When dealing with Indigenous matters, corporations have not systematically applied the same principles and behaviours that make their own businesses a success.
By Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce
I sometimes wonder if people really believe that Indigenous disadvantage is a problem that can be fixed or whether it is a permanent state of being. Ask anyone in government or business, especially those charged with solving the problem, and they will tell you that they want to see an end to the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Those sentiments are genuine.
So why are so many programs and policies designed to fix the problem actually structured as if the problem will never be solved?
I’m not talking about programs to protect and maintain Indigenous cultures, languages and traditions. Nor am I talking about the important work to investigate native title entitlements and conclude native title claims.
I am talking about the vast bureaucracy and social infrastructure in both government and the private sector established to address indigenous disadvantage, with no end to its existence in sight.
What is so disappointing is that it has developed despite the involvement of the business community, which has been working side by side with government on economic development, employment programs and enterprise creation in indigenous communities for decades and spending a lot of money in the process.
When dealing with Indigenous matters, corporations have not systematically applied the same principles and behaviours that make their own businesses a success. Instead, business has fallen into an intellectual trap, treating Indigenous problems as different from other problems, often taking the lead from government rather than showing leadership.
It continues to amaze me when I see successful business people with years of experience seemingly forget most of what has driven that success when dealing with Indigenous disadvantage. I have observed seasoned, hard-headed executives who, in their day jobs, chase profit, expect a return on investment, rely on private sector capital and decry government over-regulation, step into an Indigenous community and suddenly start talking about the need for government funding and regulation and effectively advocating for state-sponsored socialism.
If a corporation needed a major transformation to fix a big problem, management would approach it something like this: they would develop a strategy, create a plan identifying exactly what has to be achieved and over what time period, prepare a business case, set up a team to deliver it and a steering group to monitor progress.
Once the outcomes are achieved the team would move on to something else and others would monitor whether the promised benefits are realised. If the program ran over time or budget or didn’t deliver, then someone would probably be fired.
In both government and the private sector, this rigour and discipline rarely exists when addressing Indigenous disadvantage. Instead of allocating fixed funding tied to an outcome, they commit to ongoing budgets. Instead of appointing a group of people to achieve specific outcomes and give them a deadline, they create whole departments or divisions dedicated to helping Indigenous communities where people have permanent jobs with indefinite terms, and focus on activities not outcomes.
The result is whole teams of people throughout the public and private sectors charged with fixing a problem, whose long-term employment is tethered to that problem continuing to exist.
Governments are the worst offenders, establishing permanent bureaucracies and outlaying huge sums of money with very little to show for it. I have never seen so much effort applied to fixing something without actually fixing anything.
However, I believe the business community can set a different agenda in this area and show Indigenous people and the rest of Australia how it should really be done. Corporations already have a deep well of the skills and experience necessary to achieve growth and development in their core operations. So why not get those resources to work on problems affecting Indigenous people and assist Indigenous communities to develop commerce, jobs and prosperity?
Why don’t corporations apply the same type of resources that they would use to solve their own problems: “swat” teams led by motivated people with a good track record of delivering; reporting to an executive sponsor; drawing on the necessary skills and experience from within the corporation; with set outcomes, capped funding and achievable, but tight, deadlines?
It is admirable that corporations have established dedicated corporate responsibility and diversity teams to ensure that the corporation gives back to the community. These teams have done some good work, particularly in raising awareness and building connections between corporations and indigenous people.
But I have never seen a major corporation ask its corporate responsibility or diversity divisions to run a major transaction, solve a material business problem or deliver a significant transformation. It follows that this approach is not the best way to achieve progress in solving the most complex and intractable problems that plague our Indigenous populations.
Business executives and their teams can take the lead in ending the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, using their business nous and showing Indigenous communities how to develop commercial activities and private enterprises that will bring them into the wider Australian and global economy.
Let’s start treating Indigenous disadvantage as a problem that really will be solved by this generation of Australians.
First published in the Australian Financial Review 14 November 2012 under the title “Indigenous need hard-headed approach”