The Bulletin

the broken service delivery system in remote Aboriginal communities

  • Written by Patrick Sullivan, Professor, University of Notre Dame Australia

Indigenous people in remote and very remote communities in Australia tend to experience[1] poorer health, education and employment services and outcomes compared to the general population.

To find out more about why this is happening, we brought together the main players in Aboriginal service delivery in the remote communities of the Kimberley in Western Australia to identify problems and discuss opportunities.

Read more: People in the Kimberley have spent decades asking for basics like water and homes. Will the Voice make their calls more compelling?[2]

What we did

In 2018 and 2019 we ran three workshops to discuss the roadblocks to Aboriginal development that service providers encounter in towns and remote communities of the Kimberley.

The first was with Aboriginal community organisation leaders, the second with public servants, and the final workshop with non-Aboriginal NGOs.

We decided to run separate workshops because we didn’t think it would be productive to put all sides in the same room together; we hypothesised the groups would be more likely to speak freely if they were separated.

By running each workshop separately, we found each sector enthusiastic to engage and discuss their aspirations as well as their frustrations.

We recorded each workshop and edited the transcripts down to the most insightful contributions, then arranged them under similar topics.

The result is the book[3] Voices from the Frontline: Community leaders, government managers and NGO field staff talk about what’s wrong in Aboriginal development and what they are doing to fix it, published by the Nulungu Research Institute of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

We found all sides tended to identify the same systemic problems, rather than blame each other, when given the chance to discuss their work in a safe environment.

Some of their concerns included:

  • excessive managerialism (having too many managers doing too much managing), reporting, and top-down direction

  • the inefficiencies and misdirection of resources through government’s creation of a false competitive market in Aboriginal services

  • the need to counter this by recognising the dedication of all local players to a shared goal

  • greater regional decision-making and cooperation.

An Aboriginal man stands on parched ground in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Most of the Aboriginal contributors had worked in the field of community development all their adult lives. Getty Images

‘Governed by a bureaucrat who hasn’t seen a Blackfella in their life’

Most of the Aboriginal contributors had worked in the field of community development for about 40 years – all their adult lives.

They remembered a time before the introduction of a bureaucratic management style that focused heavily on outsourcing, competition for service delivery contracts, and intrusive reporting on targets determined by people who live nowhere near the community.

The other contributors, newer on the scene, tended to accept this as just the way business is done.

All sides said managerialism – which they saw as private sector methods and ideologies applied in the public sector – and control of projects by bureaucrats in faraway cities were the major impediments to effective outcomes in Aboriginal development.

As one Aboriginal contributor put it:

My mother worked [in a state welfare department] and every day I had to go to work with her after school […] I can recall everybody being happy. I can recall a lot of social inclusion. I can recall a lot of discipline, respect. I can recall a lot of happy times growing up as a kid […] Today, for heaven’s sake, we can’t move. Government all over us like a rash. Today our lives are being governed by a bureaucrat who hasn’t seen a Blackfella in their life or haven’t spoken to one.

Cooperation should trump competition

Competition for government contracts often provoked suspicion and antagonism from all sides involved in Aboriginal service development.

To counter it, all sides identified personal commitment as important. They saw personal commitment as going above and beyond, often directly counter to the direction they get from bureaucrats or NGO staff sitting in Perth and Canberra.

All sides believed greater regional cooperation – from design through to implementation of programmes – was an absolute necessity.

Worryingly, even the government middle managers felt there was no institutional support for this regional cooperation.

Encouragingly, participants said the formal relationship between First Nations peoples and settler Australians must be re-thought, re-stated and then reflected in government processes.

No shortage of talent, good will and enthusiasm

We gave our book the title Voices from the Frontline[4] before the current debate over a constitutionally enshrined Voice got underway.

Yet the foreword by Elder and Yawuru man Peter Yu[5] shows how relevant it is to that debate. He writes:

The referendum on a constitutionally enshrined First Nation Voice has brought national attention to the failure of Australia’s government system in addressing the appalling economic and social conditions experienced by First Nations people.

There is a nearly unanimous acknowledgement that the formal relationship between the Australian nation state and its First Nations people is faltering.

Through the voices of those directly involved, [Voices from the Frontline[6]] presents a compelling case for change and serves as a call to action for all who wish to understand and address the pressing issues faced by First Nations communities in the Kimberley region and beyond.

This is a sentiment all of the contributors would have agreed with, whether government managers, Aboriginal leaders or NGO managers and field staff.

Our research shows there is plenty of talent, good will and enthusiasm out there. It just needs to be harnessed more effectively.

Read more: Countless reports show water is undrinkable in many Indigenous communities. Why has nothing changed?[7]

Read more

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