The Commonwealth’s $3.5 billion annual investment in indigenous programs “has yielded dismally poor returns to date” according to the Department of Finance’s Strategic Review Of Indigenous Expenditure (written in 2009 but only just released a long Freedom of Information battle).

I think we all knew that. But at least now it’s official.

The report is unequivocal:

“Past approaches to remedying Indigenous disadvantage have clearly failed, and new approaches are needed for the future.”

What’s gone wrong? In addition to poor coordination between agencies and lack of engagement with indigenous people…

“…a common failing has been a lack of realistic assumptions and an absence of clear program logic: in some cases, for example, the scale and timetable for a program have been poorly matched to the nature of the needs to be met, while in others unrealistic assumptions have been made as to the relationships between program inputs and intended outcomes (including how people and institutions will react to the establishment of the program and how other factors may intervene, sometimes with unintended consequences).”  (p77)

Of course, the same could be written about practically any government program. As J.K. Galbraith said “You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.” (I love that quote)

Usefully, the authors decided to include a lesson in Program Design 101 in their report. It’s beautifully succinct. Here are some bits:

(BTW I don’t imagine that tackling chronic despair, dislocation and disempowerment is just a matter of good program design, but if you’re going to spend $3.5 billion you might as well get the basics right.)

Attachment C:

Some Principles For Indigenous Program Design

Objectives: Program objectives should be clearly framed, in plain English. Intended outcomes should be specific rather than general, and cast in terms which lend themselves to measurement and evaluation. The planned timetable for change should be explicit.

Target group: The target group for the program should be clearly identified, along with an accompanying rationale (noting the wide variations in circumstances and needs within the Indigenous population).

Program logic: There should be a clear statement of the intended program logic: that is, the means by which the actions to be taken under the program can be expected to lead to changes consistent with the program’s objectives. The statement should cite relevant theoretical evidence as well as practical research and evaluation findings (e.g., from earlier, related program interventions). Key assumptions should be clearly identified, including assumptions about the strength of the various causal links between program inputs and intended outcomes.

Risk management: The risks associated with the program (including any key dependencies on other parties, or uncertainties in the program logic) should be clearly identified as part of a risk management plan. The emphasis should be on risk management rather than undue risk avoidance. Innovation and experimentation should be encouraged and rewarded where these will serve to support the achievement of the program’s objectives. 

Scale and timeframe: The scale and timeframe of the program should be consistent with its objectives, target group and underlying program logic. Scale should be sufficient or scalable in the light of experience to achieve a material outcome. The time horizon should be realistic, having regard to the time needed to redress long-standing patterns of disadvantage and to promote enduring changes in attitudes, expectations and behaviour. Programs with lengthy time frames for the achievement of outcomes should include intermediate milestones and outcome targets (to be measured through progress reports and evaluations).

Engagement: Effective engagement with the people to be assisted should be an essential part of the design and operation of any Indigenous-specific program or element of a mainstream program. Engagement needs to go beyond mere consultation, providing Indigenous people with a genuine opportunity to influence both the design of the program and the ways in which services are delivered. Engagement should be an ongoing process, extending beyond the initial planning and implementation phase.

Flexibility: Programs should be sufficiently flexible in their design to accommodate a wide range of local conditions and circumstances. Rigid, centrally-determined rules should be avoided where these would constrain necessary flexibility of response. Delegation arrangements and levels of decision-making should be consistent with this flexibility principle, and the advocacy of single, narrowly-formulated ‘fixes’ should be avoided.

Evaluation: A robust evaluation strategy should be developed as an integral part of program design. As part of that strategy, sound baseline data should be assembled before the program starts as the basis for the measurement of change over time. Evaluations should be conducted independently, with any exceptions to be justified on a case-by-case basis. Programs should be reviewed, and modified or terminated as necessary, in the light of evaluation results.