Participatory Governance and the Indigenous Agenda: From Rhetoric to Reality

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

Fundamental ingredients

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

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 relationships – 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

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

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
. 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.

When 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.

and related, there is the really difficult issue, in the shorter term at least,
of gaining and maintaining the appropriate cultural
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.

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)

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

…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

Alongside 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.

An 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

Finally, 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?

Concluding Observations

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.

Relatedly, 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.

* First published in the Public Sector Informant (Canberra Times), this article is an edited version of a forthcoming 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.


Australian Public Service
Commission (2007), Tackling 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.

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

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


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