You have to admire the sheer consistency of non-self-reflection in indigenous affairs in this country. The location of Aboriginal problems, is, of course, Aboriginal people. And to prove it there is a seemingly endless cavalcade of studies evaluating Aboriginal communities. But, although I’ve read every evaluation of the NT Intervention, I can find only one study that actually evaluates the performance of government program managers.
Tellingly, it’s a Department of Finance study that was suppressed as ‘Cabinet in Confidence’ until Channel Seven got hold of it under Freedom of Information in 2011.
Although it’s written in cold technocratese, it’s a damning summary of bureaucratic short-sightedness which, unfortunately, will be perfectly familiar to virtually anyone who has received funding from a government agency, in any context, for any purpose, in Australia.
I have a great idea: what if agency executives got training in program design? Might that avoid the river of wasted money, effort and hope? Or is it more structural? Something in the very organisation of government? I suppose it probably is structural, but in the meantime, some more critical self-reflection, or at least curiosity, would help.
Here’s an excerpt. I emphasised my favourite bits, but the whole text should be chiselled on the walls of our parliaments.
“Consistently and repeatedly over the past decade, many…voices have called on the Australian Government and its agencies to reduce the administrative burden and unnecessary complexity associated with accessing essential and desirable funding support through its broad array of Indigenous programs. The justifications behind these petitions are well known and extensively documented:

  • existence of multiple ‘like’ programs which overlap and duplicate each other in places, while also leaving gaps in others, together leading to complexity and confusion;
  • programs with poorly articulated objectives often underpinned by flawed assumptions and weak program logic which then raise unrealistic expectations of what can actually be achieved through the program;
  • short term, staccato and ‘pilot’ funding arrangements with no commitment to ongoing funding and disconnected from the reality of the scale and timing of investment needed to drive lasting change;
  • annual funding rounds for ongoing service needs which draw heavily on the limited administrative and management capacity of community organisations;
  • multiple and complex funding arrangements – both within and across government agencies – with a need for greater commonality in their alignment and contract management approaches even though the contracting party throughout is the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’;
  • the barriers created by these funding arrangements for long term planning and recruiting and retaining skilled and motivated staff who are essential for achieving the gains sought in challenging contexts;
  • an approach by many program managers on contractual rather than relational governance, leading to management styles that micro-manage Indigenous and other organisations, and stifle innovation and agility by local providers;
  • the unintended consequence of these funding arrangements in diverting precious resources from service delivery towards administrative compliance; and 

  • the compounding negative effects for the sustainability and organisational capacity of Indigenous organisations.”

Quoted from Department of Finance and Regulation (2010) Strategic Review of INDIGENOUS EXPENDITURE, Report to the Australian Government, p300