppa on neutral ground, listening and building rapport: “It may take a couple of meetings before you get down to the nitty gritty of developing your relationship with that community.” Building trust and developing genuine relationships were also a strong theme in the literature (Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2015; Taylor et al 2013; Zurba et al 2012).

Including Country as critical to the development of cultural competence was a universal theme. Participants provided examples of how this could be achieved, including through site-based training, localised activities, travelling

The report’s three key recommendations are that:

  • Cultural competence is most effective when it is localised, ongoing and taught on-Country. Local communities could benefit from being engaged in this teaching.
  • Public-sector leaders who are fully committed to cultural competence are most likely to establish collaboration with Aboriginal communities as a routine approach within government. Examples of successful leadership of this kind should be recognised and publicised across the public sector.
  • Aboriginal public servants should be supported and nurtured, and should be seen as critically important for a culturally competent NSW public service.

Rhetoric to Reality was prepared as part of the capstone Work Based Project subject by ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration students Laura Andrew, Jane Cipants, Sandra Heriot, Prue Monument, Grant Pollard and Peter Stibbard. It exemplifies the quality of applied research conducted by ANZSOG’s EMPA students and the potential impact when our students partner with a government agency to help drive change.

The research involved interviews and focus groups with senior executives and frontline public servants in Sydney and regional NSW, to get their perspective on what needed to change to lift the impact of programs on the Aboriginal community.

All recognised the importance of cultural change, and the value of ensuring that successful programs, designed in partnership with local communities, were used as examples to improve results elsewhere.

Rhetoric to Reality will be available across the NSW public service as a valuable resource to ensure that government support for Aboriginal people delivers benefits to those communities.

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