Indigenous Housing – Best Practice Project Management? I don’t think so!

I am becoming very concerned (no, disgusted) about the failure of indigenous housing programs. Back in the day (in the late 1990) when I worked for a small NGO on housing projects in Central Australia, the process was generally devolved to small local consultants for project management, and housing cost around $100,000 including consultants fees. At the time, there was plenty of dodgy work and corruption, but at least the houses were built. Now there is “Best Practice Project Management” and a house in a remote community costs $600,000!! And yet, there is still almost no local participation in construction for all the rhetoric. It has not dawned on the bureaucrats that developing the capacity of people in remote communities is mututally exclusive of Best Practice PM. The decision-makers have been inexorably moving toward an institutionalised delivery model that takes the worst aspects of free enterprise (greed) and the bureaucracy (total inflexibility), and has become self-serving. More recently as a housing lifecycles researcher with the Desert Knowledge CRC, it was clear that the pathway of “Best Practice Project Management” was a poor path to take when looking for real outcomes. As we pointed out in the lifecycles report, housing delivery is the best vehicle for community development and sustainable livelihood in remote communities. Whereas the only sustainable livelihood under the current system is for bureaucrats and big-company project managers.The following Australian extracts say it all: From The Australian July 23rd:nNORTHERN Territory government ministers have been warned that the federal government’s $673 million remote housing package is likely to deliver as few as 300 houses – less than half the number originally promised.nFigures revealed in a confidential briefing given last week to Territory government ministers and senior bureaucrats showed the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program was seriously off-track, with up to70 per cent of allocated public funds swallowed up in indirect costs, including contractors’ fees, fees paid to expensive consultants and government administration fees.nA source at the briefing in Darwin last week told The Australian the figures — which suggested only 30 per cent of the $673m in SIHIP funding would flow to direct costs of refurbishment of housing and the building of new houses — shocked MPs and bureaucrats.nFifteen months ago, the federal government announced SIHIP would provide 750 new houses to remote Aboriginal communities in the Territory. So far, not one house has been built. Add this to the following article in today’s Australian (13th August), looking at the pro’s and con’s of the Federal Government’s Intervention in remote communities. This raises very serious questions about the gravy train that has built up such a head of steam that there is too much vested interest to stop it. The author of today’s article, Bob Durnan, a community worker in Hermannsburg, Central Australia has this to say: I work in several central Australian communities and see the evidence every day. I have absolutely no doubt that support for income management (the quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare income) has grown significantly and it is popular, particularly with women. I have recently witnessed several fair and well-conducted consultations by public servants where representative groups of Aboriginal men and women expressed almost total support for the NT emergency intervention’s main measures.nOn the other hand, these same people are not at all happy about the housing and jobs crises in their home towns. It is not just a matter of delayed housing. Most of them face the prospect of no new housing being built in their communities, despite horrific levels of overcrowding, and they see no effective training opportunities or local jobs for their children. In their eyes these are chief among the intervention’s failings.nThe intervention’s shortcomings are thus predominantly in the areas of poor bureaucratic performance on strategy and program design (particularly Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs housing proposals and Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations blueprints for employment and training reform).nThese shortcomings first manifested themselves in the political and bureaucratic clumsiness evidenced by the intervention’s initial implementation phase. They were especially apparent in the ideologically driven plan to absorb the remote Aboriginal jobless quickly into the tourism and mining industries, despite all the obvious impediments. They are starkly illustrated by the cumbersome alliance housing model.nAn equally important way forward on many of these fronts is to support and encourage individuals to adapt their behaviour and provide discipline and leadership for their families and, through that, to their communities and organisations. It is clear from these comments that the institutionalising of housing delivery within the large corporate sector has failed. The possibility of economies of scale are wiped out by the massive project management and administration fees charged by government and industry. No wonder the people on the ground are fed up.nWorking with remote communities in a way that opens housing delivery to maximum participation for local people is hard uncertain work, often with more failures than successes. But the successes are usually experienced at the local level. I spent 5 years working with remote communities, and no longer do so, because it requires continual commitment and flow of resources into a community to build up confidence, local commitment and critical levels of meaningful activity. That is not possible with mainstream delivery. However, as the mainstream approach is proving to be a dismal failure anyway, it would be better to aim to build slowly, more simply, with participation, over the long term to provide real opportunities. This approach will also build the capacity of communities to manage their housing at far less cost than a one-off hugely expensive flurry, with the conveyor belt of housing delivery causing a housing crash at the end of the conveyor and a much worse situation than before.

Scroll to Top