Over the past decade, governments at all levels have struggled to develop both a substantive policy response and a cogent narrative to describe their policy engagements with Indigenous Australians. The Northern Territory Intervention arguably succeeded electorally, but has left a legacy of ongoing distrust and bitterness amongst First Nations communities. The Rudd Government struggled to overcome Labor’s support for the Intervention, notwithstanding policy initiatives such as Closing the Gap and a series of National Partnerships that invested billions of dollars into Indigenous communities.
At the heart of this failure have been issues with the typical process of consultation with Indigenous Australians in policy design. Adequate consultation has been an essential benchmark of Indigenous policy design for the past four decades, but reactions to consultations on the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory initiatives and the Cashless Debit Card scheme, for example, reveal a growing sense of scepticism and distrust of these processes among Indigenous Australians.
Over the past five years, there has been a subtle but important shift away from justifying policy based on consultation towards a focus on the concept of ‘codesign’. Where critics of the consultation approach see it as a means of simply legitimising policy choices, codesign is a shared decision-making process that has the potential to meaningfully reflect the interests and concerns of First Nations people.
Codesign in action
In April 2019, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg asked the Productivity Commission to develop a whole-of-government evaluation strategy for policies and programs affecting Indigenous Australians. In its October 2020 Final Report, the Productivity Commission proposed the establishment of an Office of Indigenous Policy Evaluation (OIPE) and an associated Indigenous Evaluation Council comprised of Indigenous members to advise OIPE. The Productivity Commission also laid out a set of guiding principles that aimed to embed Indigenous perspectives, priorities and knowledge in the overall strategy. The Productivity Commission’s approach was not without its critics, and the Australian Government has yet to respond to the Productivity Commission proposals. While governments have a suboptimal record on taking on board evaluation findings in the Indigenous domain, if implemented effectively, the Productivity Commission’s proposed strategy would undoubtedly contribute to an enduring shift in the nature of Indigenous policy development.
At the federal level, two major developments provide distinct windows into this shift.
Firstly, following widespread perceptions that the Closing the Gap framework was not working, the Australian Government set out on a path to refresh the targets, and in the process, shift away from a ‘deficit model’ to a narrative that acknowledged Indigenous resilience. Along the way, a decision was taken to engage with a coalition of peak bodies convened by NACCHO, the national Indigenous peak health organisation. This led to a pathbreaking partnership agreement between COAG and the new Coalition of Peaks to negotiate and codesign the new Closing the Gap targets; and ultimately led to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, a formal agreement between the Coalition of Peaks and all Australian governments. This agreement not only revised and expanded the Closing the Gap targets, but saw all Australian Governments commit to four ‘priority reforms’ that, if effectively implemented, will build in much greater Indigenous involvement in future policymaking.
In parallel, there has been a national debate since the Uluru Statement was promulgated in 2017 on constitutional recognition of Indigenous interests through a constitutionally entrenched Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The Federal Government has responded by appointing around 50 eminent Indigenous citizens and a few non-Indigenous experts to a series of panels charged with codesigning an Indigenous Voice to government. These panels are consulting extensively with the community, and particularly Indigenous communities, before recommending to the Minister a detailed model for a Voice to Government.
The future of codesign
While these cases are described as codesign, they involve fundamentally different approaches to selecting and engaging with Indigenous representatives. The merits of both approaches will not be evident until these cases are substantially underway, but this in itself highlights a lack of detailed analysis of the notion of codesign, its theoretical underpinnings, and its policy implications.
I have written a discussion paper published by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU that seeks to address some of these questions. The research explored the risks and opportunities of utilising codesign processes for both governments and Indigenous interests, focussing particularly on the two case studies discussed above. Key issues to emerge include the ways in which Indigenous interests are constituted and represented; whether governments seek to constrain the outcomes of the codesign process; how the inevitable structural power imbalances in negotiations and shared decision making are addressed; and the level of assurance that decisions taken will be implemented.
The research points to the difference in approach adopted by the Australian Government in the two case studies, and suggests that the model used to negotiate with the organically constituted Coalition of Peaks on closing the gap is preferred, rather than codesigning with a group of appointed experts. Finally, it suggests that governments need to demonstrate through their implementation of codesigned proposals that they are serious about their use of codesign to shape policy. Otherwise, the expectations of Indigenous people will be dashed and trust will be further diminished. Such an outcome would perpetuate policy failure and would thus not be in the public interest.
The use of codesign to develop policy offers real hope for substantive improvements to the quality and outcomes of initiatives across Indigenous policy, but it must be more than a buzzword. Success will require a sustained commitment to ensuring codesign processes are well-designed and legitimate.