1. What is the hard evidence that our interventions over the past four years have improved the well being of children here?

2. Why does the latest implementation report show that school attendance is down in the NT, despite income management and more teachers?

3. Why did the recent independent report to the NT government on child protection point out the deteriorating safety of children over the past three years and fail to even mention the intervention programs, designed to make them safer?’

4. Can I meet the locals who are concerned about the way these programs are being run?

It is four years this month since the Mal Brough emergency intervention in the NT and today the PM goes to Alice Springs to see the “progress” supposedly being made. The ALP government provided bipartisan support for the original intervention and happily continued the roll-out when it took over. Instead of listening to concerns being expressed even then, it waited until  a year had elapsed to commission an evaluation from an independent team headed by Peter Yu, and ignored many of its basic recommendations, including how the processes were being implemented. More somewhat over-controlled consultations occurred but the need for serious local involvement and controls were generally ignored.

The main elements of the intervention have been continued if sometimes altered somewhat. However, recent stories of problems in Alice Springs suggest all is not well in the central Australia. The minister, Jenny Macklin, was claiming on Sunday’s Insiders program, that the programs were working and she never shows any doubts.

This is despite the evidence of possible limits in the most recent report from her own department. The Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory (previously the Northern Territory Emergency Response) Monitoring Report provides “an analysis of data captured between  July 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010”.   There are quite a few cautions to be read in this recent release. The first shows why there is little real hard evidence available.

“While policy interventions designed to improve the operation of communities can have a significant immediate effect, this is the exception rather than the rule.  It will take a concerted effort over many years to achieve significant lasting change.  While it is difficult to report on outcomes in this early stage, some outcome data, such as number of jobs created under the Jobs Package in communities, are included in this.”

The problem with just reporting extra staffing rather than outcomes is also illustrated in the extract below:

School attendance: The average attendance rate for schools in the NTER communities was 56.5% in November 2010. The average school attendance rate in November 2009 was 62.1%. Average school attendance rates across the NTER communities are subject to variability over time.  For example, primary school attendance rates ranged from a high of 64.1% in November 2009 to a low of 53.7% in August 2010.’

This suggests the attendance rates are not improving despite the later counting of some 100-plus extra teachers. Other data suggest that little real evidence of change is available, even though the money is being spent.

The clue to why many aspects of the intervention didn’t work is available in another report that has just been released. The latest AIHW Report from its Closing the Gap Clearing House has a careful summary of what works and doesn’t work, based on their examination of multiple reports. The following items identify the problems that the Commonwealth needed to address but in most cases has failed to do so:

What works:

  • Community involvement and engagement.
  • Working together through partnerships, networks and shared leadership.
  • Development of social capital.
  • Recognising underlying social determinants.
  • And most importantly.
  • Commitment to doing projects with, not for, indigenous people.
  • Creative collaboration that builds bridges between public agencies and the community and coordination between communities, non-government and government to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Understanding that issues are complex and contextual.

What doesn’t work:

  • One size fits all approaches.
  • Lack of collaboration and poor access to services.
  • External authorities imposing change and reporting requirements.
  • Interventions without local indigenous community control and culturally appropriate adaptation.
  • Short-term, one-off funding, piecemeal interventions, provision of services in isolation and failure to develop Indigenous capacity to provide services.

Instead of using their own official reports as a basis for reviewing what has not worked, particularly in Alice Springs, the visit will no doubt further “puff’ the so-called achievements”. The PM will talk to those who support the program and look at the expensive bricks and still-soft mortar “evidence” that progress may be happening! In the meantime, the mistakes of the NT income management program will be moving much nearer to us all.  The budget is extending the model to five new locations in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and SA.

Whatever happened to evidence based policy?

Peter Fray

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