Closing the Gap: we know what works, so why don’t we do it?

The abundant evidence of what works shows the way to help Indigenous Australians build a better future. If only politicians and bureaucrats would heed the findings. AAP/Dan Peled

The disappointing data that regularly appears in Closing the Gap reports should raise serious questions about policy development and funding processes. The assumption of media stories and many politicians is that gap closing is a “wicked” problem – that is, it’s too hard because of faults of the Indigenous targets.

It is easier to blame others when good intentions fail, but there is a much more mundane explanation, backed by substantial evidence: poor outcomes could be the result of flaws in how officials devise and deliver programs and funding.

Many programs designed to reduce Indigenous disadvantage fail to meet the federal government’s clear criteria for what works. These criteria come from the Commonwealth’s own major advisers’ analysis of performance and research data.

Multiple agencies monitor the effectiveness of government programs. They include the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), the Ombudsman, a range of internal evaluation units and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). The last of these is a particularly significant source of data for the current issue as it runs the official Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.

Reports on programs delivered plus summaries called Key Learnings are based on analysis of multiple publications. These reports clearly extract data on what works and what does not work in general and in particular program areas – for example, early childhood services. Another reputable advisory body, the Productivity Commission, extensively quotes these reports in its series of publications on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage.

The AIHW collection and the related papers from 2009 onwards offer a range of painstakingly rigorous findings of what worked and didn’t work. Their brief criteria summaries emphasise the importance of good processes in decision-making.

What works

The Clearinghouse has continued to find that there are high-level principles and practices that underpin successful programs for Indigenous Australians. These include:

  • flexibility in design and delivery so that local needs and contexts are taken into account;

  • community involvement and engagement in both the development and delivery of programs;

  • a focus on building trust and relationships;

  • a well-trained and well-resourced workforce, with an emphasis on retention of staff;

  • continuity and coordination of services.

What doesn’t work

  • “One size fits all” approaches;

  • lack of collaboration and poor access to services;

  • external authorities imposing change and reporting requirements;

  • interventions without local Indigenous community control and culturally appropriate adaptation;

  • short-term, one-off funding, piecemeal interventions, provision of services in isolation and failure to develop Indigenous capacity to provide services.

I have been collecting data on what works and doesn’t work in Indigenous policy making as part of examining the use of evidence in this policy area through Jumbunna.

We have examined aspects of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) and its sequel, Stronger Futures. Both interventions have been criticised as procedurally flawed and have not shown many positive findings for very disruptive and costly programs.

We are concerned that, despite the data from AIHW and their use by the Productivity Commission, the service delivery sections of government and their political masters show few signs that many were taking the criteria seriously. If they had, they would have changed their top-down, culturally inappropriate design, delivery and funding processes.

In an effort to publicise these flawed processes and the possible improvements for communities and bureaucrats, and maybe politicians, I am collating a range of quotes from mainly federal agency reports that list the reasons for successes and failures of Indigenous policy programs.

The extracts from about 30 diverse reports on specific programs confirm the repeating problems of flawed processes of design. In particular, there are consistent failures to consult communities before decisions are taken, to engage locally and to make decisions with and not for local groups.

Backing the legitimacy of these generally professional critiques and top-down analyses are similar views recorded by many affected communities. A recent extensive consultative process with NSW Aboriginal communities documented similar complaints of poor processes by funders and service deliverers.

The diverse sources show why too many Indigenous-focused programs regularly failed to deliver needed services effectively. Poor government processes meant the programs were often too badly designed to work.

Tony Abbott’s speech on the sixth Closing the Gap report offered hopeful hints of change, but the prime minister still clings to the punitive elements of a largely failed approach. AAP/Alan Porritt

Until now, politicians have not acknowledged this but maybe the new players will loosen the old bureaucratic and political biases. The following extracts from prime minister Tony Abbott’s speech on the sixth annual Closing the Gap report suggest he may see options for reviewing processes:

Even as things began to change, a generation or two back our tendency was to work “for” Aboriginal people rather than “with” them. We objectified Aboriginal issues rather than personalised them. We saw problems to be solved rather than people to be engaged with…

Every education department knows the attendance rate for every school. The lower the attendance rate, the more likely it is that a school has problems. The lower the attendance rate, the more likely it is that a school is failing its students.

However, a later part of Abbott’s speech signalled that the punitive element – we know better what is good for them – is still there.

One of the worst forms of neglect is failing to give children the education they need for a decent life. That’s why every state and territory has anti-truancy laws. That’s why the former government, to its credit, tried to quarantine welfare payments for families whose children weren’t at school.

The quote shows Abbott fails to understand that most children will go to school if it works for them. Fairfax Media reports of this speech offered the following Indigenous responses: Kirstie Parker, co-chairman of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, said “punitive” measures alone would not lift attendance. She said:

We want to see as much energy and focus on making schools places that our kids want to go and our families trust and genuinely feel a part of.

Indigenous educator Chris Sarra, the principal of Cherbourg school in Queensland, lifted attendance rates from 62% to 94%. He said the underlying causes of truancy usually related to the school rather than the child or their family. Sarra said:

You’ve got to look at why kids have rejected school in the first place.

A recent contribution in The Conversation quoted a similar statement by another new major player, but also expresses doubts that this will happen.

Recently, indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion claimed that he will prioritise Indigenous participation in policy making because it improves outcomes and creates better policy. This is sensible, but it subordinates the question of how the government values and interacts with Indigenous people to the question of the best method to reduce disadvantage.

The generally poor results of Closing the Gap strategies should signal the need to review how decisions are made and why policy makers fail to adopt and apply their own evidence of “what works”. Part of the answer is that it is processes rather than content that undermine the potential of programs to succeed.

The first step towards success is to close the gap between political and bureaucratic cultures and the community inequities that need to be overcome.