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The Failure of Whole-of-Government Administration


The administration of Indigenous programs became highly fragmented when ATSIC was abolished in 2004/5 and its programs were taken over by mainstream government departments. A policy of whole-of-government service integration was adopted to deal with this. There have been three attempts at whole-of-government administration of Indigenous services in Australia in recent years. COAG had begun trials of a whole-of-government approach in eight regions in 2002 (Humpage 2005:53). The political decision to abolish ATSIC overtook these trials while they were still in development, and the program was rolled out across the country with the establishment of Indigenous Coordination Centres (ICCs) (Gray and Sanders 2006; Sullivan 2007). Most recently, the National Partnership on Remote Service Delivery in Indigenous Communities has selected thirty-nine communities for whole-of government coordination run by a Canberra-based Coordinator General.

There are only four West Australian communities involved in this experiment. Each is in the Kimberley and has one or more functional ranger groups. Despite the intention of the Remote Service Delivery framework to reduce unemployment as one its goals, the Coordinator General’s staff have not engaged with or supported these ranger groups in their planning process.

This latest attempt at whole-of-government coordination fits precisely the New Public Management approach identified for failure by Sabel as:

[a] more thoroughgoing, though equally hapless effort to correct NPM in the face of wicked problems is to create a new, central bureaucratic elite (a commando centre), with the flexibility to define cross-cutting projects. But the creation of a commando centre invites repetition of the self deluded errors of the overreaching state in reaction to which the governance debate [democratisation], ideas of NPM included, arose (Sabel 2004:9).

In other words, managerialist approaches to central control are deemed inadequate for the scope of the problems and replaced by a return to authoritarianism. The local self-informing pragmatic experimentalist organisations of the Aboriginal community sector carry little weight against this commando centre which reduces their role to ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ (Sullivan 2011c:9-10).

The success of local Working on Country units supported by regional representative organisations (see Allens Consulting 2011) may be due to the way they have escaped the whole of government trend. Though Working on Country arose as a way of providing real jobs in place of CDEP, it is administered by SEWPaC, an agency with little baggage in Indigenous affairs, but a long history of fostering local initiatives through its predecessors since the time of the Landcare program (Clayton, Dovers, Harris 2011).

Learning from the experience of Landcare, and the two iterations of the National Heritage Trust that followed the environmental management arms of both Commonwealth and state governments still promote an approach that the Commonwealth turned its back on in Indigenous affairs in 2004. This approach has sound backing in international development models.

Among the leading theorists in this area, the development anthropologist David Mosse, argues that good development outcomes do not come from a remotely-conceived blueprint (such as the Council of Australian Government’s National Indigenous Reform Agreement); he says they depend more on good processes than good plans and suggests three ways that ‘development as process’ can be achieved. Firstly, it builds in ways to learn from experience and adjust the program at the same time that it is implemented. Secondly, it concentrates as much on building relationships as on program delivery itself. Thirdly, and most challenging for NPM approaches to development, conceiving of development as a ‘process’ rather than an outcome requires accepting ‘…the dynamic, unpredictable and idiosyncratic elements in development programs; those things which are not easily amenable to planning and management control but which are nonetheless central to success or failure’ (Mosse, 1998:5).

This last point is very challenging to public officials trained in the rational technocratic approach to program delivery that characterises NPM.

In Indigenous affairs, the current policy of normalisation sees Aboriginal development as an administrative challenge of fundamentally the same order as the delivery of any other government program. The Commonwealth bureaucracy has neither knowledge of, nor sympathy towards, models of development of impoverished regions in other de-colonised nations. Yet advanced contemporary theory of public administration, puts the ‘dynamic, unpredictable and idiosyncratic’ at the heart of good administrative practice.

Sabel cogently describes both the rationalist origins of ‘command and control’ public policy and the countervailing approach of grassroots networked governance. He addresses common problem in public management theory, the relationship between ‘principals’ and ‘agents’, where principals are the client citizens in need of services, and agents are the agencies that deliver these. He finds that putting too much faith in either end of this relationship is misguided, because both suffer from lack of appropriate information. The ‘principal’ or client at the delivery end does not possess in advance a blueprint for best outcomes, any more than the central planners. In complex and changeable development environments principals do not necessarily know what is required, how to achieve it, what may be the negative consequences, what are the necessary supporting requirements, how these may impact more widely on others – a host of imponderables that beset also the agents or central planners. Through the elucidation of case studies Sabel says the most successful programs are the most adaptable, those that have pragmatic experimentalist organisational cultures and administrative structures (Sabel 2004). Local and regional organisations must be allowed to experiment and adapt according to local circumstances.

One of the consequences of Sabel’s analysis is that whole-of-government programs for Aboriginal development as they are conceived in Australia will fail because they remain top-down, centrally driven initiatives. An alternative, which Dovers advances with specific reference to NRM programs, echoes Sabel’s critique of current public management. He proposes a ‘new paradigm of adaptive ecosystem management’ which is based on five ‘core principles’:


  • persistence – stability and robustness over time;

  • purposefulness – driven by widely supported goals;

  • information richness – evidence, monitoring, evaluation;

  • inclusiveness – stakeholder involvement, and

  • flexibility – learning and adapting ( Dovers 2003:5-6).

Adaptive experimentalist management is emerging as the new paradigm for sustainable Indigenous livelihoods, and Working on Country ranger groups, together with the regional representative organisations that support them, are generally good examples of this. Of course, they are not without problems, and the question of accountability to national objectives needs continual review (see Lane et al 2004 on regional bodies). Some of these issues will be dealt with in the final section of this report. Before this it is important to mount an argument in favour of administrative complexity and the homogenising tendency of a whole of government top down strangle hold on the range of options open to local managers.
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