Tasmania has become a global case-study on building specific capability across government. From a total ban on discussing LGBTI issues, it’s become the national leader through reference group advisory.
Allocated virtually no funding, and starting with just a small group of Department of Education employees and community members, Tasmania has gone from having the nation’s worst outcomes for its LGBTI population to the clear leader and a global case study on building specialised capability across whole-of-government.
With departments and public service commissions around the nation lamenting the lack of progress on government priority areas of indigenous and disability employment and social policy outcomes, there may be lessons from the island state that started with no positive engagement with the demographic it was suddenly tasked with supporting.
Tasmanian of the Year Rodney Croome says the 15 years of trial and error inside the state’s public service to reach these successful LGBTI policy outcomes began with him and fellow advocates approaching the Education Department shortly after the state’s homosexuality ban was lifted to start a reference group.
Croome told The Mandarin: “We brought a young man with us who had been harassed because he was gay at Claremont College in the northern suburbs of Hobart, and the school’s response was to keep him in at lunchtime and send him home early to avoid the bullies.” The then-department secretary said that was a matter for counsellors, but the young man replied there were no counsellors at his school. With that cleared up there were no arguments left, Croome said; the need for a reference group was clear — to allow these stories to reach the department’s policymakers so action could be taken.
Within a few years similar reference groups began in the Tasmania Police, Department of Health, Tourism Tasmania, and later a whole-of-government reference group inside the Department of Premier and Cabinet.
The reference groups have evolved from being situated in diversity branches, with little capability to share work with the rest of the department, to the current groups that are convened personally by the departmental secretaries.
Croome explained they had to learn to work together: “We had to learn how to talk with each other. Community representatives that came to that group were quite angry about the situation as it then was in Tasmanian schools, the memorandum [that banned teachers talking about homosexuality], the legacy of the laws was a grim one. The department felt a bit defensive, and wasn’t quite sure how it might go, but once we got around the table together and once we were working on something concrete I think the negativity evaporated.”
The reach of what they could achieve, however, was limited as the managers only had so much agency. So now the groups are convened by the heads of agencies, the departmental secretaries, with representatives included from across the department.
“I don’t think we could have just jumped from no relationship with the agency to that level of consultation without having established the utility of these kinds of groups at a lower level,” Croome said. The results were new policy ideas, but especially the innovative ways of getting their message out.
No money? No problem
With virtually no budget, the education group found a creative solution to messaging. “We put messages into the minister’s payslip news to all teachers,” Croome said. “It was a departmental slip in everyone’s pay that everyone would read about important notices so we would include important titbits about LGBTI issues, including links to resources that we would have most recently developed for the department of every teacher in the state.”
After proving itself, the education secretary became involved and now the department is producing its fifth edition of guidelines on sexuality and gender issues in schools.
The Police LGBTI reference group started with just a single liaison office and has now supported the professional development of every police office in the state with specific LGBTI-engagement courses, including those who went through initial police college prior to the rollout. No other state in Australia has that level of coverage amongst police.
Hong Kong police recently sought out Tasmanian Police for its expertise in its LGBTI liaison officer program, considered a world leader.
“The Health Department group is the group that faces the greatest challenges,” Croome said. “The Health Department is the largest employer in Tasmania, and covers so many different areas.”
Their health-related successes include a needs analysis of LGBTI people in Tasmania, an LGBTI suicide prevention strategy and the establishment of a dedicated LGBTI youth suicide prevention program, which was identified strongly in the needs analysis. It now employs two LGBTI suicide prevention officers, in Hobart and Launceston.
Tourism Tasmania was the hardest hit by the legacy the state faced of its previous policies and laws, and overcoming the stigma of Tasmania being a gay-unfriendly destination. But even that agency has turned the situation around according to visitor surveys. But, Croome says, at every stage they’ve had to prove these reference groups’ efforts have been effective with program and outcomes analysis.
It hasn’t just been getting the people with sufficient clout onto the reference groups that’s made a difference. Having the right community representatives has also been an important factor.
Appointing community members because they represent a key stakeholder organisation is not always wise, Croome warns. They found the most effective balance was to bring in people with skills and knowledge, and avoid becoming a perpetual brain-storming session.
“People coming to the table with their own agendas, becoming a whinge-fest, complaints forum, or being a talk-fest. These are all dangers with groups like these, but there are ways to overcome them. People being invited to participate on the basis of their expertise, and their willingness to work together and setting a work plan for 12-24 months and sticking to that. A lot gets done,” he said.
“Other issues come up, urgent issues we may need to deal with, but the focus is always on the work before us.
“The proof is in the pudding; these groups have made a seamless transition from 13 years of Labor government to a new Liberal government, and the work goes on as it has before with strong endorsement — the Premier attended the last whole-of-government meeting, and a new whole-of-government framework is being developed.”