• Commissioner Romlie Mokak says there needs to be more transparency around the efficacy of programs being funded by government. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The federal government is turning to the public for help as it analyses Indigenous policy and programs.
Shahni Wellington

26 Jun 2019 - 5:33 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2019 - 5:33 PM

The Australian Government’s independent research and advisory body, the Productivity Commission, has released a paper today that outlines the issues involved with Indigenous policy and programs.

The paper is part of the commission's ‘Indigenous Evaluation Strategy’ that is running a fine tooth comb over billions of dollars in government spending to assess the positive impact of funding on Indigenous lives.

Following a cross-country roadshow, the commission has turned to the public to seek feedback on how the government can do better.

Few programs evaluated

Currently there is no single overarching framework of evaluation for Indigenous programs funded by the government through its Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), as found by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) last week.

The level of transparency of evaluation activities across the Commonwealth were described as "low" in the issue paper released today. The paper also estimates that less than 10 per cent of Indigenous-specific programs are evaluated.

Commissioner for the Indigenous Evaluation Strategy, Romlie Mokak, a Djugun man and a member of the Yawuru people, said the overriding objective of the project is to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"Long have our people been suspicious of consultations for consultation sake," he said.

"What we’re really wanting to do through this process is engage with our mob at a number of levels across a range of issues. The evaluation strategy is only going to be as successful as how much we bring our people into the process."

Mr Mokak said it will be up to the commission to develop a whole-of-government evaluation strategy that is practical and transparent over the next 12 months. 

"People are hungry to know what information exists - whether it's good, bad or indifferent – and how that information might actually assist with better decisions being made," he said.

"It’s really to have a good look at the way in which policies are developed, and programs developed, what they hope to achieve and whether that achievement is actually occurring or not."

Government program streams will come under the microscope in the coming months, from schemes involving jobs and children, to culture and capability.

The commission is asking for public submissions around controversial government programs, including the Community Development Program (Work for the Dole), National Disability Strategy (including the NDIS) and Closing the Gap.

The issues paper outlines how processes could be improved when assessing agencies on their effectiveness, stating it needs to be much more than just a ‘tick and flick’ exercise.

Informed by the 2017 Indigenous Expenditure Reportwhich found four in every five dollars spent by the Australian Government in providing services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is spent through mainstream programs and services, the framework will not just assess programs specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Verbal and written submissions in response to the issues paper are due by 23 August 2019.

A draft report containing recommendations is set to be released in February 2020.

'Decades overdue' 

With only two of the seven ‘Closing the Gap’ targets on track to be met, people working in Indigenous health, education and legal services are demanding the government do better.

Narungga woman and Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, Cheryl Axleby, says the government hasn't been accountable to other evaluations, such as the Independent Review of the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program.

"The number one recommendation of the Review was to maintain a standalone national funding program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, yet, the Government is moving to disband it," Mrs Axleby said.

"If this Government is serious about tackling disadvantage where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel it worst, in justice, child protection and family violence, then funding must reflect that.”

Associate Professor at the University of Canberra Health Research Institute, Margaret Cargo, said programs and evaluations will only be as good as the processes that are established to support them.

“If Indigenous people do not have a strong voice around the table from the design stage there is a danger that they will not be culturally safe and evaluated in ways that are aligned with Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.”

“Indigenous people have been saying this for decades. The way that government does its business needs to change,“ Associate Professor Cargo said.

Professor James Smith from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education said there is a lack of transparency in government education policies.

“What we need to see is a greater accountability for the spend on Indigenous money, but also making sure that that accountability sits with Indigenous people, that includes stories and narratives ... (and) that it includes Indigenous methodology in the way that it’s evaluated as well,” he said.

“What need to see is real action and not just words on a page”

“In terms of Indigenous higher education space, we’ve had successive recommendations out of reports or from high level expert panels or advisory committees that a monitoring or evaluation framework is required."

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