What we know

  • Without genuine engagement of Indigenous people it will be difficult to meet the targets of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
  • The United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls on states to obtain free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people through their representative institutions before adopting legislative or administrative measures that would affect them; it provides an international framework of best practice for engagement.
  • Engagement requires a relationship built on trust and integrity: it is a sustained relationship between groups of people working towards shared goals; on the spectrum of engagement, a high level of participation works better than lower levels (such as consultation) where problems are complex.
  • Compared with the experience in similar developed settler countries, Indigenous engagement in Australia is not based on a comprehensive legal framework or treaty that enshrines certain rights for First People, or gives First People significant levels of control: experience overseas also emphasises the importance of investing in Indigenous governance capacity and related resources.
  • Recent government efforts to improve coordination and whole-of-government working for engagement indicate that a need remains for:
    • greater flexibility in funding arrangements
    • approaches towards accountability systems and capacity development that reflect a whole-of-government approach
    • greater coordination of and authority for senior local staff
    • shifts in bureaucratic cultures to support collaboration.

What works

Engaging successfully with Indigenous communities requires:

  • an appreciation of—and the cultural competency to respond to—Indigenous history, cultures and contemporary social dynamics and to the diversity of Indigenous communities; valuing the cultural skills and knowledge of community organisations and Indigenous people
  • clarity about the purpose and the relevant scale for engagement, which may call for multi-layered processes: engagement needs to relate to Indigenous concepts of wellbeing
  • long-term relationships of trust, respect and honesty as well as accessible, ongoing communication and information
  • effective governance and capacity within both the Indigenous community and governments themselves
  • appropriate time frames (including for deliberation and responsive funding, where applicable).

Participatory processes

  • Engagement involves Indigenous agency and decision making, a deliberative and negotiated process, not just information giving or consultation, and it starts early in the program or project development.
  • Engagement is based on Indigenous aspirations and priorities, within an Indigenous framework, process, context and time frame; that is, it is an Indigenous-driven process with government as facilitator/enabler within a framework of Indigenous self determination.
  • Engagement builds on existing community governance structures and Indigenous strengths and assets, rather than on deficits and gaps, in an empowering process, with small achievements along the way to mutually agreed longer term goals.
  • Power inequalities are recognised, and sincere attempts are made to share power, through contracts or agreements; decision making processes and agreed conflict resolution mechanisms are transparent. Unequal power in relationships can be reduced by strong mutual accountability relationships in agreements.
  • There is a high degree of clarity about desired outcomes, indicators and steps to achieving them, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities in agreements and partnerships, mutual accountabilities and some continuity of personnel.
  • Parties engage in joint planning of monitoring and evaluation to meet the rights and needs of each party. There is willingness to share responsibility and accountability for shared objectives.

Governance, leadership and capacity building

  • Effective and legitimate Indigenous governance arrangements, with internal protocols, are agreed to facilitate partnership working.
  • There is strong and strategic Indigenous leadership, with guidance from Elders.
  • Indigenous leadership is adequately resourced and supported for the engagement process.
  • Governments or other agencies provide very high-level leadership as well as secure, adequate resources, and culturally competent staff capable of building trusting relationships. These agencies demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to be honest about resource or other limitations, and set achievable goals.
  • Continuing investments are made to strengthen the governance and capacity development of both Indigenous and government partners for effective partnership. These efforts start early, and continue over the long term, building on existing community organisations and governance structures.
  • Governments have the capacity to respond to Indigenous priorities with pooled and flexible funding arrangements.

What this means: effective engagement

Effective engagement is a sustained process that provides Indigenous people with the opportunity to actively participate in decision making from the earliest stage of defining the problem to be solved. Indigenous participation continues during the development of policies—and the programs and projects designed to implement them—and the evaluation of outcomes.

Engagement is undertaken with an understanding of the historical, cultural and social complexity of specific local or regional Indigenous contexts and with a genuine attempt to share power in relationships that foster mutual trust. It requires adequate governance arrangements. It also requires capacity within both the Indigenous community and the governments (and/or others) involved to enable the Indigenous community to negotiate their aspirations and for governments (and/or others) to respond in a flexible and timely way. Engagement is most successful when the parties have agreed clear outcomes they want to achieve, are clear about roles and responsibilities and steps to discharge them, and jointly identify indicators of success and monitoring and evaluation processes that meet their respective needs. Although we don’t yet know how effective engagement based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be, the Declaration presents an emerging international human rights standard for engagement based on free, prior and informed consent, a concept which is only now being explored in practice.

What doesn’t work

  • Ignoring the lessons above and failing to incorporate them in engagement approaches.
  • Hurried, one-off ‘consultations’ that are organised without Indigenous input into their design, where the parameters for discussing the analysis of the problem and possible solutions are centrally determined and fail to take proper account of Indigenous aspirations, ideas of wellbeing, and social contexts.
  • The absence of legitimate and effective Indigenous community governance for long-term engagement and shared ownership of the goals and processes.
  • Fragmented and siloed departmental and jurisdictional arrangements among governments, with each agency trying to engage with the same Indigenous people and organisations. This means they do not respond holistically to Indigenous priorities. This places unnecessarily heavy burdens on Indigenous people.
  • Staff operating on inaccurate assumptions about the Indigenous community, its membership, its governance, and who can represent its views; and failing to recognise the diversity within any Indigenous community.
  • The complex governance arrangements currently in place in remote Australia; these are inadequate to foster engagement: people want a say in decision making, consistent and adequate funding of services and government departments to be more accountable to them than to distant capitals.

What we don’t know

  • We don’t know how to overcome the persistent challenges governments face in trying to engage on the ground in a flexible, whole-of-government way within systems that are based on upward departmental accountabilities.
  • It isn’t known how to engage effectively where an Indigenous community is in conflict, has highly fractured governance or has weak leadership.
  • There is little or no research evidence about successful engagement arrangements in urban areas or the Torres Strait Islands.
  • There is no research evidence about either models of engagement for national or other levels of policy development or the role of Indigenous peak bodies in engagement strategies.
  • The evidence from the most recent innovations by various jurisdictions in relation to engagement models and approaches (see p.18 ‘Engagement by states and territories’) is not available.
  • The range of sectors for which there is significant research on successful approaches to program/project level engagement is limited.
  • Research evidence of how free, prior and informed consent has been put into practice in governmental engagement processes and its impact is not yet available.