9th October 2019

Indigenist research versus white power evaluation

By DrMJLock


The Australian Productivity Commission began an Indigenous Evaluation Strategy to address the deficit of knowledge about the effectiveness of program expenditure for First Nations Australians. In other words, most government funding in Australia goes to programs that are not evaluated – just 10% in fact (Hudson 2016). This blog recounts my personal experience of the evaluation industry and shows the underlying power dynamics in evaluating Aboriginal programs.

A Personal Story

Personal stories are full of bias therefore this blog is my interpretation of events and should not be taken as factual, empirically verifiable truth. As cultural safety literature advocates, cultural safety is determined from the perspective of Aboriginal people.

As an Aboriginal academic, Dr Mark Lock was contacted by the company -“Designer Programs and Media” (DPM) – that specialised in delivering popular forms of culture programs to disadvantaged First Nations Australian youth. The non-Indigenous CEO (NICEO) – in securing a lucrative contract with a quasi-government health network – was required to secure the services of an Aboriginal researcher to evaluate DPMs work. As I found out later, it was an (unwritten) condition of receiving the funding that an Aboriginal researcher be engaged to conduct the evaluation of the DPM project.

“What transpired over the coming months could be classified as the mobilisation of white power to expel the Aboriginal researcher from a lucrative project” Mark Lock

White Power in the Evaluation Game

A triad of white power is involved in this game. The non-Indigenous evaluator – “NIE” – who (again, as I found out later) had a close personal friendship with the NICEO (dinners at the family home, etc.). A non-Indigenous Director of DPM – “NID” – (also friends with “NIE”). Three white players – NICEO, NIE, and NID versus Aboriginal man Mark J Lock (AMJL).

A key mistake in this process was my admission that this call to evaluate the DPM work was my first evaluation project. This fact was mercilessly used by “NIE” to buttress their position of 30 years experience in evaluation, including evaluations with Aboriginal organisations. However, evaluation was constantly positioned as a form of research so it follows that I would be more than capable of designing and conducting an evaluation – but that perspective was ignored.

“As far as the non-Indigenous evaluator was concerned, my lack of evaluation experience was a trump card to be used in numerous arguments against my Indigenist methodology” Mark Lock

Culturally Safe Research Versus White Power Evaluation

There were stark differences between my Indigenist research approach and the evaluator’s “this is how all evaluators work” philosophy. At the core of the differences was the deep personal relationship between the NIE and NICEO and how it compromised corporate integrity. Everything that I proposed to NIE was vetted (and vetoed) by the NICEO – from research ethics applications, literature review methodology, and research design and governance.

Furthermore, the attitudes on display in meetings, phone calls, and emails between NIE, NID, NICEO and AMJL revealed that the non-Indigenous evaluator:

  1. with no formal research qualifications, had open disdain for those with research qualifications – “evaluators also do that” was the mantra.
  2. meddled in the affairs of business – undermining employees and “working on NICEO to remove some staff”, reviewing the corporate contracts of DPM with potential funders, and receiving confidential DPM staff reports about DPM politics.
  3. worked with the NICEO to “make the project look good” to the funder.
  4. ignored research rigour and cultural rigour because “it needs to get done quickly and within budget”
  5. did not want peer review ethics but operated through a self-regulated “code of ethics”
  6. preferred word-of-mouth referrals rather than open competitive tender processes
  7. did not want to establish a research governance oversight committee

“Indigenist research and white power evaluation are as different from one another as self-determination and assimilation” Mark Lock

Contrived Mediation

Eventually, a mediation conversation was necessary. The NID used their “long” experience in Aboriginal affairs as the basis for judgement that the different approaches of NIE and AMJL where “not cultural differences” but differences in professional approach. Mind you, this assessment was made by NID after a 30 minute telephone call – we had never met face-to-face (unlike NID and NIE). As an academic, I assess academic credentials in research grants – does the researcher have the degrees, research, partnerships and publications to support their statements of fact? In this case, the NID’s credentials were “experience in Aboriginal affairs” as a basis for what was ‘culture’ and what was ‘profession’.

“‘The non-Indigenous Director’s experience in Aboriginal affairs trumped my Aboriginal lived experience, professional experience, and research expertise.” Mark Lock

White privilege wins

The end result in this game is that the NID and the NICEO made a decision that I was not suitable for the project. Ironically, the DPM company worked to empower Aboriginal youth to self-determine their futures but when faced with an empowered Aboriginal man they mobilised various tactics to exclude me from receiving any benefit from the million dollar contract. Now, as I reflect on the Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Evaluation Strategy, I can see the complete absence of any discussion about privileging the cultural voices of First Nations Australians, discussion about phenomena like white power, power relations and empowerment. Therefore, I question the rigour and credibility of the Productivity Commission in Indigenous Evaluation Strategy – was the issue paper commissioned and externally peer reviewed, who are they authors and what oversight committee authorised its publication?

The dominance of non-Indigenous evaluators in the industry amounts to a cult of white privilege through which to diminish, demean and disempower First Nations Australians. Therefore, I call on the Australasian Evaluation Society to become a regulated professional body and the Australian Government to appoint an Evaluation Ombudsman.