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Adaptive Pragmatic Experimentalist Organisations


The Commonwealth government delivers many of its social, cultural and welfare services through the engagement of not-for-profit organisations, commonly called the ‘third sector’ (after the commercial sector, or market, and the public sector, or government). Many of these organisations are working in the field of ‘internal development’, particularly the Aboriginal third sector which struggles with the kind of poverty and lack of infrastructure normally associated with underdeveloped countries. Good practice in development programs requires attention to the process of program delivery as much as the outcome or targets (Mosse 1998:4-5). In complex, uncertain and rapidly changing environments, such as Aboriginal development, contemporary management scholarship emphasises the need for ‘pragmatic experimentalist’ organisations at the level of project implementation (Sabel 2004). Experimentalist organisations are adaptive because they:

assume the provisionality of their goals. They institutionalise social learning by routinely questioning the suitability of their current ends and means, and periodically revising their structures in light of the answers (Sabel 2004:4)

Dovers (2003) calls this ‘adaptive management’. Coming from different directions, many recent theories of development and public sector management emphasise the priority of process over outcome, local organisations’ questioning and learning, and being adaptive to local conditions (Mosse 1998; Dovers 2003; Sabel 2004). These approaches therefore require significant local autonomy adaptable to the diversity of local program implementation environments.


Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Management Office –Adaptive Management

The Kowanyama Land Office was founded in the Queensland land rights struggles of the 1980s, driven by the philosophy that self-determination is enacted in practice through Traditional Owners actively caring for land and waters. This is still the philosophical underpinning of the Land Office, which has benefitted from a consistent partnership of Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff over several decades.

In recent years the organisation has adapted to the establishment of Aboriginal local government at Kowanyama, and The Aboriginal Shire of Kowanyama is the now the principle support for its office and managerial staff. It has also increased its land base with the two local pastoral stations, joint management of a national park, and two native title determinations. The land office is currently negotiating its relationship with the new native title organisation, but because native title is simply seen as an extension of its aims from the start, this transition is being handled harmoniously.

The Land Office actively encourages support from outside researchers’ interest groups. It has support from the independent philanthropic Richardson Foundation and has forged links with the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest in Washington State. Its firm philosophical foundation gives the organisation the necessary mission structure to adapt government programs to its own local priorities. External stakeholders, such as governments and researchers, for their part find a consistent and trustworthy local basis for cooperation.

Its programs include:


  • Cultural Heritage Maintenance;

  • Oral Histories;

  • Native Title and Land Tenure;

  • National Park Management;

  • Wetlands Management;

  • Pests and Weeds Management;

  • Animal Health;

  • Recreational Fisheries Management;

  • Coast and Waterways Management and Surveillance;

  • Fire Management; and

  • Human Resource Development.

Nevertheless, there are challenges. The Land Office is small, with two administrative staff, a Senior Ranger and four Rangers. They have responsibility for 6000 square kilometres of land and substantial river and coastal waters. While the Land Office actively pursues fee-for-service opportunities, for example with AQIS, it is still largely dependent on one or two government funding sources. It has seven funding streams for thirteen functional programmes, but at least half of its budget relies on SEWPaC’s Working on Country scheme. Some funding comes from the Queensland Government’s Wild Rivers scheme, and the Land Office is able to integrate these activities with its agreed Working on Country objectives. While the Shire provides technical administrative support and Balkanu some accountancy services, there is difficulty coordinating reporting timelines with the realities of seasonal variation in this tropical environment.

In the long term, Kowanyama Land Office sees a need for greater independence from government funding. This will be based on local ownership of the two pastoral stations, Sefton and Oriners, joint management arrangements over the national park, philanthropic donations for social and environmental objectives, and native title benefits.





Malak Malak Ranger Group Wooliana Daly River

The Malak Malak Rangers were among the founding members of the original Wangamaty Land Care Group, which was mainly concerned with weed management. Malak Malak refers to their language while Wangamaty describes the group as people of the flood plain. Initially they received some funding to eradicate mimosa with assistance from Territory Natural Resource Management, the regional NRM group, to purchase chemicals and equipment. They cross-subsidised this with CDEP employment then transitioned to wages from the NLC’s Land and Sea Management Unit with Working on Country program funds.

The Malak Malak rangers’ major activity is to work to the eradication requirements of the Weeds of National Significance program. The elder and senior cultural adviser of the group, Albert Myoung, says that the weeds problem has developed in his lifetime and is related to their inability to burn country regularly because of the density of settlement.

There are about forty Malak Malak people, about ten of them resident at Wooliana, the ranger base community, close to the settlement of Naiyu on the Daly River. The ranger group prefers to keep its membership to Malak Malak people and to look after their own traditional country. They believe neighbouring groups should do the same for theirs. Malak Malak rangers combine environmental management with transmission of cultural knowledge.

The women of the community received a ‘highly commended’ Northern Territory Land Care award for their innovative work in biological control of weeds. They rear and release a moth that attacks mimosa, and a parasite, the silvinia weevil, that destroys the weeds that clog local billabongs.

The group is cohesive and largely self-directing. They plan their weed eradication program at the start of the year and implement it according to their own timetable. Results are monitored by the Northern Territory Department of Resources and Environment. The group will shortly expand into marine management under an agreement with the Northern Territory government. This will involve monitoring of recreational fishing, a major tourist attraction on the lower reaches of teh Daly.

While the group values the wage component of the Working on Country program they are constrained by lack of infrastructure and equipment. Territory Natural Resource Management provided a vehicle and quad bike to support the coordinator’s position, but these were returned when the coordinator transferred to the NLC, which also funds the rangers themselves. Apart from reducing cross-funding arrangement this consolidation under the NLC has also increased the equipment avaliable to the group. Malak Malak now has six quad bikes and four 4WD vehicles provided by NLC. However, they still feel constrained in expanding the group to provide more employment for Malak Malak people because of a lack of housing. They have no housing specifically dedicated to the ranger workforce and community housing is overcrowded. While they have their own office it has no equipment and they depend on a prior arrangement with the Nauiyu Community Council for an office at the settlement, but the Council has now been superseded by the Victoria Daly Shire and the future of the office is uncertain.

Despite minimal infrastructure Malak Malak rangers are a highly motivated and self-directing group providing an essential public service on the lower Daly River.


In contrast to these recent developments in public sector management theory, Australia is still largely stuck in the 1980s, when New Public Management, a neo-liberal management theory, informed sweeping changes to the Australian Public Service (Eckersley 2003:489-492; Nelson 2008:76-105; Parliament of Australia 2010). The characteristics of the public sector administrative approach, called New Public Management or NPM (see eg Sabel 2004:6-7), are: a commitment to central planning; strict oversight of implementation; continual audit and interference; and throughout this, a high degree of bureaucratic sensitivity to political imperatives communicated by Ministerial staff (Sullivan 2011a:72-3).

NPM theory affects both the external relations of government - its reliance on private and third sector service delivery - and the government’s internal trend towards politically directed, top-down, managerialism. In both these manifestations NPM has a particular hold on Australia, and has particular effects on Aboriginal people. NPM managerialism has a kind of ‘naturalness’ that suits mainstream Australian historical, administrative and cultural conditions, because NPM central control promises to calm a common Australian unease with local, regional and ethnic diversity (see Sullivan 2011b). It currently impacts heavily on the Aboriginal component of the Australian third sector.

Aboriginal development is being pursued within a policy environment of ‘normalisation’ which is leading to break up of the Aboriginal third sector. The sector is subject to inappropriate regulation, takeover by state government agencies, and open-market commercialisation of welfare/development service delivery functions (see Sullivan 2011a:48-66; Sullivan 2011b:8-9). Aboriginal third sector organisations are hampered in their ability to challenge this process by the inability of mainstream administrators to keep abreast of developments in public administration theory which emphasise adaptive experimentalist pragmatic approaches to ‘wicked problems’ like Aboriginal development and environmental management.

Public management theory uses the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe particularly complex areas of public administration that are resistant to management solutions (Head 2009:22). Brian Head has pointed out that environmental and NRM problems are ‘wicked’ because:


  • problems are inherently difficult to define clearly;

  • they contain many interdependencies and multi-causalities;

  • the problems are socially complex with many stakeholders;

  • entrenched value differences are significantly involved;

  • the problems may be unstable and keep evolving; and

  • the knowledge base for defining the nature of the problems and the scope of possible solutions is patchy and disputed (Head 2009:22).

The Commonwealth government’s response to the ‘wicked problem’ of Aboriginal development has been to encourage ‘whole-of-government’ cooperation across departmental and jurisdictional boundaries. Rather than reduce the long lines of control and encourage local autonomy, the government has proposed that development targets can be met by tighter integration of the various arms of the bureaucracy through whole-of-government coordination of service delivery. In this way it has hoped to keep to its basic commitment to NPM but with greater efficiency through reducing duplication and ‘red tape’. Though well-intentioned, this approach cannot succeed, as the following summary of recent theorists will show, and complex administrative processes may in fact be inevitable in complex environments, allowing room for adaptive management solutions to local problems.
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