Empowering Indigenous communities

Empowering Indigenous communities

It is a significant thing to ask government to switch from its role as a fixer of Indigenous problems, to an enabler of local Indigenous approaches.

Ben Wallace

Partner, Management Consulting

KPMG Australia

Indigenous Australia line design

Liz Forsyth, Global Lead for Human & Social Services, KPMG and
Sean Gordon, Chair, Empowered Communities National Leaders Group 

Liz Forsyth and Sean Gordon

The Empowered Communities: Empowered People’s Design Report, delivered to the Federal Government in March 2015, articulates a fundamentally new approach to Indigenous policy development. It argues for a move away from top-down decision-making by government and the transferal of planning and decision-making control to Indigenous leaders and communities.

The report was sponsored by the Federal Government in 2013, and enjoyed bi-partisan support. The communities who have endorsed the plan are now eager to get started on the new agenda.

While the Federal Government has agreed to partner on the regional aspect of the Empowered Communities reform agenda, it is imperative that the report and its recommendations at a national level are introduced in order to sustain gains made at the regional level.

What are ‘Empowered Communities’?

Empowered Communities was born of agreement among Indigenous leaders that current government policies are not working sufficiently to advance Indigenous communities, and well-intentioned funding is being wasted.

Conceived as a new approach for Indigenous communities and government to more effectively work together, Empowered Communities was first publicly announced at the August 2013 Garma Festival in Arnhem Land.

The announcement leveraged prior work from Jawun, an innovative not-for-profit organisation established under the guidance of Patron Noel Pearson. Jawun seconds experienced people from Australia’s leading companies and government agencies into Indigenous organisations. These secondees share their expertise and support Indigenous leaders to achieve their own development goals.

Jawun operates in eight regions around Australia1, and the Indigenous leaders of each of these pledged their commitment to responsibility-based Indigenous reform, including greater collaboration within and between regions, and more cooperation with government and the corporate sector in the prosecution of Indigenous-led regional reform agendas.

Seven joint principles of reform were agreed to at Garma, reflecting a vision for Indigenous communities where critical social norms are accepted: children in school, adults in work, safe care of children and the vulnerable, freedom from domestic violence and crime, and family responsibility for public housing tenancies.

Empowered Communities framework

Under the Empowered Communities framework, Indigenous leaders consult with their regional communities to develop the following planning elements:

  • Development Agendas – the creation of a medium term (around 5 years) Indigenous-led development agenda, setting out the region’s social, economic and cultural development goals with a focus on promoting enabling environments for development.
  • Development Accords – a development agenda would be the basis for the negotiation of a formal development accord with government, establishing a binding commitment and funding mechanisms for the achievement of the agenda’s development goals. Each accord is to be centred on a set of well-defined goals, with quantifiable indicators used to measure progress and refine the allocation of resources and incentives accordingly.
  • First Priorities Agreements – interim plans for action on high-priority areas (such as school attendance, economic participation, safe and supportive communities and home ownership opportunities) while development agendas and accords are under development.
  • Delivery Plans – annually reviewed operational plans setting out the agreed actions, targets and responsibilities for planning and tracking performance in the delivery of agreed programs.
Quote: It is a significant thing to ask government to switch its role as a fixer of Indigenous problems, to an enabler of local Indigenous approaches.

Bi-partisan support enables Empowered Communities Design Report

In 2013, the Empowered Communities Compact received bi-partisan support from then Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, and the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Once in government, Mr Abbott committed funding of $5 million for the joint development of a detailed Empowered Communities policy Design Report to further develop and give these principles effect.

Engagement work commenced early in the design phase, to identify and document examples of good practice that could be shared, while ensuring that the frameworks proposed are workable and able to meet the needs and priorities of the people and organisations in each region.

Core to the proposal is the development of a centralised delivery unit within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as an independent statutory body: the Indigenous Policy Productivity Council (IPPC). The IPPC is necessary to ensure a systemic alignment to the Indigenous empowerment policy and compliance with agreed plans and structures over the long term, irrespective of the government and personalities of the day. A key function of the IPPC would be to report annually on the overall progress of reforms based on the measurable outcomes achieved in each region.

Regional progress

In December 2015, Prime Minister Turnbull wrote to Empowered Community leaders offering that the federal government would partner with Empowered Community regions – with a focus on the regional aspect of the Empowered Community reform agenda. He advised the government would delay consideration of the national reform proposals for 3 years, including the IPPC.

Empowered Community Indigenous leaders accepted the federal government’s offer. This has enabled Empowered Community regions to set up backbone organisations to support regional Indigenous leaders implement reforms. The backbone teams will help ensure that Indigenous voices are heard.

Empowered Community leaders are continuing to strongly make the case with the government about their proposals for institutional reform at the national level to ensure that the gains made at the regional level are sustainable. In particular, the IPPC will be crucial to ongoing success.

In the meantime Empowered Community leaders are bringing Empowered Community reforms to life. They have agreed a set of deliverables with the government for the first year of implementation, are developing and implementing First Priority Agreements and starting to progress 5-year Development Agendas for their regions that include:

  • consulting with Indigenous people and organisations in the regions
  • analysing data and matching it with community knowledge and experience
  • reviewing existing services provided in Empowered Community regions.

It should be acknowledged that it is a significant thing to ask government to switch from its role as a fixer of Indigenous problems, to an enabler of local Indigenous approaches. Most ministers and senior public servants are used to leading from the front.

But this is how government should work: as the supporter of good reform ideas. As the Design Report notes, that may mean tackling government silos and blockages, identifying funding sources, or garnering support from key agencies. An effective enabler is also honest and knowledgeable about perceived shortcomings in strategy or performance, and can provide constructive advice that strengthens confidence rather than undermines it.

The need for support of Empowered Communities beyond government

We must be diligent in not relying solely on government. The power of business must be enlisted to grow the capacity of Indigenous-controlled organisations, leaders and communities to meet the challenges they face today and into the future.

New initiatives, like the Jawun Corporate Partnership, provide examples of better, more effective ways of working. Jawun's model of leveraging corporate and government partners to support Indigenous-led projects is based on enablement, rather than ownership. As partners lending time and talent, businesses are well positioned to support Indigenous leaders and to help build their leadership capacity.

Significant challenges have already been overcome in the creation of the Empowered Communities initiative, not least the unifying of Indigenous leadership across eight diverse regions. The result has been a uniquely sound, forward-thinking reform led by Indigenous people, for long term Indigenous-led reform.

It holds the potential to truly deliver on our collective obligation to close the gap.

Recommendation for empowering Indigenous communities


1 The eight regions include Cape York, Queensland; Central Coast, New South Wales; East Kimberley, Western Australia; Goulburn-Murray, Victoria; Inner Sydney, New South Wales; Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands, Central Australia; North East Arnhem Lean (NEAL), Northern Territory; West Kimberley, Western Australia. http://empoweredcommunities.org.au/regions.aspx

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