On Working with Bureaucrats
This happened a decade ago but I still love the story and tell it often.
We’d been asked to facilitate over two days with a number of high level bureaucrats in the Aboriginal Affairs realm in a particular city. We were asked because our method of working is about highlighting the importance of allowing Aboriginal authority and responsibility for decisions that affect their lives. Today, the program is known as “Walk Together” but then it was known as Mutual Ways.
The region in which we facilitated had, and still has, a very high Aboriginal population, and the CEO who hired us obviously believed as we did – that there had to be a better way of government working with Aboriginal people. Currently, the method used was for government employees to create programs in the city, take them to the regions, and start them, whether the people wanted them, understood them, or even cared about them.
So my Aboriginal colleague named Mr T and I began work at 8.00 am with nine non-Aboriginal male bureaucrats. It was obvious to us that none of the bureaucrats had any interest in being there. As hard as we worked motivate them, it wasn’t happening. I’d just spoken a bit about Mutual Ways, and asked a couple of questions to get people thinking, but there had been no response.
Mr T suddenly intervened. “Dave, can I say a few words ?”
I was very relieved. “Go right ahead,” I told him.
He stood and looked at the group, speaking quietly and evenly. “It looks like all of you are very disinterested in thinking about getting Aboriginal people involved in taking authority and responsibility for decision-making at the community level. So here’s a quick story for you to reflect on. And after you have, we can decide if you want to keep going or if you mob will bugger off and go back to work because you’re bored stiff.
“So this is my story. For decades, if not generations, you whitefellas have, with every good will and intent, tried to help us blackfellas. And for all that good will, intent and millions, if not billions of dollars, the outcomes are that we still die 20 years before whitefellas, our houses are crap, our kids either don’t go to school or if they do, they fail, and my people are incarcerated at seven or eight times the rate of whitefellas. In other words, what you’re doing isn’t working and never has.
“So I suggest you might want to listen to us and our message: think about how to work in a way that allows Aboriginal people to make decisions, implement them, and be responsible for the outcomes.”
He paused for dramatic effect, and then spoke forcefully.
“I can see by your faces and body language that what I’ve said about my mob taking authority and responsibility has really disturbed all of you. A number of you have even gone even whiter than normal. And I know you’re all thinking, ‘we can’t allow that to happen. If we give Aboriginal people authority and responsibility, as sure as hell is on fire, they’ll stuff it up completely’.”
Another pause for further effect, and then he concluded.
“Yep, there’s every chance we’ll stuff things up! But here are some words of comfort: that if we do, it won’t be any worse than you whitefellas have for two hundred years, and there’s a real chance we might do it better!!!!!!”