Adjunct Professor Jack Beetson , Associate Professor Bob Boughton and an independent consultant Deborah Durnan undertook two innovative community research and development projects for the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (now AANSW) Partnership Communities Program. Under this program, forty Aboriginal communities across NSW were chosen to pilot a new community governance policy framework. The aim was to establish a process through which government at all levels would agree to recognise one community governance body in each community, and then negotiate a community action plan with that body to achieve improved service delivery and increased community health and wellbeing.
The first project Jack’s team undertook was a state-wide community consultation on a draft of the proposed framework prepared by AANSW. During July 2008, Jack, Bob and Deborah facilitated community meetings in nine locations, at which AANSW officials explained the new policy framework, and sought feedback. Over 270 people attended from 61 different communities. The government’s proposal generated vigorous debate, and many suggestions for major amendments. The consultants documented and analysed this feedback, before circulating a report which sought to achieve a consensus on how the framework could be improved to satisfy the communities’ requirements. Following further feedback, and a final meeting with stakeholders from both government and the Aboriginal community of NSW, the team produced a new draft which the Minister approved to be implemented on a trial basis in 2009-2010.
In 2009, the team signed another contract with AANSW, this time to deliver an action-based learning professional development program to twenty new community development workers recruited by the Department. Their job was to help the forty partnership communities establish governance bodies which would be recognised under the revised draft framework, and to develop their community action plans. Action-based learning was chosen as a methodology because such an experiment had not been tried before and there were no set procedures or protocols for how things should work. Both the Department and its new employees of whom the majority were Aboriginal, were moving into unchartered territory, and action-based learning provided a model in which all parties – government, its employees and community members – could contribute to the new learning that was required.
The partnership community project officers (PCPOs), along with their regional managers and representatives from head office executive and policy branches, took part in a series of workshops facilitated by Jack and his team at one- and two-month intervals, to reflect on the experiences they were having and to share learnings among the different locations. During and between workshops, participants formed small learning ‘sets’, following the action-learning model, to undertake focused group reflection on specific aspects of the program, and how it was working in the communities. Over time, these ‘sets’ became powerful tools for solving problems and improving procedures and practices, building up a repetoire of ‘fit for purpose’ community development tools and internal policies and procedures. Once agreed by the whole group, these became part of a loose-leaf manual which the staff used to carry out their duties, and which became a resource for new staff who joined the program at a later date.
At the time of writing, the action-based learning process was at the end of its first twelve month cycle. Jack’s team provided regular evaluation reports over the first twelve months, and the Department is now considering whether and in what form to keep the program going. Despite a number of setbacks, including delays in recruitment and staff changes, the AANSW policy framework is on target to met its objectives by June 2010, with recognised governance bodies in most of the forty communities, and a significant number on the way to developing their community action plans. Only time will tell if this will lead to the ultimate goal of improved health and well-being in the partnership communities. One problem faced by all community development workers is that the rhythms of community life rarely synchronise with the timeframes of government policy making and election cycles. The risk is that a change of government will trigger a whole new policy formulation process, just as the communities start to gain control of the current one. This serves to underline the need for a bipartisan approach to Aboriginal development policy, which most people in Australia now agree is an urgent national priority.
For more information, please email:
Adjunct Professor Jack Beetson firstname.lastname@example.org or
Associate Professor Bob Boughton email@example.com