Australian government knows 'very little' about whether money spent on Aboriginal programs works

Lorena Allam
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The federal government spends tens of millions of dollars on programs meant to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but still knows “very little” about whether any of them are working, the Productivity Commission has said, in a major new report recommending large-scale reforms.

The commission has recommended the government set up an Indigenous evaluation council, which would be “credible, useful, ethical and transparent” as part of a new government-wide evaluation strategy.

“For decades there have been calls to better understand how policies and programs are affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But the reality is that evidence about what works and why remains thin,” the report said.

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“And while policy makers agree that evidence is critical for good policies, many admit that in practice they do not rely heavily on evidence, or past experience, when formulating or modifying policies and programs.”

There is currently no government‑wide approach to evaluating policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it found.

The new strategy would centre Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their priorities in deciding what to evaluate and how to conduct an evaluation.

“Policies and programs affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not working as well as they need to. Evaluation can play an important role filling this gap, but regrettably it is often an afterthought and of poor quality,” commissioner Romlie Mokak said.

Mokak, a Djugun Yawuru man, is the first Indigenous commissioner, and former chief executive of the Lowitja Institute.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are rarely asked about what, or how to evaluate, or what evaluation results mean,” Mokak said.

“Working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is fundamental to lifting the quality of evaluations, as is planning early so that the right questions are asked and the right data collected.”

The commission conducted extensive consultation across the country to build the report, and received 180 submissions.

Many Aboriginal organisations were critical of the lack of evaluation of programs imposed on their communities.

The Cape York Institute submission said: “Given that the total spend on Indigenous affairs in Australia is nearing $35bn annually it seems perverse and a measure of the problems, that under the current ‘system’ monitoring and evaluation does not improve results.”

AbSec, the NSW child, family and community peak organisation, said external solutions were imposed on Aboriginal communities “without sufficient regard for their appropriateness and limited evaluation of their effectiveness for local Aboriginal communities”.

“In short, the intended beneficiaries of Aboriginal policy and programs tend to be marginalised in the design, delivery and evaluation of those programs,” AbSec said.

The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he welcomed the report.

Monitoring the effectiveness of programs “is essential to informing policy development and supporting robust decision-making”, Wyatt said.

“The report suggests a number of changes designed to enhance the quality of Indigenous evaluations, some of which require consideration and consultation across government and other parties.

“The government will consider the report and respond appropriately,” Wyatt said.