Participatory governance and the Indigenous agenda: From rhetoric to reality


The Rudd Government is off to a good start with its determination
to right the wrongs of past decades and to confront a set of seemingly
intractable indigenous issues; a determination to move quickly from symbolism
to action. But what will determine success?

Indigenous disadvantage
is one of several examples that the Australian Public Service Commission
identifies as a highly complex policy problem; one that is "highly resistant to
resolution" (see its recent publication Tackling
Wicked Problems)
. Just when you think you may have the policy solution, more
complexities are likely to appear. Complex issues, and particularly sensitive
ones such as indigenous policy and delivery issues, will require moving beyond
consultation to a more active engagement with those likely to be affected by
decisions. This is sometimes called "participatory governance" or, in the
OECD’s words, "active participation".


literature here and overseas suggests several necessary (though perhaps not
sufficient) key ingredients for successful creation of participatory policy

Three such
ingredients stand out: strong leadership, trusting relationships and the willingness
of those with power to share it. In the context of indigenous issues, strong leadership can be ticked off at
this stage, occurring from the top – from both the Prime Minister and the
Leader of the Opposition. However, this commitment will need to be maintained
for a very long time and, importantly, be imbued with a determination to see
desired changes achieved on the ground. Leaders of government teams on the
ground will need the right cultural attitude and expertise if their endeavours are
to succeed. For instance, there is much evidence from the recent government trials of whole of
government approaches in indigenous communities that attitudes at the top have
not always filtered down. Frequent turnovers of staff working with communities
have not assisted.

The second
fundamental ingredient is trusting
– without this, genuine collaboration of relevant parties is
impossible. Trust has been described as both the lubricant and the glue: it facilitates
the work of a collaboration as well as holding it together. The concept of trust has only recently found currency
within the Australian Public Service – it essentially involves behaviours where
the expectations of each party are clear and there is confidence that what is
committed to will be delivered. In the context of indigenous communities, a
"trust culture" will be difficult to build up and maintain unless these
communities have a genuine opportunity to influence government decisions.

The third
fundamental and related ingredient that the literature has been identified for
participatory practices to work relates to the willingness of government to share their decision-making power. This is so much
easier said than done, especially for those officials who have been so used to
"managing" a consultation process and seeing it as a process essentially under
their control.

The report
of the 2005 Select Senate Committee on Indigenous Affairs expressed some
concern about the extent of the power inequality between negotiating parties in
the context of government-indigenous Shared Responsibility Agreements which
dealt with respective responsibilities of aboriginal communities and
governments; a concern particularly that the
provision by government of basic infrastructure facilities, such as housing
repairs or a health centre, could be
traded away.

Some implementation challenges

Even with strong leadership from the top, with a building of
trust and also effective power-sharing arrangements, other more practical challenges
remain to be overcome if effective partnering arrangements between government
and non-government players are to be
realised. Implementation challenges
explain why it is not at all surprising that there is so often a gap between the
rhetoric government now uses on participatory governance and the reality witnessed
on the ground.

There are
at least five important implementation difficulties to overcome.

The first
is reshaping respective accountabilities
of the players. Important and
increasingly complex accountability questions arise around who is accountable
to whom and for what in the process of bringing more non-government players
into the policy development and decision-making process. Can the principles of
individual and collective responsibility as well as accountability to the
taxpayer through Parliament hold when the boundaries between what governments
and communities do are more blurred? Can
there be multiple accountabilities? And how far can ambiguities in partnership
arrangements be tolerated?

As the
boundaries across sectors blur, there is an inescapable tension between vertical
accountability mechanisms traditionally inherent in the Westminster system and horizontal
accountability in terms of responsiveness to citizens. The challenge now is to reshape governance processes
and practices so that this inevitable tension is minimised and managed; and to gain
collaboration in clearly defining respective roles and responsibilities. Essential
elements needed here include that: expectations of all parties are agreed and
explicit; expectations balance respective capacities; reporting arrangements are
credible; and there are carefully designed and appropriate monitoring and
evaluation mechanisms.

Second, is
the need to pay attention to an alignment
of organisational structures
. Too often when governments set out to put
participatory governance mechanisms in place,
they are observed to be operating in the context of traditional structures and
processes (for instance referral back by government officials on the ground to
head office). Yet these practices may not align with the purpose of participatory governance (for instance, where more
autonomy in decision-making is needed by officials working with communities on
complex and/or sensitive issues). A key implementation issue, therefore, is to
redesign public sector institutions and practices to align more with the new
participatory and interactive framework.

governments engage with indigenous communities, there is an additional issue: it can be anticipated that there will be a
deep divide between the types of structures and processes governments use to
obtain results and ensure accountability, on the one hand, and traditional
indigenous governance arrangements on the other. If these are not understood by
all parties, and addressed early on with some collaborative alignment
attempted, then all the commitment that can be brought to bear on the task at
hand will not be enough to ensure implementation success.

Again, it
is not easy to turn this rhetoric into reality. There are many Australian
examples of where there was good intent and there was genuine engagement at the
initial stages of the project, only for there to be a switch back to old
patterns and relationships in the later stages of implementation when
government resumed the role of a more dominant player – a situation at odds
with genuine participatory arrangements.

Third and related, there is the really difficult issue, in
the shorter term at least, of gaining and maintaining the appropriate cultural environment. This was found to
be particularly relevant in the case studies analysed in the Connecting Government report (MAC 2004) especially so in
evaluations of the COAG Indigenous Trials. A growing academic literature on indigenous
governance, in Australia
and elsewhere points to the importance of gaining a ‘cultural match’ in
ensuring successful policy implementation.

Jim Cavaye, an expert on community engagement mechanisms
observed a few years ago approaches which amount to: "we are from the
government and we are going to engage you" rather than there being an
understanding of the value of investing in relationships from building up a
partnering approach. (2004:94)

Fourth, the extent to which the public service has the relevant skills and capacity to engage
with non-government players in the policy process is a real issue and was
recently acknowledged by the Australian Public Service Commissioner in her
2005-06 State of the Service Report.

…the APS needs to
build its capacity to effectively and successfully engage the Australian
community. This will include recruiting for and developing strong relationship
management skills, the willingness and ability to listen to the views of
others, and conflict resolution and management skills

In more
specific terms, a government commissioned evaluation of the COAG Indigenous
Trials raised a series of relationship issues in building partnerships,
including indigenous partners identifying a basic set of required skills for
government officers. These included: good listening; acting in good faith; high
levels of good will; willingness to share power; recognising and acknowledging
intra-community and familial relationships and how these impact on leaders;
understanding the pressures on communities; being honest and open; and being
human (Morgan et al 2006). These are the skills that can be expected to
be ones all public servants involved in participatory activities will need to

the building of internal government capacity is the equally important task of
ensuring that those whom governments engage, also have the necessary resources
and capacity to participate fully.
Non-government bodies also need to assure government that they have the
capacity to be responsive to broad consumer and community needs.

interesting, if radical, question arises here in terms of the boundaries around
the participatory activities of public officials. For example, would there be
occasions when officials could be expected to be supporters, if not actual initiators
of citizen or community empowerment?

there is much scope to ensure appropriate evaluation
of policy initiatives
and their implementation. The OECD indicates that to
date there has been little evidence of countries making progress in developing
appropriate evaluation frameworks. There are many possible reasons for this, one
being that active citizen participation is most required on complex and sensitive
policy issues which, so far, have not been coped with by standard program
evaluation methodologies. But it is likely also to be because of a lack of
clarity with respect to the purpose of citizen participation.

Professor Brian Head, in the context of
participatory initiatives, has recently asked some relevant questions: is the
purpose to be about outcomes only or is it to also be about processes and how
well relationships are developed? Is the
purpose to learn and/or to generalise from a
particular instance? Is it about
auditing and compliance, or to provide some encouragement to participants? Or is it some combination of these? (2006). One
could also ask: from whose perspective is the evaluation to occur? Only the government’s or also that of
non-government players? If also the
latter, is the purpose of their participation and their respective roles,
responsibilities and accountabilities understood and agreed? To what extent would non-government players have
a say about the place, method and timing of the participatory processes?


It is
important to note that an active participatory approach is not normally to be
expected in most policy and delivery government processes. But it is now
generally agreed that this approach becomes necessary for dealing with complex
and sensitive issues, such as those surrounding indigenous matters. Hopefully
this will be taken as a given when the newly established and bi-partisan
Commission considers its next moves.

Whatever the
actual level and mechanisms of involvement of non-government players in policy
processes that governments decide upon, it is of paramount importance that
expectations on both sides be well understood and aligned. If, for example, the government wishes to consult
only now and then but not actively to engage throughout the whole policy
process, that needs to be stated and understood at the outset. If the government has already made a decision
which is irrevocable but then wants to engage the community within that
context, that also needs to be clearly stated and understood before communities
participate in discussions on any next steps.

clarity of language and intent and avoidance of rhetoric is essential. Incorrect
and inappropriate use of terminology such as ‘collaboration’, ‘partnership’, ‘engagement’,
apart from causing inefficiencies in process, may result in negative outcomes,
reduction of trust and/ or reduced community engagement potential.

At its heart,
successful engagement requires the management a few basic tensions for
governments: there is the tension of
balancing the vertical accountabilities of the Westminster system with the horizontal
responsibilities of government out toward communities. But there is also a
tension between attempting to pursue the most immediately efficient practices
on the one hand and, on the other, spending the required resources to gain
trust and collaboration over what can be lengthy periods of time with the aim
of achieving more effective and long-term outcomes.

Moving in
the direction of a more participatory governance framework will require careful
management – governments will have to build new structures and ways of working.
They will need to develop new skills, new capacities with new and different
types of relationships and interactions. Into the future, at least in the case of
indigenous issues, we can expect participatory governance and partnering
relationships to become mainstream activities for governments and their officials,
no longer something to be dabbled in on the side.

This article is an edited version of an Issues Paper on Participatory Governance for the University of Canberra’s
ARC Project on Corporate Governance in
the Public Sector
: an Evaluation of
its Tensions, Gaps and Potential
. The author is alone responsible for any
views or errors in this paper.



Public Service Commission (2007), Tacking
Wicked Problems: a Public Policy Perspective,
Commonwealth Government

Cavaye Jim
(2004) "Governance and Community Engagement: The Australian Experience", in
Lovan, RW, Murray, M and Shaffer, R (eds), Participatory Governance, Ashgate,England.

Head Brian
(2006) "Network-Based Governance – How
Effective?". Paper delivered at Governments and Communities Conference, Centre
for Public Policy, University
of Melbourne, September.

Advisory Committee (MAC) (2004) Connecting
Government: Whole of Government Responses to Australian Priority Challenges,

of Australia

Disney Associates (2006) Synopsis Review
of the COAG Trial Evaluations,
Report to the Office of Indigenous Policy
Coordination (OIPC), November.


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