Why doesn’t Indigenous Affairs look back?

Stream: Indigenous policy
Date: Monday, 9 September 2019
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.10 pm


Since the commencement of the federal standing committee on Indigenous Affairs, there have been 42 reports, and seven select committee reports, devoted to Indigenous policy and administration. As well, especially since the days of ATSIC, the administration of Indigenous Affairs has been subject to a higher level of scrutiny than other governmental programs. This was confirmed in the 2017/18 budget, when the Australian government allocated a further $40 million over four years to strengthen the evaluation of Indigenous Affairs programs.

Despite the ready availability of this valuable evidence, my research suggests that those working in Indigenous Affairs are subject to “bureaucratic amnesia” and don’t look back to inform current effort. I am interested in looking at why they don’t attach value to previous findings, leading to constantly reinventing the wheel.

In this paper I suggest three traditions and norms which help to explain this bureaucratic amnesia. Firstly, the action orientation associated with delivering results, means policy actors see themselves as fixers and enablers. Secondly, the political nature of Indigenous Affairs and the need to Ministerial responsiveness, pushes policy actors towards just getting on with the job that is asked of them. Thirdly, bureaucratic involution which sees policy actors keeping activity at a policy level, rather than venturing out into the contested cross-cultural space of implementation, preferences current understandings rather than drawing on previous evaluations. Working together, these factors work against the reflexivity and frame reflection that is needed to value the knowledge of previous inquiries and evaluations.


Prudence Brown (Presenter), University of Queensland
Prudence Brown recently completed a PhD to extend on her professional observations during nearly 20 years in senior policy roles in the Northern Territory, Australian and Queensland governments. Her research interest is in analysing public sector responses to complex problems and how the mindsets of policy actors are implicated in their inability to adopt new ways of working. Prior to the public sector she worked at ANU managing a large international trade and macro-economic database and consultancy. She has also conducted consultancies for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, World Bank and UNDP.