I’ve lost count of the number of businesspeople who tell me about “this great Indigenous program that’s really making a difference”.
I always respond by saying: “How do you know?” Typically, they tell me about the amount of funding provided, the number of resources deployed and so on. So I ask: “How do you know that made a difference? What were the outcomes?”
The amount of time, money and effort is irrelevant if the results aren’t there. A program only makes a difference if it delivers measurable outcomes for the people it serves and the communities in which it operates.
Mentoring students is an activity. Year 12 retention rates, academic results and level of progression to tertiary or vocational training and employment are outcomes.
Seconding staff to work in an organisation is an activity. Sustainable improvements in organisational capabilities and business performance after the secondee leaves are outcomes.
An adult literacy program is an activity. Improvements in literacy rates and reading levels are outcomes.
Unfortunately, people often struggle to identify to me the outcomes of their Indigenous programs. Or they assure me their teams have the data and will get it to me, but never do.
Recently I was asked if the corporate sector needs to lift its game for Indigenous people. My answer was that it’s hard to critique the play if no one is keeping score.
I’ve seen no evidence, for example, that corporate secondments make any lasting differences to Indigenous communities. If that evidence exists, it’s never been shown to me, despite repeated requests. And we know from Closing the Gap and other data that most Indigenous communities are not improving.
Aurukun, in western Cape York, has received enormous support from the corporate sector. I doubt that any small community in Australia has had more attention from chief executives. Yet poverty and disadvantage there haven’t been reduced. And results in the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) haven’t improved, even for children who’ve been part of education programs since kindergarten.
In their own businesses, companies wouldn’t fund an initiative with no clarity on whether or what the initiative delivered. Executives and directors of companies that fund Indigenous programs should expect the same transparency and assessment of those initiatives as they would for the company’s core operations.
When a company wants to fix a business problem, it allocates a set amount of funding and appoints a team to achieve specific outcomes by a deadline. When helping Indigenous people, firms typically allocate an ongoing budget to a permanent team that manages programs and activities.
That sort of structure assumes problems will never be solved. It’s not a business approach, it’s a government approach. But the government approach is shifting from welfare to economics. And the corporate sector needs to adapt.
We’ve already seen this in the push for companies to employ more Indigenous people. And the bar is now moving higher, to employment parity. Corporations should be targeting 3-5 per cent of their workforce as Indigenous, more in areas with higher Indigenous populations.
Hiring Indigenous people requires sustained effort and focus by a company’s management, business and human resources teams, particularly for “welfare to work” — helping people with multiple barriers to employment (and possibly no work experience) obtain and retain a job. It’s by far the most meaningful thing the corporate sector can do for Indigenous Australians.
Also, the corporate sector needs to meet the requirements of the government’s Indigenous procurement policy, which aims to achieve procurement parity in government supply chains. Government is a huge buyer from the private sector and now expects its suppliers to have Indigenous employees and subcontractors.
The policy has created demand for Indigenous enterprises. But there isn’t yet the supply to meet it. There’s a large capability gap that needs to be bridged. I’ve already seen companies that risk losing government contracts scrambling to set up joint ventures with Indigenous people. But the capability gap may encourage joint ventures with a thin layer of Indigenous representation over an established business that gets most of the financial benefit through funding arrangements, often with few, if any, Indigenous employees.
This “black cladding” doesn’t help Indigenous people move into the real economy. Companies will hinder the policy if they tolerate or participate in black cladding. However, they can drive the policy’s success by helping Indigenous people set up for-profit enterprises or joint ventures genuinely managed and operated by Indigenous people, supported by the skills transfer and capability building the corporate sector can provide. This also requires sustained effort and focus by a company’s management and business teams.
The corporate sector is very generous in supporting Indigenous Australians and has a genuine desire to right the impact of past wrongs. The shift in focus from welfare to economic development, from charity to commerce, challenges the corporate sector to harness those good intentions to produce meaningful — and demonstrable — outcomes.
This article was published in The Australian on 14 March 2016 under the headline "'Black cladding’ won’t aid indigenous outcomes" and in The Koori Mail on 9 March 2016.
Corporate Indigenous efforts need a business mindset
14 March 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine