Friday, July 3, 2009

The Challange of "Closing the Gap"

Yesterday the Productivity Commission released the Overcoming Disadvantage report which tracks whether or not government policy and programs are impacting on Indigenous Australians outcomes across a range of areas e.g. life expectancy, Year 12 completions, health, criminal justice and so on. The almost 800-page report (a shorter overview is available) is an attempt to pull together data from across the country to enable the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to track progress on its commitment addressing Indigenous disadvantage. It is the fourth in the series of reports (2003, 2005, 2007). The current framework is centred on the notion of "closing the gap" which is at the centre of COAG agreements hammered out under the Rudd government in late 2007 through 2008.

Media coverage has so far been relatively negative and has focused on the lack of progress and, in some cases, increase in worrying statistics (e.g. reporting of child abuse). As was noted in The Australian yesterday "all the usual horror statistics are there" with "no improvement in 80 per cent of the 50 economic and social indicators of disadvantage the report measure. Indigenous children are six times as likely to be abused as non-indigenous Australians, according to the report. This is an increase on 2003 when they were four times as likely to be abused. Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to end up in prison. The imprisonment rate increased by 46 per cent for indigenous women and 27 per cent for indigenous men. Indigenous victims of domestic violence are hospitalised at a rate 34 times higher than non-indigenous people". It is hard to tell a positive story about the data, but what can we garner from the report about the challenges of public management in Australia?

Firstly, this is a complex and challenging policy area. As part of a large research project our team has spent a lot of time looking at how government agencies connect up to address Indigenous policy and service delivery. Here we are not talking (simply!) about Commonwealth organisations, but also States, Territories, local government, non-profits, private organisations, and community groups. Making progress using such a complex institutional and organisational structures creates ample opportunity, but major barriers.

Secondly, creation and collection of data is a real challenge in policy areas that span jurisdictions and organisations. This is not the first we have heard of this (health care is another classic example). Amazingly there is no common data collection approach but, instead, a multitude of system - think for example of how police officers in each Australian jurisdiction would classify their activities, or health providers, or educational institutions. Getting simple picture is problematic. Prime Minister Rudd noted yesterday at the COAG meeting that ''there's simply not enough statistical analysis to give us clear indications as to what's happening on the ground''. In the end, there is an enormous challenge of getting baseline data and this has still not been solved.

Third, the report and the associated coverage shows us again the perils of performance measurement and reporting. The Prime Minister has indicated that the report was "devastating", and others have lamented the lack of progress. But when the end outcomes of the COAG closing the gap strategy include indicators such as closing the life expectancy gap in a generation, are we right to pass judgement a few years in? In other areas very ambitious targets have been set and rightly so: halving the gap in employment outcomes in a decade, having the gap in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade and so on. Another issue emerges around the closing the gap notion: we are not trying to reach an absolute standard, but a relative one and the outcomes for non-Indigenous Australians are not static. This means that where there is improvement in the outcomes for non-Indigenous Australians the gap which has to be breached widens.

For sure we need to track progress, but what will be the implications for policy action? My concern, based on our recent research work, is what the reaction will be and whether there is ever a chance for changes to become embedded in an area subject to so much policy inertia. One of the key things that emerged from our recent field work was the almost constant churn in policy and programs and the inability for people on-the-ground to ever get traction. Let's see what the coming weeks bring.

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