The heat is on: Ombudsman’s report slams government failures

Agenda-manANOTHER day, another report into government failure to deliver services to Aboriginal people. CHRIS GRAHAM reports on the latest outrage.

Last month, the NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, released ‘Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently’.

It documents breath-taking government failure, the likes of which – were it perpetrated by Aboriginal people – would likely result in a Royal Commission.

It is the sixth major report this year to chronicle bureaucratic stuff-ups in Aboriginal affairs on a biblical scale.

In February, the federal government released its national Closing the Gap report card, which revealed the gap was getting wider.

In May, the NSW Auditor General released a major report into Two Ways Together, for the past decade the state Aboriginal plan for NSW. The O’Farrell Government described Two Ways Together as a “very serious policy failure”.

In June, federal parliament handed down Doing Time – Time for Doing, a committee report into the soaring rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

The report found government programs to halt jailing rates were failing.

In July, the Strategic Review of Indigenous Expenditure – an internal federal government report into billions of dollars of Commonwealth spending – found daylight, courtesy of a Freedom of Information pursuit from Channel 7.

The report was never meant to be read publicly, and the Gillard Government fought tooth and nail to suppress it. A quick scan of it reveals why, with government failure after government failure exposed.

In August, the Productivity Commission released its biennial Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report.
It said essentially the same things it said in 2009 – that whole-of-government coordination was a shambles and that taxpayer’s funds were being frittered away.

And now, the NSW Ombudsman has weighed in.

There are many striking features in the report. One of them is that the report was delivered early.

The Ombudsman wasn’t due to report until December 2012. But, mindful that following the Two Ways Together report, the O’Farrell Government created a Ministerial Taskforce to find a way forward in black affairs, he completed the document early, to help inform proceedings.

It’s also notable for the amount of consultation with Aboriginal people that has preceded the findings, and not just in NSW.
In the Ombudsman’s words: “The views expressed in this report have been informed not only by our audit of the Interagency Plan, but also the significant work we have carried out over the past ten years.

“This work has involved extensive consultation with thousands of Aboriginal people as well as many hundreds of agencies and organisations responsible for providing services.

“Our consultations have taken place in NSW as well as the Kimberley region of Western Australia and more recently, the four communities participating in the Cape York Welfare Reform Partnership and the community of Doomadgee in Queensland.”

By far the most startling recommendation in the report – at least if you work in government – is a call for the abolition of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (the old ‘DAA’) to be replaced by an independent agency that has “legislative authority to undertake, and publicly report on, the effectiveness of the implementation of the government’s plan for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage.”

The Ombudsman frustration – which is littered throughout the report – is that government bureaucracies institute plans to assist Aboriginal people, often without first consulting, and then without evaluating the program.

He highlights the creation of Safe Families, a $22.5 million NSW Government program created specifically to tackle problems of child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

Safe Families has been running for almost three years. The Ombudsman’s report into its performance is scathing.

“In relation to imposing programs and initiatives on communities, there is a risk that without some level of community engagement, agencies will overlook or ignore factors that ultimately cause these programs and initiatives to fail.

“The Office of Aboriginal Affairs’ Safe Families program is illustrative of this problem.

“Despite it being described as a ‘location specific’ and collaborative program that involves agencies working with communities to provide early intervention and prevention services, increased child protection responses and integrated community development, none of the five Safe Families communities were asked whether they were ready for such a program before it was imposed on them.

“Safe Families has been largely ineffective to date, primarily because of the limited capacity of the relevant services in those areas, the complete lack of vision as to what Safe Families is actually meant to deliver and how what it offered was supposed to dovetail with the existing system.

“In implementing Safe Families, there was also an unsuccessful attempt to create separate child sexual assault reference groups for each community, even in locations where there were existing groups tasked to deal with those issues.”

NSW Aboriginal affairs minister Victor Dominello and NSWALC Chair Stephen Ryan at the announcement of the new NSW Taskforce last month.

NSW Aboriginal affairs minister Victor Dominello and NSWALC Chair Stephen Ryan at the announcement of the new NSW Taskforce last month.

With that kind of failure ringing in the ears of government bureaucrats, the Ombudsman’s call for a real Aboriginal authority, with a real capacity to hold government agencies to account, the Ombudsman writes:

“This legislative authority should include:

• the power to compel witnesses, require the production of information and investigate specific issues.
• a provision for consultation between the head of the agency and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
• a requirement to establish a steering committee of Aboriginal leaders and other expert representatives and to regularly consult with Aboriginal communities.”

The NSW Ombudsman’s report is notable for one other key finding, and it’s undoubtedly the most important of them all.

The only way forward for government is to – finally – properly engage with Aboriginal leaders.

Again, in the Ombudsman’s own words: “For community governance structures to be effective, government must be ready and able to respond to the priorities that communities identify.

“Through our work with Aboriginal communities over many years, we have seen numerous examples of government agencies ‘coming to the table’ with ill-defined proposals, an inadequate grasp of critical data and vague notions of ‘partnership’ but no clear ideas as to how their Aboriginal community ‘partners’ can best contribute.

“Aboriginal community leaders, particularly those who participate in numerous groups and consultations as volunteers, can be expected to have a sound grassroots understanding of the broad needs of their communities.

“But they have the right to expect that governments – and other representatives – ‘come to the table’ only after they have done the necessary preparatory work.

“Agencies must ensure that sufficiently senior representatives with the authority to make decisions and progress initiatives are deployed to consult with Aboriginal communities.”

While areas like health and housing are included, the report focuses on a few key areas including:

• Improving the capacity to respond to vulnerable Aboriginal children and adolescents

• Investing in education

• Building economic capacity in Aboriginal communities.

• A new accountability framework for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage.

• And, as mentioned earlier, the importance of Aboriginal leadership in bringing about change.

Tracker has compiled a brief guide to the NSW Ombudsman’s report.

We’ve also devoted additional space to the Ombudsman’s report on child protection services.

It should be read in the context that the NSW Government’s Ministerial Taskforce has recently begun probing the very issues raised by the report, and the many that have preceded it.

The Ombudsman report is available from the NSWALC website,


“On 25 August 2011, the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs announced the establishment of a Ministerial Taskforce for Aboriginal Affairs to develop a draft policy strategy by mid 2012. We understand that the Ministerial Taskforce is the primary mechanism by which the NSW Government will develop a new approach to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage. The Taskforce will have a particular focus on identifying opportunities for improving education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal people. It will consider the recommendations of recent key reports relating to Aboriginal program and service delivery.

In light of the establishment of the Ministerial Taskforce, we do not consider it appropriate to make detailed recommendations at this point in time. It is important that the Taskforce, in particular the Aboriginal advisors, have the opportunity to consider and provide advice to government about all of the evidence and options available to it in what is a critical policy area.

NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour.

NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour.

The observations and recommendations made in this report are intended to assist the NSW Government and its Ministerial Taskforce in addressing systemic disadvantage in Aboriginal communities throughout NSW, and should be considered alongside the observations and recommendations contained in our December 2010 report to Parliament, Inquiry into service provision to the Bourke and Brewarrina communities.

1. We recommend that the NSW Government provide this report to all members of the Ministerial Taskforce for Aboriginal Affairs.
2. We recommend that the NSW Government, through its Ministerial Taskforce, give detailed consideration to the required changes we have identified at the beginning of each of chapters 3-7.
3. Given the ongoing and extensive work of this office in relation to Aboriginal communities, we recommend that the NSW Government:
a) regularly liaises with this office to discuss significant issues being considered by the Ministerial Taskforce, and
b) provides this office with an initial progress report about the work of the Ministerial Taskforce by December 2011, and a copy of its draft policy strategy by 30 June 2012.”

The importance of Aboriginal leadership in bringing about change: What needs to change

• Establish more effective and ongoing mechanisms for government to engage with Aboriginal representatives at a state-wide, regional and local level.

• Commit to the provision of adequate information by government to Aboriginal representatives, to promote informed discussion and decision making at all levels.

• Enact legislative change to enable local Aboriginal community leaders to perform a ‘community conferencing’ role aimed at intervening with vulnerable Aboriginal families before the commencement of formal proceedings under the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act and the Education Act.

• Develop a clear state-wide plan for building the capacity of Aboriginal peak bodies and Aboriginal organisations in key sectors.

• Provide sustained support to healing programs that have been endorsed by Aboriginal communities.

Improving the capacity to respond to vulnerable Aboriginal children and adolescents: What needs to change

• Urgently address the acute workforce capacity challenges in rural and remote NSW by developing and implementing a whole-of-government recruitment and retention strategy.

• Adopt an intelligence-driven approach to child protection practice (consistent with recommendations 1c of our December 2010 report, Inquiry into service provision to the Bourke and Brewarrina communities and 1c of our August 2011 report, Keep Them Safe).

• Explore bold child protection solutions that require responsibility to be shared between key agencies and community members, particularly in high-need locations with serious workforce capacity problems.

• Intervene earlier in the lives of at-risk Aboriginal children and adolescents, through providing effective interagency responses and exploring community-driven proposals aimed at improving their welfare and wellbeing.

• Provide a broader suite of options for responding to the needs of high-risk Aboriginal adolescents, in particular, suitable accommodation models for those involved in the criminal justice system.

Investing in education: What needs to change

• Improve the nature of the data that is collected, analysed and publicly reported about educational outcomes for Aboriginal students – including the performance of individual schools in relation to key indicators such as literacy and numeracy, school attendance and related enforcement action, suspensions, risk of significant harm reports in relation to educational neglect, and student retention.

• Strengthen the effectiveness of both the Director General’s Aboriginal Education Advisory Group and the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group network by providing them with a more detailed breakdown of critical data.

• Promote and support strong leadership in schools with high numbers of Aboriginal students, including by linking school funding and principal salaries to the complexity of school environments.

• Review the capacity of the Home School Liaison Program, particularly in disadvantaged communities with high levels of school non-attendance, with the view to trialling an intensive attendance case management model.

• Explore innovative approaches aimed at keeping Aboriginal children and young people engaged with education, such as providing better access to mainstream boarding schools and giving consideration to establishing Aboriginal community residential schools.

• Review the use of exclusionary suspension practices and giving consideration to embedding an approach in secondary schools, similar to the existing Schools as Community Centres program, as a way of supporting ‘hard to reach’ adolescents.

Building economic capacity in Aboriginal communities: What needs to change

• Establish a body with overall responsibility for improving Aboriginal employment outcomes and enhancing Aboriginal economic capacity through identifying and facilitating partnerships between the private sector, government and Aboriginal entities to create successful commercial enterprises.

• Review the existing range of federal and state employment and economic development initiatives as part of developing an integrated, state-wide strategy to build the economic capacity and wealth of Aboriginal people in NSW. In developing a state-wide strategy, particular attention should be given to:

– the specific challenges associated with enhancing economic capacity and employment opportunities in disadvantaged and/or rural and remote locations.
– identifying and expanding vocational education, job training and mobility/relocation assistance programs that are achieving real employment outcomes for Aboriginal people.
– exploring opportunities for further partnering with Aboriginal job service providers in relation to the above.

A new accountability framework for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: What needs to change

• Establish a new accountability framework for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage in NSW that is underpinned by a consolidated, state-wide plan. In formulating this plan, priority should be given to:

– in collaboration with Aboriginal leaders, identifying which problems most urgently need to be addressed, and reviewing whether existing government commitments and related strategies are likely to achieve the progress required to meet the agreed Closing the Gap targets.

– strengthening leadership and governance mechanisms to drive the implementation of the plan at a state- wide, regional and local level, and streamlining decision-making processes for service planning, funding and delivery.

– identifying ‘priority locations’ where specific, intensive work is most needed, and establishing regional and local positions with sufficient authority to formulate and implement whole of community plans for these locations.

– publicly reporting location-specific progress against critical indicators, including outcomes for priority areas identified by individual communities.

• Provide an independent agency with the legislative authority to undertake, and publicly report on, the effectiveness of the implementation of the government’s plan for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage. This legislative authority should include:

– the power to compel witnesses, require the production of information and investigate specific issues.
– a provision for consultation between the head of the agency and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
– a requirement to establish a steering committee of Aboriginal leaders and other expert representatives and to regularly consult with Aboriginal communities.

• Review, in light of the observations in this report, the current coordination and service delivery responsibilities of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

Apart from dealing with leadership, education and employment priorities, the NSW Ombudsman’s report devoted significant space to child protection issues. It was scathing of the NSW Government approach to date. Following is a summary of some of what the Ombudsman found in the area of child protection.

The report found that non-attendance at school was a key determining factor in child protection, but that agency response was poor.
“In our more recent report, Keep Them Safe we again flagged our concern about educational neglect, reporting on data obtained from Community Services which indicates that close to 50 percent of all reports made about educational neglect are assessed as not meeting the ‘at-risk of significant harm’ threshold, and further, that of those reports assessed as meeting the threshold, another 50 percent are closed on the basis of ‘competing priorities’.

This means that fewer than 10 percent of all educational neglect reports (compared with 21 percent of reports overall) that are assessed as meeting the reporting threshold, result in a comprehensive assessment involving face-to-face contact.”

The report also found a lack of services in western NSW to forensically examine children who were the victims of sexual assault.
“It is clearly unacceptable for this state to argue that it is responding to the issue of child sexual assault, while it fails to provide abused children in more remote areas, with the necessary forensic medical services.”

The report goes on to recommend an overhaul of recruiting processes, to ensure that agencies have proper staffing resources.
“It is critical that a comprehensive, whole of government workforce strategy is finalised as soon as possible to strengthen the service system particularly in disadvantaged rural and remote locations.”

An intelligence driven approach to child protection

The Ombudsman’s report also argues for an ‘intelligence-driven’ approach to child protection, and notes that Community Services should be compiling data on families that are repeatedly at risk, and sharing the information across government.

Importantly, it notes the advantages of having Aboriginal leaders involved in the intelligence gathering process.

“Respected Aboriginal leaders are ideally placed to provide critical information to help better inform the intelligence which is gathered about vulnerable children and their families. However, as we discuss [later], utilising Aboriginal leaders in this way would require formally bringing them into the child protection consultative process.”

“For some time, Aboriginal community members have been central to the success of innovative, criminal justice diversionary processes such as circle sentencing, youth cautioning and providing support to people in custody.

“While there is room for more involvement of Aboriginal people in this area, increasingly Aboriginal leaders are calling for greater involvement of recognised community members in decision-making approaches around the care and protection of children, including children who fail to regularly attend school. One way to achieve this would be through establishing mechanisms which formalise the role of local community leaders in decision-making processes relating to vulnerable children and their families.

“Despite the fact that the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 (CYPCPA) requires Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be given the opportunity to participate in the care and protection of their children and young people with as much self-determination as possible, on a practical level, many community leaders with standing are not consulted about such decisions.”
The report recommends that for community panels to be effective, their functions must be clearly outlined in legislation.

Early intervention

The report notes widespread agreement among government agencies that early intervention is crucial to preventing a juvenile offender becoming a ‘repeat juvenile offender’.

But it says despite the consensus, there’s a lack of programs that actually do it.

“Despite apparently widespread acceptance that addressing the high level of Aboriginal young people’s involvement with the criminal justice system depends on effective interagency strategies that identify those young people and families at greatest risk, and provide integrated services to them, the lack of capacity in the broader service system – particularly in Western NSW – means that this is often not occurring.”
It recommends:

• Increasing the capacity of service providers to implement early intervention strategies that are targeted, integrated and effective.
• Examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing programs which are designed to keep young people out of juvenile detention, and implementing changes to maximise the effectiveness of their operation.
• Ensuring that there are sufficient and appropriate accommodation options for young people involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in, the criminal justice system.
• Ensuring that serious young offenders are provided with integrated services that address the complex and multifaceted causes of juvenile offending behaviour.

Safe accommodation

“The recent federal Parliamentary inquiry into Indigenous youth in the criminal justice system highlighted the critical importance of Aboriginal young people having access to a stable, safe and supportive living environment to ensure the establishment of positive social norms and enable them to develop a positive sense of wellbeing and aspirations for the future.

The Inquiry acknowledged that limited safe accommodation options for Aboriginal youth heighten the risk of young people offending and re-offending.

It also found that the single biggest factor leading to young Aboriginal people being unable to comply with bail conditions – and therefore ending up in custody – is the lack of appropriate accommodation available to young offenders while they are awaiting sentencing.”

NSWALC CEO Geoff Scott.

NSWALC CEO Geoff Scott.


THE NSW Aboriginal Land Council has welcomed the report Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently released by the NSW Ombudsman last month.

Chief Executive Officer of NSWALC, Geoff Scott said the NSW Ombudsman’s report goes further than any before it, by strongly acknowledging the need for Aboriginal people to be at the centre of the decision-making processes around government engagement.

“We welcome this report and congratulate the Ombudsman and his staff on taking the initiative to produce this very timely and focused analysis,” Mr Scott said. “It succeeds where so many have failed, simply by focusing on the facts. The report highlights that the greatest shortcomings are proper process and governance on the part of the government itself.

“The report also clearly exposes the lie of the usual mantra – blame Aboriginal people for the lack of progress and ongoing failures. It also confirms – in stark and clear detail – the reality we all face today. That is that the practices and the cheap point scoring of the past must be cast away. Australian taxpayers have a legitimate gripe that all this effort – and it is significant – has not produced the expected results.”

Mr Scott said the way forward was clear – genuine partnership between government and stakeholders was the key to progress.

“Working alone Aboriginal people, policy makers and government did not have the answers, but working together we have the best chance and arriving at the solutions,” Mr Scott said. “To turn this state of affairs around, we need real leadership and courage. And we must we all give a collective commitment to making a real difference.

“If governments do not take heed of the facts and messages of these reports, then the future of Aboriginal people will continue to be uncertain, and our continuing state of disadvantage will remain a blight on all Australians.”

Mr Scott acknowledged that the NSW Government appears to have already realized some of the key findings of the Ombudsman’s report.
“Despite only being in office a short time, Minster for Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello has already moved quickly to put in place the first initiative to change this sad circumstance.

“He has established a Ministerial Taskforce at which Aboriginal people finally have a seat at the table. This is a strong acknowledgement from the O’Farrell Government that the old ‘top down’ approach has failed.

“The Taskforce will look into the delivery of government services, particularly in the areas of education and employment opportunities, and while it’s very early days, the fact that Aboriginal people are at the centre of the process is encouraging.”

“The Ombudsman’s report will provide the Ministerial Taskforce with a very good reality check.”

NSWALC will be represented on the Taskforce through the Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations (CAPO).


“As the largest self-funded Aboriginal representative organisation in Australia, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) has a key role to play in formulating economic opportunities. The objects of the NSWALC are to use the gains from land rights to continue to create intergenerational wealth and to continue to develop sustainable benefits which contribute to the financial, social, and cultural needs and wants of Aboriginal people in NSW.”
– Page 9, NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently

“Building the economic capacity and wealth of Aboriginal people will require government to identify and address the factors which act as barriers to Aboriginal organisations actively participating in the real economy. Given NSWALC’s significant asset base and its responsibilities to contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of Aboriginal people, NSWALC and its network of Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALCs) has a critical role to play in establishing partnerships with government, the corporate sector, philanthropic bodies and others, that are focused on developing innovative enterprises that create real opportunities for Aboriginal people.”
– Page 9, NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently

“In looking for models of effective capacity building that could be adapted to Aboriginal communities in NSW, the NSWALC and University of Sydney have recently established a partnership with Gawad Kalinga, an NGO that has implemented a community development program in more than 300 communities in the Philippines. In its initial stages, the Gawad Kalinga program aims to develop community leadership and to foster self-governance and self-sufficiency among residents. Over time and with the right support, this approach can pave the way for social entrepreneurship in the form of community infrastructure, self-sufficient food supply, youth programs, basic health care and environmental sustainability projects.”
– Page 10, NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently

“A significant non-government investor in programs to strengthen governance at a local community level is the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Through its Training and Development Unit, the NSWALC provides an extensive range of training and development to its network of LALCs, including mandatory training for those community members who are elected to board of management positions. This training is principally aimed at assisting LALCs to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of all land council operations. The training and development assistance provided by the NSWALC is generally well-received. Board members who have previously completed mandatory governance training are not required to do it again, yet many re-elected board members chose to do so. The NSWALC has also developed an innovative online mode of delivery to extend the availability and timeliness of its training. Its training was recognised as a finalist in the ‘Innovation’ category of the NSW Training Awards presented in September 2009. NSWALC has recently been asked to contribute to a project to improve governance in the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, in Aboriginal medical services across Australia and to develop more robust corporate governance models for the Aboriginal Community Controlled health sector generally.”
– Page 11, NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently

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