Indigenous public service leadership: Representation, cultural sensitivity and the 'pre-choice'

“Despite a push in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to recruit more Indigenous people into the mainstream public service, no academic study has analysed their contributions or the precise purpose behind the recruitment until now,” according to an international research team examining the experiences of Indigenous public servants.

Catherine Althaus (@AlthausCat) reports on the early findings of this important research.


“We don’t believe public services have fully thought through all the possibilities and challenges behind an affirmative action agenda, beyond increasing numbers to meet representation targets.”

Professors Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh (Griffith University, Australia), Bill Ryan (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), and Catherine Althaus (University of Victoria, Canada) are part of a wider study on Indigenous leadership that also includes South Africa. It has received grant funding from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing Indigenous public servants. The study, titled “Leading from Between: the Challenges and Opportunities of Indigenous Public Servant Leadership”, is mapping the role of Indigenous public officials. It reviews and analyses their contribution and experiences across the four jurisdictions in order to distil lessons that can be applied to transform public services, both structurally and at the level of practice.

Broadly speaking, there has been steady growth of Indigenous public sector employment since the 1980s, however this growth is concentrated mainly in Indigenous and service delivery agencies and is much less apparent in central and economic agencies. While there has been a substantial increase in the absolute number of Indigenous public servants at senior levels, taken as a whole the Indigenous public sector workforce is still concentrated in lower occupational and salary categories.

The dispossession and marginalisation of Indigenous peoples, but also their resilience and capacity for survival, provides the critical context for their participation and leadership in public services. These factors help shape both the opportunities and challenges faced by individual Indigenous people, and the cultural, social and political context in which they operate as Indigenous public servants.

Unique perspectives
Preliminary findings from interviews with Indigenous public servants in Canada reflect themes of traditional Indigenous concepts of leadership. These concepts are guided by particular principles: holistic balance; spirituality and connection to the land and past generations; personal integrity; lifelong learning and transferring knowledge to others; and pursuing community rather than individual interests. Indigenous public servants work to serve their communities first and the public service second. Taken together, these principles provide a unique Indigenous perspective to public sector leadership practices.

Indigenous challenges
The interviews also suggest that Indigenous public servants face a ‘pre-choice’ that seems unique: “Do I want to get involved in a colonial institution in the first place?” Some people feel they can’t be authentically Indigenous within the mainstream public service. Others disagree and enter public service with the belief they offer a transformative potential to integrate themes of Indigenous leadership.

“All of our research participants said they can visualize, or have already encountered, the possibility they will have to leave because of a clash between traditional values and professional requirements. While non-Indigenous public servants may encounter this issue - someone committed to the environment may feel a clash with personal values, for instance - this issue is more prevalent among Indigenous public servants.

As well, a majority spoke of the burden they face representing their people in the public service - a challenge non-Indigenous public servants do not face. Indigenous people can be called on to give a mono-cultural view of Indigenous culture and they can feel used as a token Indigenous person. But the range of cultures and views across Indigenous peoples is so wide. To expect Indigenous public servants to provide a mono-cultural view is not only a burden, it’s wrong.”

Opportunities for improvement
This exploratory research highlights several opportunities to improve the experience of Indigenous people in the mainstream public service, and to challenge non-Indigenous public servants to make positive change:

  • Discuss the pre-choice issue with current and future employees
  • Provide culturally appropriate opportunities to discuss the conflict between professional and personal values
  • Promote greater cultural safety (for Indigenous and non-Indigenous public servants) with cultural fluency training for everyone in the public service
  • Recognize and address the burden of representation and bridge building placed on Indigenous public servants
  • Develop more innovative public service protocols and ceremonies to provide avenues for healing and to celebrate culture in a healthy, respectful manner. Ensure that protocols and ceremonies are neither token, nor do they compromise Indigenous public servants called to participate in or lead them
  • Celebrate and employ the unique skills Indigenous public servants bring (for example an ability to network with communities, deal with complex issues, and be respectful of cultural sensitivities). Offer promotion opportunities to integrate Indigenous approaches and, thereby, transform the public service

More country-specific findings and recommendations are anticipated as interviews come to a close soon in Australia and New Zealand.

For more information on the Leading from Between project, please contact Catherine Althaus on

Posted by Sophie Yates