Friday, June 17, 2016

Too little skin in the Indigenous development game

This week's Four Corners revealed Aboriginal communities being ripped off by "weasels" – middlemen who disappear after cashing in on highly-lucrative government contracts meant to benefit disadvantaged people.

The program put a spotlight on 'whitefella charlatans'; obvious targets of public outrage. Yet on television their victims weren't particularly angry, just sad that once again their trust had been betrayed.

They ought to be angry at successive governments of all levels that have set aside money for them but not done the work needed to make sure it reached them. Governments must know that capacity constraints in communities make members vulnerable to people who work corruptly.

In my time working in Indigenous development, I heard of bureaucrats who "throw money over the fence and expect communities to put together the puzzle". Communities are set up to fail in part because departments working with them operate from a paradigm of service delivery rather than community development.

In his important book out this month Serious Whitefella Stuff, development practitioner and academic Mark Moran makes the case. At a book launch, coinciding with Reconciliation Week, he spoke of his own awakening. "I wanted to put a notice up for a public meeting and he [a local who became a good friend] made me rewrite it 20 times before people would understand it."

Moran and his co-contributors call for a complete rethink of the way governments and remote communities interact. Moran describes an oversupply of programs that recipients find bewildering. In some communities with as few as a 1000 people there are 100 programs delivered by hundreds of providers who don't talk to each other and have different agendas.

He says in the main bureaucrats are trying to do good and increasingly open to new ways of working, but are not in their jobs long enough to realise sustained and positive change. "Relationships are the building block for reform, not the next big policy solution."

(It's an unpopular thing to say, but for all the mistakes the missionaries made, they stayed, they learnt the local language and they built relationships).

If we took the aspirations of Aboriginal people seriously, then those expecting to work with Indigenous Australians – public servants and business and the non-government sector – would be trained in asset-based community development. They would have capacity in cross-cultural communication. They would have facilitation skills to build consensus and resolve conflict and they would be able to support skills sharing and leadership development.

The military style, top-down NT Intervention (which unfortunately coincided with forced shire amalgamations) was a policy solution based on the worst cases of neglect and, as a result, it swept away everything before it, including the good stuff. "We need to recognise capability and civil society that already exists, Moran says. "The deficits often sit with outsiders who work in remote communities."

World views are not what you look at but what you look though, like spectacles. We all look at the world through a grid we take for granted, a web of narratives and symbols that help us navigate the world. The Commonwealth spends more than $25 billion on Indigenous affairs each year. It would help if it adjusted its spectacles for respectful, two-way learning.

Like most people, Indigenous Australians like to manage their own affairs. But delivering services necessarily involves a transaction, and transactions turn people into objects, especially as government employees are working to three-year timeframes to tick boxes. The construction of new homes in the Northern Territory as part of the Intervention was a classic example. Tens of millions of dollars were spent with scarcely a single Indigenous apprenticeship created.

Not only are few jobs being being created, communities are having to return grant funds because there is no capacity on the ground to absorb the resources. Process is as important, if not more than outcomes. That inevitably leads to putting people first and growing their confidence and skills.

The office of Prime Minister and Cabinet (which began managing Indigenous affairs under Tony Abbott) is currently re-engaging 500 communities under as part of a revamped NT Intervention. There is a will to "engage" better but the externally imposed timeframes are unrealistic. The best overseas aid organisations commit to having their people work with locals for a minimum of 10 years. Arguably, the difficulties in working with Indigenous locals are greater.

The increasing politicisation of the Australian Public Service, along with seasonal purges, means that communities are lucky to liaise with the same public servants for more than a couple of years. Too few have skin in the game. This makes it easy for the so-called weasels

First published in The Canberra Times, June 10, 2016. Image c/o Fairfax Media

Monday, June 6, 2016

Let's dig in for public schools - for the common good

Six-year old Josie (not her real name) was enrolled in a prestigious private elementary school and progressing well, so well that her reading was well above average. Her parents asked the principal if she could be moved up a class or have her classes more personally tailored.

They were politely refused. All the talk about child-centred programs and extra resources was "just talk," her father Rick says.

"We tried other elite schools who also claimed they had resources to burn for individual care, but in the end they wouldn't budge," he says.

"That's not the way we do it here" was the typical response.

Then Rick and his wife tried their local public school.

The school assessed her, let her sit in on some lessons, and went into overdrive. Josie was put into different groups for different subjects as part of a specially-designed program. They kept an eye on her. They were "just all round brilliant".

That year Rick and Josie's mum got the usual letter from the school asking for a Voluntary Contribution of $140.

They talked about it and sent the sent the school a cheque for 140 times as much: $20,000.

Rick was on a train platform in Sydney when he got a call from the school. The principal was on the other end of the line, speechless. The cheque was real.

"I explained that we were willing to pay $20,000 at a private school, so why wouldn't we send the same amount to his school as it deserved every cent. They went above and beyond."

"It was lovely. The money was so appreciated. I knew it was not going to go towards a rowing club shelter, but more important things."

Once a year state primary and high schools send parents and carers a letter requesting support in the form of a voluntary contribution. They are only allowed to send one. I am familiar with them, having served on a school board that has debated why it is that each year fewer than half the families respond. We debate the timing of the letter, the text of the letter, the extent of the discount for families with more than one child and anything else we think might improve the response rate.

We rarely get big donations, and families in the ACT are typically more stingy than families in NSW, even though their incomes are higher. (In any event, if they did decide to pay up big it isn't as effective as it could be. Donations to private schools are tax deductible, but donations to public schools are not, although donations to the libraries within them sometimes are).

As reported by Fairfax Media last week, years of benign neglect of the public system and lobbying by private schools means non-government schools are now government-funded at similar levels to government ones. We seem to have accepted the distasteful idea that the government should fund even very wealthy private schools whose families turn their back on the government system.

Public school advocate Jane Caro asks what women and public schools have in common? She says we pay them less and expect them to do more. Rick thought the private system would deliver more than it could. He thought paying more would buy more.

The decisions parents make about schools are complex but often influenced by what's on the surface. It's like buying a book. Book publishers spend a fortune on enticing covers and hiring bookshop window space. Private schools have the money to show off. The spectator sport that is NAPLAN plays a part even though if you allow for socio-economic status, the differences between public and private schools are paper thin.

Public school halls may be less fancy, the quality of their open night signs forlorn, and their uniform culture more relaxed but, gosh, it's made up for by commitment; commitment to individuals and a commitment to that old fashioned thing called the common good - with no religious branding or criteria-heavy waiting lists. Their values: respect, care, excellence and community are driven by a notion of the common good. John Howard defamed them when he said they were values-free.

When a family makes a voluntary contribution to a public school it's not about buying something for an individual but supporting the common good.

The common good is what's missing from prime minister Turnbull's language so far this election. Even his talk about innovation is tied to the market, making something that can sold.

Don't wait for a reminder before contributing to your local public school.

First published in The Canberra Times, 28 May, 2016. Cartoon illustration courtesy of Fairfax Media.