Lack of account in $5.9bn indigenous spend ‘beggars belief’

, - November 18, 2016


Only 24 of more than 1000 indig­enous programs show clear evidence of success and meet rigorous assessment criteria, a new government report finds as it questions the efficiency of the $5.9 billion spent on reducing the disadvantage of First Australians.

The deputy chairwoman of the Productivity Commission, Karen Chester, said she was staggered at the lack of attention paid to assessin­g what works, as detailed in the agency’s seventh periodic Overcoming Indigenous Dis­advantage report.

“Evaluation is missing in action­ and it beggars belief that it’s missing in action,” she told The Australian. “We’re spending a lot of government money for what? If we’re not evaluating expenditure it’s potentially wasting money and it’s short-changing indigenous Australia.”

The report showed some ­improvement since the commission’s 2014 review, particularly regarding child mortality rates, educational attainments and increases in household income.

However, significant downturns were noted in the adult imprison­ment rate (up 77 per cent in 15 years), adult substance misuse and self-reporting of psycho­logical distress and hospitalis­ations for self harm, which rose 56 per cent since 2004-05.

Rates of family and community violence were unchanged, at about 22 per cent between 2002 and 2014-15, and risky long-term alcohol use in 2014-15 was similar to that in 2002, although lower than in 2008, the report found.

The review follows a Centre for Independent Studies report in August, which found that of more than 1000 indigenous programs administered for $5.9bn, fewer than 10 per cent were analysed and few of these used methods that proved their effectiveness.

Ms Chester said the OID report, produced in consultation with federal, state and territory governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including peak body the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, had not put a dollar figure on programs.

However, the commission previously had found total direct expenditure on indigenous serv­ic­es to be $30.3bn, including funding for programs not specific to indigenous people. The OID ­report imposed a slightly higher threshold than the CIS review on how outcomes were measured, and this “archeological dig” for evaluation case studies had netted just 24 satisfactory results.

The criteria for including a case study in the “things that work” list were that it: must be rele­vant, have measurable, up-to-date outcomes, a reasonable track record of success, be supported by local indigenous people affected, be agreed for inclusion by all jurisdictions and, where possible, give analysis of costs and benefits.

The report says the relatively few studies meeting these stand­ards “reflects a lack of rigorously evaluated programs in the indig­enous policy area” and a greater emphasis on evaluation is needed.

“Any project or policy is no different from business making an investment,” Ms Chester said. “There should be a business case, a performance metric and then an investment.”

Noel Pearson’s Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy was listed among the 24, with “general agreement” that literacy had improved. But the report also said there was “too much missing information to draw a conclusion” about the program’s overall effect.

Others listed as “working” included some of those addressing Council of Australian Governments criteria such as early childhood education, antenatal care, disability and chronic disease, child protection, family and community violence, environmental health, income management and suicide and self-harm.

The Environment Department-funded Indigenous Protection Areas program provided land management work for more than 2600 indigenous people, the ­report found.