A whole-of-Defence framework to attract and retain Indigenous talent
29 Apr 2022|

The effort to grow the Australian Defence Force to 101,000 by 2040 has put recruitment under the spotlight and it’s important that Defence’s ambitions on Indigenous participation are a crucial part of this drive.

For 18 months, ASPI researchers have engaged with various parts of defence, Indigenous communities and businesses on how to capitalise on Defence’s ambitions. A new ASPI report, Building genuine trust, funded by the Defence Strategic Policy and Intelligence Group, provides a framework and strategy for Defence to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) recruitment and retention, and cybersecurity careers.

Defence’s aim is to reach 5% Indigenous participation in the armed services and 3% of Defence public servants by 2025. The targets are a point of pride and a source of clear goodwill and have provided momentum in several areas of Defence for Indigenous employment and pathways.

However, success in individual areas is yet to translate into an effective whole-of-Defence framework with cohesive lines of effort.

We propose that Defence enact a wide set of supporting measures—particularly in data and reporting to track professional development—to more sustainably deliver organisational improvements and outcomes.

A common story in the services and on the civilian side of Defence is slow progress on the policy reform that’s urgently needed to build Indigenous employment pathways. Defence needs to demonstrate that it invests in the long-term training, retention and advancement of Indigenous personnel.

The services are driving much reform, but the lack of a comprehensive data picture and an annual public report that canvasses what’s working well means many work areas are without a clear guide or a definition of success beyond participation targets, so their efforts are unfocused and can be discordant.

Developing measures and public reporting, including on how senior leadership is achieving Indigenous targets within the workforce, will be an important step forward. It will cement Defence’s leadership role as an exemplar to other parts of government. It will also ensure that Indigenous employment is addressed as part of the renewed drive to optimise defence data, as outlined in the Defence data strategy 2021–2023.

Setting up Indigenous employees for success within the ‘One Defence’ team requires personnel at all levels to have greater situational awareness of the grassroots reasons for Indigenous Australians joining, staying in or leaving the organisation.

Addressing career pathways and enhancing retention require a mindset and training that anticipate employee issues—including cultural factors—and address them so that Indigenous Australians decide to join and stay. The cultural integrity framework for the public service, sponsored by Defence, will be an important part of that effort.

The ‘pathway’ metaphor is often deployed to describe Indigenous training and employment programs and equity and social inclusion initiatives. Indigenous employment pathways aren’t just about entry points but are also about training and development opportunities within Defence and beyond into veterans’ employment.

Initiatives for Defence and other parts of government that tie together training, scholarships and pre-apprenticeship programs would provide a major lift to current efforts. Initiatives to build capability, such as business incubators, venture financing and ensuring that existing policy tools are being used effectively, would increase the ability of Indigenous businesses to deliver higher value contracts. There are risks in all these areas, so linking those policies to Defence’s core purposes—delivering capabilities for the government to use to advance Australia’s security—must be clear.

In the broader business environment, there’s patchy engagement with reconciliation processes among major defence contractors. This is an area where Defence can influence overall change in the sector.

There will always be tension for Defence and government between targeting problems that are clearly visible (and for which data is available) and addressing blind spots. Labour market data on Indigenous Australia is notoriously unreliable, so government action can be misaligned. For example, an effort to improve the quality of labour force statistics by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Central Analytics Hub was shelved because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the bushfire season and data access problems. Defence can be a powerful advocate for improved federal and state data collection as a basis for policy and implementation in this area.

Visible data creates a bias towards taking action that seems relatively straightforward, but which in fact will require concerted efforts on multiple fronts and involve several government portfolios or work areas.

This is why relationship-building comes up so often in discussions with those in Defence charged with attracting Indigenous candidates and with their counterparts in the education sector responsible for guiding students into careers. Relationships trump everything when raw numbers (on, for example, completion rates) might not tell the full story of Indigenous perseverance.  Indigenous students are much more likely than non-Indigenous students to experience conflict between study and family commitments, including caring for children or other family members, which affects results.

Defence hasn’t built strong enough relationships through frequent interactions with the vocational education and training and university sectors, including Indigenous elders in universities and Indigenous pro-vice chancellors (some of whom are ADF veterans). Its signature cyber initiatives—the ADF Cyber Gap and Cyber Defence College—don’t have a visible Indigenous engagement strategy or a clear link to the Defence TAFE Employment Scheme.

Defence and other agencies will need to ensure that the growth of Indigenous opportunities is part of the government’s revised ‘industry cluster’ model for skills development.

Defence has set itself an ambitious goal in its reconciliation action plan: ‘fostering genuine relationships built on trust’. Trust is intangible, but high-trust organisations have lower costs and ensure social cohesion in the face of rising uncertainties. How Defence holds itself to account and builds long-term relationships with Indigenous Australians will be a key marker of its success.

The goal of building trust makes Defence’s task more ambiguous and success more difficult to assess in the short term.

Engagement with Indigenous liaison officer network initiatives such as the appointment of Indigenous elders to military bases help build trust. But some foundational blocks are missing, such as an Indigenous youth engagement strategy and a digital service design attuned to how Indigenous candidates access internet services, including for labour market information.

Fostering trust is necessary for Defence to truly represent the nation it protects. There are opportunities to partner with Indigenous Australians, build capacity alongside them and prioritise their leadership so that the collection and use of data, strategies on staff training and development, and strategies on engagement with youth, veterans, businesses and communities are developed in genuine partnership.