Indigenous funding, policies, programs: it's the process that stuffs it up

The Federal Government's Indigenous Advancement Scheme (IAS) tender process caused much chaos and stress, particularly for Indigenous organisations and communities (see this previous Power to Persuade post on the opportunities lost).

Eva Cox, Adjunct Professor at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney has published the information and analysis below as part of a research project looking at a range of programs and how government decisions often undermine community initiatives and local knowledge. Developed particularly to support the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, it is also valuable for mainstream organisations working with and in Indigenous communities. It looks at what does and doesn't work through the lens of data and recommendations of the Government's own advisors.


Too many government policies and programs targeting Indigenous people are seriously flawed because governments ignore evidence of what works. They fail to consult with potential sources of good advice including Indigenous controlled organisations, the governments' own expert advisors and the communities affected.

Many reports from communities, peak bodies and the Commonwealth Government's advisers have identified characteristics that lead to successful program design and delivery. Effective policies and programs work with collaborative input and genuine partnerships. The current Commonwealth Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) is another top down policy and decided without community expertise and involvement.

Evidence shows too many programs fail because they have neither been developed nor delivered according to principles about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This summary is part of a wider project to research common characteristics of effective programs and to encourage governments to stop making the same mistakes again and again.

This document provides a brief introduction to the Commonwealth Government's own experts' advice on what makes programs work effectively and stop doing what doesn't work. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) is the group of experts that reports on how flaws in the planning and program delivery of services undermine their possible success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The same types of errors are identified by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations in their submissions to the Senate Inquiry on the IAS.

We have listed the criteria under 'What Does Work' and 'What Doesn't Work' headings so communities and peak bodies can easily access and present further evidence on why governments get things wrong. The submissions to the IAS senate inquiry show that the federal government's new policy fails to acknowledge existing evidence or listen to the advice of peak bodies. We suggest quoting the federal government's own criteria can offer additional points for arguing for the necessary changes to the way that policies are planned and delivered.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare criteria cover the processes involved in making decisions, rather than policy content, and shows clearly how often it is the flawed planning and delivery that undermines the potential of many programs' success.

We hope communities will be able to use these evidence-based criteria to convince politicians and funders to change their ways to improve the set up and delivery of programs that work effectively. Hopefully those in the public service and political systems will recognise the value of using their own criteria to ensure that what they do is effective, short and long term.

The material below is our summary and the basic criteria from AIHW, with some suggestions from us. Further data and the sources available here.

Policy development and delivery must include all affected parties and be based on real dialogue and cooperation between government agents, peak service bodies and local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders and communities.

There is almost universal agreement that success requires bottom up, culturally appropriate, local engagement, rather than short term, top down, centrally designed and imposed models. Unfortunately almost all current policy development and delivery continues to use the latter top down model.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) criteria below clearly show what processes should be adopted to make Indigenous focused policies and programs work better.

Note the bolded text is direct quotes from the AIHW, the rest are some comments and suggestions from us on how they can be applied.


1.       Community involvement and engagement – strong leadership, strong community member engagement, appropriate infrastructure and use of a paid workforce to ensure long-term sustainability. 

  • Appropriate consultations by government officials with target communities should be undertaken early on before decisions are made on what services are needed and how to deliver them – paraphrased from Mick Gooda’s evidence to the Senate Inquiry.
  • The consultation process needs to include adequate time and prior briefings to allow communities/organisations to set up meetings that all relevant affected community people know about and can attend.
  • The process must recognise local cultural knowledge, and listen to ideas and discussion. Local people need to feel engaged, and be sure local ideas are heard and appropriately incorporated.

2.       Adequate resourcing for planned and comprehensive interventions – a strong sense of community ownership and control is a key element in overcoming Indigenous disadvantage. 

  • Avoid competitive tendering as it undermines Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service providers and devalues their networks and relationships in communities.
  • Allow enough time for local communities, peak bodies and elders to work out what they want: to discuss, amend and offer their own ideas.

3. Respect for language and culture – protocols are fundamental in communication 

Incorporate design processes that recognise and value:

  • The local leadership, culture and languages,
  • Address cultural and language differences that effect mutual understanding of the project plan and outcomes.

4. Working together through partnerships, networks and shared leadership - experiences in leadership is key to developing future community leaders.

This has to be integrated into planning, as it is the structural key. Partnership must involve:

  • Non-Aboriginal organisations adopting appropriate partnership principles and processes.
  • The genuine sharing of formal and informal decision making.
  • Mutual recognition of joint interests, whether expressed through self-determination or other forms of shared control.

5. Development of social capital - community experience in project work provides for learning and training opportunities.

Collaboration is a vital asset that:

  • Should be valued by the government through funding guidelines.
  • Develops trust levels that allow people to work together effectively and as equals..
  • Minimises the need for complex bureaucratic processes.

6. Recognising underlying social determinants – consider the project as part of a whole historical and community context

  • Programs must address local and structural issues and have a deep understanding of past historical events.
  • Refer to the World Health Organisation’s findings that population wide social and health problems derive from institutional and structural inequities that limit people’s sense of control and autonomy.

7. Commitment to doing projects with, not for, Indigenous people – effective relationships are vital and Aboriginal community buy-in is also essential for ongoing success.

This important idea is essential both for effective program delivery and to address power imbalances.

  • Relationships need to be genuinely collaborative between funders, providers and recipients of services.
  • Local and joint engagement models need to work to create effectiveness and goodwill,
  • Decisions need to integrate Aboriginal knowledge and aspirations.

8. Creative collaboration that builds bridges – between public agencies and the community, and coordination between communities, non-government and government services. 

  • Services need to plan, listen to and engage with local communities and other agencies:
  • The problem of too few or too many overlapping services must be avoided.
  • Recognise and involve current locally controlled services, where they exist.
  • Limit the number of large outside agencies operating in small or localised areas as they often fragment local goodwill, don’t share skills and undermine the effectiveness of local programs.

9. Understanding that issues are complex and contextual – many projects share common ground 

There needs to be a focus on joining up services so as to recognise that few issues have single causes, and that structural problems underlie many local issues. This builds local goodwill.


The AIHW criteria guidelines also cover what doesn't work. These are important because they represent the way that most governments tend to develop and deliver policies and programs and are the types of processes that their own advisers clearly identify as not working. The criteria below identify the negative characteristics of service delivery and design that are still used too often. These criteria were recently quoted in the 2014 Report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, chaired by the Productivity Commission, as the reasons for failure in centrally designed and imposed models.

1.       "One size fits all" approaches

  • This is a common approach and often a major flaw of both government programs and sometimes other NGO services.

Political views and administrative processes may see cookie-cutter models as easier to manage and apply but fail to recognise the problems they cause.

2. Lack of collaboration and poor access to services

  • Unsuccessful programs do not utilise pre-existing services and this diminishes the provision of community involvement, continuity of care and local leadership’.
  • Programs that do not value existing networks and relationships limit the suitability, sustainability and availability of services’.
  • Services and programs in many locations fail if they are not locally connected and accepted.

3.       External authorities imposing change and reporting requirements

  • Many local services resent what they regard as externally imposed changes to what they know is working, especially when they are excluded from decision making process.
  • They also resent when reporting processes do not seem to be used to create the changes they need or verify their implementation.

4.       Interventions without local Indigenous community

  • Interventions without local Indigenous control and culturally appropriateness don't work.
  • One size fits all design and delivered services fail to engage locals and develop the levels of trust and good will in local communities and/or with clients, which make services effective.

5.       Short-term, one-off funding – Piecemeal interventions, provision of services in isolation and failure to develop Indigenous capacity to provide services

  • Partial, short term and inadequate interventions, fail to effectively deal with the identified problems or do not operate for long enough to make a difference.
  • Defunding some successful programs after pilots expire can also create future resistance to any program.
  • Failure to plan, support and resource services, and ensure that local skills are developed reduces levels of local staffing, an area where employment security is needed.