‘I bring my Aboriginality to work’: Human Services meets Indigenous target

A switch to the public service brought on moments of self-doubt when former labourer Patrick Booth started working at its largest agency.

The Punthamara man, who grew up in Canberra, left his old job deciding he needed steadier work to support his family.

Early on, he was unsure of his skills and was unused to being left alone on tasks. Latest public service news

“Coming into the public service, I was very nervous and agitated to get here,” he said.

Mr Booth joined the Department of Human Services in October last year on its Indigenous apprenticeship program, one of hundreds of young Aboriginal people to have recently joined the government’s ranks of public servants.

The program helped the 33,500-strong Human Services department meet its goal as its Indigenous workforce reached 5 per cent of the agency total in November.

More than 1,720 of DHS employees now identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and 148 new Indigenous apprentices joined the department that month.

The agency was among many trying to grow their ranks of Aboriginal public servants as the government tried to reach 3 per cent Indigenous employment across its departments by 2018. In June, it had reached 3.2 per cent as nearly 5,000 people working in the public service identified themselves as Indigenous.

Mr Booth gives a positive review of his agency, saying he overcame his nerves with guidance from mentors and a family friend who happened to work there.

While he plans to stick around and build a career, the public service has often struggled to retain Aboriginal staff after recruiting them.

ANU researcher and Indigenous policy expert Nicholas Biddle said hiring people was only one part of the equation in growing Aboriginal employment in the government.

Disappointment often brought an early end to the public service careers of new Indigenous staff after jobs were oversold to them at recruitment, he said.

The policy direction of an agency could also decide whether Indigenous staff stayed or left. They were more likely to stay if they felt policies were making positive changes for Aboriginal communities.

“To the extent to which the policy environment is particularly impacting on Indigenous people, it will impact Indigenous public servants,” he said.

Racism and unfair treatment also prompted Indigenous people to resign. But the way their bosses handled racist incidents was also a factor for resigning staff, Associate Professor Biddle said.

“Many expected to experience racism, but wanted it dealt with in a better way,” he said.

Agencies that undervalued the experience Indigenous people brought into their roles also risked losing Aboriginal public servants.The problem often reared its head when bosses told their new recruits they wanted to learn from them, but never followed through.

Associate Professor Biddle said that Indigenous people giving their reasons for leaving the public service did not say it was a completely negative experience.

“In many ways it was positive. But there was still work to do,” he said.

The Human Service department said a mentoring and support network, and cultural awareness and competency programs, helped it keep its recruits and reach its milestone this year.

James Baban, who works as a program manager in Indigenous employment strategy at Human Services, said the move into the public service was often a large transition for young Aboriginal people.

“It could be their first job, it can be a shock coming into a large corporation from their communities,” he said.

Mr Baban said he found being at the department as an Indigenous person, part of a team, broke down barriers.

“I always bring my Aboriginality to work. When I say that I identify as an Aboriginal man, I own that one hundred per cent,” he said.

“I get out there and present myself as this person because it shows other Aboriginal people their Indigenous brothers and sisters are working in a place like this.”

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