Orbiting in place: a West Kimberley case study of Indigenous Sector employment and service delivery

Aboriginal Australians Employment Public service Australia Northern Territory
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This paper develops a case study of the municipal service delivery and Indigenous employment functions of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, across 49 West Kimberley Indigenous settlements.


This paper presents findings of research on remote Indigenous service delivery and Indigenous employment, conducted with the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. The study was initially undertaken by CAT researchers based in Alice Springs to contribute to a better understanding of factors affecting remote municipal service delivery. This included internal monitoring and evaluation of CAT programs, to achieve a better understanding of management and supervisor views about their service delivery capacities, and to improve waste management planning and employment outcomes in Indigenous communities serviced. Ultimately, this paper aims to draw more general conclusions about the role of the ‘Indigenous Sector’ in remote service delivery and Indigenous employment.

Drawing on fieldwork, surveys, and interviews, this paper develops a case study of the municipal service delivery and Indigenous employment functions of CAT, across 49 West Kimberley Indigenous settlements. These functions largely ceased in July 2012, when an alternative service provider was contracted in the region. The research sought to capture the views of Indigenous community residents receiving services, and Indigenous and non- Indigenous employees of CAT at various levels. It sought to review the employment experience of Indigenous Municipal Service Officers (MSOs) who worked for CAT servicing their regional communities, both as resident MSOs and as part of a mobile regional ‘work crew.’ These perspectives are given context by a review of academic and policy literature on the role of the ‘Indigenous Sector’ in remote service delivery and Indigenous employment.

A synthesis of the case study data and relevant literature revealed two key findings about remote service delivery and Indigenous employment. Firstly, it revealed that the character of relationships that link different actors in the chain of remote service delivery — Indigenous community residents, CAT Indigenous employees, organisational managers and supervisors, and government agency representatives—were a key determinant of service delivery capacities on the ground. The degree of mutual understanding of roles among actors involved in service delivery, and the existence of effective information transfer and knowledge exchange between actors, were both found to be critical factors in building successful service delivery relationships. The implication of this finding is not that ever more detailed consultation about the specific content of service delivery is required, but rather that more effective communication and responsiveness needs to be built into the remote service delivery model.

Secondly, this paper suggests that a ‘place-based’ employment model with both local community-based work and regional travel may be a desirable option for Indigenous workers, and may contribute to service delivery capacity and Indigenous employment outcomes. The model of place-based work investigated involved both single community workers and regional ‘work crews.’ It was found that the opportunity for intra-regional travel connected with work and/or training was a significant motivator for ongoing Indigenous participation in municipal services employment. The model of ‘place-based’ employment was found effective because, while being mindful of connections of Indigenous employees to their own country or community, it also resonated with region-level mobility patterns guided by Indigenous social networks. This finding came from an effort to understand the wider regional system of service delivery, employment relations, and Indigenous population mobility within which community-level service relationships are embedded.

These research findings may benefit those working in the Indigenous sector, as well as policymakers and researchers with an interest in the Indigenous sector and Indigenous employment. The programs described in this paper emerged as part of the shifting relationships between Commonwealth and States envisaged under the Council of Australian Governments reform agenda. The wider relevance of the case study stems not only from the many parallels between CAT and other Indigenous sector organisations, but also from what it says about the dynamic policy context affecting Indigenous service delivery and employment programs across remote Australia.

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