How to bring Indigenous expertise and experience into Defence and the digital economy

Indigenous perspectives are rarely foregrounded in national policy debates. Australia has a long history of imposing solutions on First Nations communities and expecting increased economic participation and social inclusion to follow. This is a domain of quick fixes that more often reinforce historical injustice, rather than engage in the long-term project of listening to and being led by Australia’s diverse First Nations communities.

To help address this gap on the digital and defence policy front, ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre IndigiCyber, Defence and Space program is launching ‘IndigiCyber Conversations’, a thought leadership series of podcasts, articles and interviews.

This series aims to celebrate the unique skills and perspectives of First Nations Australians at all levels of seniority in discussions on both digital issues that affect them and on the Indigenous experience in participating in Australia’s broader environment.

Most importantly, the series will explore ways in which Indigenous communities can lead partnerships with government on solutions to digital challenges.

This first conversation between Wulli Wulli computer scientist Benjamin Sylvester Millar from the Australian National University and Indigenous engagement expert Dion Devow is relevant to all organisations trying to attract diverse talent and participate in a reconciliation journey.

The budget announcement on digital skills promised initiatives to increase the quantity and quality of cybersecurity professionals. However, it’s been a long-standing challenge for many government agencies to attract and, more importantly, to retain talent from the communities they purport to serve.

Millar articulates a message that governments at all levels could push to attract more people into digital roles: they’re creative jobs and working with data is a creative endeavour.

‘There’s such a stigma around degrees and jobs that relate to data. It’s always, “smart people go and code”. It’s not true. It’s a creative thing to be doing. It’s just like learning another language.’

Despite the work that’s been done to make it easier to understand the knowledge, professional and behavioural skills that underpin qualifications in Digital Career Pathways frameworks, Australia still faces an acute skills shortage in the digital economy and cybersecurity.

Governments need to better craft projects in consultation with Australian communities to define digital problems and solutions to attract talent to the sector and to reinforce the benefits of those  services.

The iterative process that frequently defines innovation is an uneasy fit for top-down government services because government projects must work immediately and be fit to serve a diverse citizenry.

So, we frequently see projects leading to poor service delivery because off-the-shelf solutions are not built around community needs and lack adequate consideration of technological access and affordability.

From an Indigenous perspective, as Millar and Devow discuss, many are attracted to professions that make a difference. A better understanding of how technology can help communities might attract more Indigenous candidates.

‘Lots of Indigenous students gravitate towards healthcare and law because it’s pretty obvious what the impact is. You train to be a nurse and you can go into community and help people, help blackfellas in general … how tech helps community is less obvious.’

The aspiration to deliver positive policy programs to communities is common to Indigenous employees in the Australian Public Service. A study by the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research found that ‘an overwhelming motivation involved a desire to make a useful difference—that is, to help improve government policy and programs [and] serve their community’.

The flipside of this, and one reason why Indigenous employees leave, says the study, is ‘the extent to which political considerations and political expediency appeared to pervade the APS …  [undermining] their sense of being able to become meaningfully involved in positive policy initiatives, or deliver useful programs to Indigenous people’.

There are lessons here for the Australian Defence Force too. All military services look set to miss their commitments to a 5% Indigenous recruitment target by 2025. Indigenous psychological perspectives have not been integrated in psychometric testing in recruitment. There are data gaps in understanding why Indigenous people leave the services, and training gaps in digital skills, mentoring and leadership for Indigenous employees.

In ICPC’s consultations with the ADF we’ve found one step that would be truly transformative: for the services to build relationships that prioritise trust and friendship with communities over the achievement of a mission objective. Transactional initiatives will not confer benefits to the community and are a significant reason for continual failures.

It’s also not sufficient to tick a box of digital participation and recruitment outreach without simultaneously ensuring that data is controlled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and used to advance the ability to make decisions about development, justice and equality.

Millar explains that every choice has to do with data. ‘So, it’s about ways we can make the data and how it’s presented to people friendly to Black Australia. Because at the moment, everyone who works on it is mostly white’.

Within the corporate sector, diversity is seen to be a key driver of innovation. ICPC’s analysis of 205 cybersecurity firms in Australia, found that fewer than 3% have Indigenous initiatives and many defence companies are only beginning their reconciliation journeys.

Many organisations don’t know where to start or what kinds of initiatives and support are appropriate for Indigenous Australians. Some organisations simply want to tick a box to satisfy Defence contract requirements that stipulate engagement with Indigenous initiatives.

US President Joe Biden has made diversity a key aspect of his platform, not only because equal opportunity is a core principle of American democracy, but also because of the ongoing effects of historical injustices.

In Australia, diversity and inclusion initiatives are often seen as tokenistic rather than an integral part of innovation processes and workforce planning. There needs to be wider engagement with reconciliation action plans and appreciation of some of the challenges of being an Indigenous employee.

Initiating a reconciliation action plan is a way to systematise engagement with Indigenous Australia at the boardroom level. It’s a way for an organisation to initiate a program of activities that inverts the responsibility for employment pathways. Instead of placing the demand on Indigenous people to be ‘work ready’, it shifts focus to an organisation’s readiness to employ Indigenous people.

Companies that implement Indigenous pathways for employment like cadetships, internships and  graduate positions send an important signal to First Nations Australians that some organisational thinking has been done about Indigenous employment. These pathways are not about lowering standards but sending a signal, creating opportunities and networks for Indigenous people who are often first-in-family and lack the professional networks of their white counterparts.

[Indigenous pathways are] about giving Black Australia an opportunity to go into [a profession]. I feel that there’s more stigma that comes about from going through a diversity program than comes from someone getting a job because their dad is a partner in a firm.

There’s also a mental block when someone sees an application, especially if no-one in your family has done it before, it’s like, ‘it’s not for me’. Whereas, if there’s a label on it, it signals that this space is open to an Aboriginal man or woman to come in and do that job.

It’s important to understand the pressures that organisations put on Indigenous employees. Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney’s Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research found in a survey that 65% of Indigenous employees said they felt they had to work harder to prove that they, as an Indigenous person, could do the job.

Indigenous employees also have what the researchers describe as a ‘high cultural load’—being called upon to do not only their job, but also to ‘organise NAIDOC Week events, doing acknowledgements of Country or seeing all Indigenous clients on top of their other work’.

Millar describes how cultural load placed additional pressures on him while studying.

‘Any issue that has something to do with Indigenous issues, I’m expected to be an authority on. So that’s a huge amount of pressure.’

Cultural expectations also played a role shaping Millar’s work and study decisions, a situation common to many young Indigenous Australians, who often have caring responsibilities. ‘I feel somewhat obligated to go out and earn a wage so I can support people back home … it plays a part in lots of choices I make,’ he says.

Millar’s community, particularly his grandmother, played a crucial role in influencing him to finish school. This is reflective of the wider literature which suggests that community elders play an important role in influencing schooling decisions. Institutional support at ANU also helped.

One of the ways to excite the next generation of Indigenous future STEM champions is to recognise that young First Australians are experts in their own lives. It’s important to listen respectfully to their journeys and to meaningfully engage them in the policymaking that directly affects them and their communities.