We can do better! Highlights from the Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration conference

We can do better! Highlights from the Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration conference

Indigenous Affairs 50 years of Indigenous Affairs
Friday, 08 December 2017

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Woman standing at microphone in front of blue lectern. Another woman and 3 men in black jackets seated on stage to the right. ANZSOG School of Government banners in background.

An Opinion Editorial by Michelle Patterson, Special Adviser to the Associate Secretary of Indigenous Affairs.

Improving policy making for Indigenous communities was the idea behind ANZSOG’s sold-out Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration conference: Can’t we do better. 

Publications have broadened the discussion to those beyond the Sydney conference. The Mandarin highlighted PM&C’s First Assistant Secretary Joy Savage, and her focus on growing Indigenous leadership within the bureaucracy. The Public Service News shared PM&C’s Deputy Secretary Professor Ian Anderson and ANZSOG’s Ken Smith views on the need for public services to better recognize the expertise of Indigenous leadership that resides both within and outside of public administration.

A key issue touched on time and again went to the role and responsibility of the public service to develop relationships and policy that is effective, legitimate and innovative. One way of looking at this is from a systems and structural approach and when doing so, there are at least three distinct but mutually inclusive aspects to this observation: the first goes to theory and practice of policy development; the second to the role of the public service in supporting democratic practice, and the third to issues of bureaucratic machinery and practice.  In terms of the practice of public administration in Indigenous Affairs the following can be argued:

1) That decisions affecting Indigenous peoples will be democratic and legitimate if they are involved in the decision making on mutually agreeable terms.

2) That policies and decisions will only be effective if they have this quality; and 

3) The importance to how the bureaucracy and machinery of government impacts on public administration in this field, is under-recognised and poorly theorized.

The conference traversed the first two propositions on how policy is made and who is making it in some detail. But the structure and practice of public administration was touched upon only fleetingly reflecting a general poverty of inquiry into such matters generally. Indeed, attention to this, either within the APS or in political and administrative theory has been lacking. There have been senior officials who wrote as intellectual insiders, about public administration, tensions and democratic and ethical issues (eg Wilenski & Coombs). Against the background of the birth of Indigenous Affairs, Barry Dexter’s recent publication of his years with the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and the first Department for Aboriginal Affairs, is a remarkable insight into the mechanics of serving government, negotiation of bureaucracy and serving Indigenous Australians (2016 Pandora’s Box). 

The reasons for this lack of attention are themselves understudied and deserve more than a simplistic explanation (it would be a very good research question). But as a consequence, we are losing sight of the impact on Indigenous Affairs of the complex and interwoven sets of political and administrative rituals and practices that makes up public administration. This critical knowledge and practice seems hidden in plain sight, and lacks contemporary critical theory or analysis. Machiavelli has been much maligned, but his revelations of the hidden politics and practices of raw administration remain foundational reading– partly because not much else has come along after it. And in terms of bureaucratic practice, others have noted that little has been done since Weber. 

It seems to me that for the APS to transform its approach to Indigenous Affairs, it must in general become more self-conscious and self-critical and demonstrate understanding of the impact of the system and structures it perpetuates and serves. Because these practices are not neutral and nor are they necessarily benign. Understanding and critiquing our own institution and system is also necessary for us to see there is a cultural edge between our systems and ways of knowing and being, and Indigenous knowledge. While our western liberal culture is dominant in the structures of Australian society, we have all agreed that to improve public administration in Indigenous Affairs, we must work with Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Australians have repeatedly tried to have different knowledge systems and cultural values recognised in decision making and in designing and implementing policy.  There are some good examples of this happening today, but they are few and far between and often rely on individuals within the system - who get it – and not a system that structurally learns and structurally engages in respectful mutual collaboration. And what happens when these individuals move on? 

Can we rise to the call from Indigenous peoples to develop the institutional self-consciousness to discern the intercultural space and to approach it with respect and open thinking (Nakata)? ‘Working with and not to’ has to be underpinned by our growing our institutional capability and respect for the ‘other’. How might we get there?

ANZSOG have published a conference report and videos that can be viewed on their website.


Nugget Coombs (1981) Trial Balance.

Barry Dexter, Gary Foley and Edwina Howell (2015) Pandora’s Box: The Council for Aboriginal Affairs 1967-1976.

Martin Nakata (2007) Disciplining the Savages: Savaging the Disciplines.

Peter Wilenski (1986) Public Power and Public Administration.