Challenges of Implementation and Major Policy Change: Indigenous Affairs in Australia

Mark Moran, Geoff Richardson, Michael Woolcock

This analysis was produced at the request of IFSD to support ongoing research in First Nations child and family services. IFSD's work is undertaken through a contract with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The views and analysis of the independent authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the AFN or IFSD.

Executive Summary

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) in 2016 found the Canadian Federal Government to be negligent in discriminating against First Nations children and families on reserve, through decades of flawed and inequitable child welfare services. It called for the Federal Government to jointly develop a new child and family services system and to identify a process of remedy. Parties involved in the CHRT proceedings announced their agreement in 2022, which included billions of dollars in compensation for past harms and a commitment to long term reform. Since 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD) has collaborated with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and First Nations Child and Family Service (FNCFS) agencies and service providers to define a funding approach and implementation plan to support this reform. As part of this effort, IFSD has sought to identify key lessons from Australia’s efforts to acknowledge, respond to, and assess its own responses to complex policy issues within Indigenous affairs.

The paper has three principal themes: challenges and opportunities with implementation; the resistance of existing policies to substantive reform; and the capacity and leadership on the ground to create and sustain change. The intended audience in Canada is First Nations and First Nations leadership, First Nation Child and Family Service Agencies, policymakers, politicians, and advocacy organisations.

The research set out to answer the following six research questions:

  1. What can be learned from Australian attempts at policy change in Aboriginal communities?
  2. What can we learn from Australian attempts at implementation of new policy in Aboriginal communities?
  3. What is the role of capacity building in implementation?
  4. What are success factors for a successful implementation? What are some challenges?
  5. How has progress in implementation been tracked?
  6. Are there models or practices Canada should consider as long-term reform in child and family services is being negotiated?

The authors seek to provide responses to these questions by drawing on nine short case examples, each of which touches on a different aspect of how policy problems are encountered, experienced, and apprehended – often very differently – by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the Australia government.

Due in part to a lack of treaties, legislated jurisdiction, fiduciary duty, and constitutional recognition, Indigenous governance in Australia has largely arisen from organic movements driven by the political guile of leaders, and coalitions that have formed between Indigenous organisations. Indigenous Affairs is highly politicized, constantly in flux, characterised by its patchiness, with different arrangements according to different sectors and jurisdictions. Media and public opinion are powerful drivers. Australian politicians at their most extreme have used Indigenous disadvantage to legitimate universal reforms not otherwise palatable to the broader public, thereby effectively broadening the clients of the Indigenous Affairs policy to include non-Indigenous Australians. While there is broad consensus on what the desired outcomes should be, there is much disarray in how to achieve them.

Tightly targeted programs and contracts aggregate at remote communities, and efforts to coordinate across programs and governments have largely proven unsuccessful. The funding modality of choice remains the ubiquitous ‘program’, with inflexible reporting of ‘KPIs’ (Key Performance Indicators), short term funding cycles, and little if any allowance for core running costs for self-organisation or capacity building. Programs present in remote sites as highly reductionist solutions to what are often highly complex problems. A marked mismatch has subsequently emerged between policy and practice.

New Public Management (NPM) inspired contracting and competitive tendering has led to high transactions costs of accountability and reporting mechanisms, and the hard wiring of distrust between funders and providers. The impact on local community-controlled Indigenous organisations has been marked, especially in the Northern

Territory, as they struggled to compete in tendering processes, leading to an influx in NGOs and private 

contractors. Political accountability of leaders to their constituents has been weakened in favour of an administrative accountability ‘upwards’ to higher authorities

Many of the problems faced in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are known in social science as ‘wicked’ problems due to their resistance to resolution. Because of their complex interdependencies, efforts to solve one aspect of the problems often only reveal others. Intractable social problems – such as family and gender violence, alcohol and other drug abuse, youth suicide, child neglect, parolee reoffending, and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder – do not respond to simplistic programmatic solutions. With complex problems, implementation pathways cannot be predicted. Fixating on contracting New Public Management style ‘end-of-investment’ outcomes puts the “cart before the horse” and perversely abrogates government of its responsibility to achieve those outcomes. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while acknowledging that their challenges may be complex, contend that it’s the so-called solutions that are the ‘wicked’ part.

As demonstrated through the case studies, successful initiatives in Australia tend to have four things in common:

  1. a strong alignment with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, with community-controlled organisations who specialise in delivering culturally safe and specific services to their constituents.
  2. recognised representational authority with clear jurisdictional boundaries or a well-defined service delivery catchment area, especially if this authority is legislated.
  3. ability to adapt and innovate in finding solutions to complex problems.
  4. stability in leadership, key personal and funding.

As a developed nation, the local, state/territory, and federal governments in Australian can mobilise a wide range of institutions with powerful effect and speed, as occurred over only several weeks with the Northern Territory Emergency Response, at the direction from the highest level of the Australian Government. It is much slower to respond to practical bottom-up innovation. When it has responded, policy has formed a stepped fashion over several decades, as a positive trajectory becomes evident in capability development, which then diffuses to other locations. As local organisations then build network and coalitions, these start to politically advocate for wider uptake and reform. Governments can be slow to react to these movements, taking a reactive rather than proactive stance, which is surprising given their demonstrated comparative effectiveness in achieving success

A proactive approach would be to authorise an enabling environment for these alternative practices to flourish and then drive policy reform. This requires close attention to two key aspects of public administration: performance data and funding modalities.

How public sector agencies collect performance data is critical. NPM inspired evidence-based policy is driven by evaluative data from many programs, but this can perversely work to stifle strengths-based approaches and local innovation. Accountability benchmarks are attuned to auditors and funders, other than to the people and problems that the programs were designed to serve. Aboriginal organisations are best placed to define what their wellbeing and development means, which is often culturally distinct. As representative bodies, they can include indicators for transparency, accountability and responsiveness to their constituents. They can determine what is the actionable data they need to drive innovation in implementation. This could lead to a new generation of Indigenous outcome indicators, for them to control performance measurement, in better governing their organisations, and in innovating new local approaches to their problems.

How public sector agencies fund Indigenous organisations, also seriously influences the capabilities of Indigenous people to govern themselves. Performance-based grants to Indigenous organisations is a viable alternative to administering a multiplicity of programs, as Indigenous organisations are a sensible coordinating node to serve local jurisdictions; crucially, they have local knowledge and the most ‘skin in the game’ to achieve outcomes.

Performance management frameworks can then be built around either the totality of the organisation itself (block funding) or restricted to key functions (core funding). Stability of ongoing funding is key to performance, preferably with a minimum three-to-five-year time frame.

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