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Closing the Gap: how can data drive the change that’s promised?

On the eve of the Census and the Federal Government’s release tomorrow of its Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, some critical pieces of the data puzzle are missing, says Dr Janine Mohamed, CEO of the Lowitja Institute.

In the article below, she provides some important context about the role of data in driving reform and improved health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Janine Mohamed writes:

Dr Janine Mohamed

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, data is not simply numbers.

It represents our stories as peoples, so it needs to be humanised and embodied through both strengths-based narrative and truth-telling.

For centuries we did not even count, and were left out of the Census — data terra nullius.

Data has too often been weaponised against us, used as a deficit. Its focus needs to be on the failures of the system and not us.

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap offers us a real “game changer” as we described it in the 2021 Close the Gap report, in health and wellbeing outcomes and the use of data.

The Agreement was signed a year ago between Federal, State and territory, and local governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peaks, a coalition that has brought together 50-strong organisations.

It sets a new standard for how governments work with us as organisations and communities.

Rubber hits the road

Twelve months on, now is the time for the ‘rubber to hit the road’ for the Agreement.

Each party is due to hand down their implementation plans over the coming week — Victoria and New South Wales have already done so — and begin the task of annually reporting on their actions against the  outcomes areas.

Alongside of this, we have seen two important pieces of work from the Productivity Commission, under Commissioner Romlie Mokak, my predecessor at the Lowitja Institute.

First was the release last month of the new Closing the Gap ‘Information Repository’, presented as a data dashboard.

It is designed to provide the most comprehensive data available on progress towards the four priority reforms, the 17 socioeconomic outcome areas, and associated targets and indicators laid out under the National Agreement.

As explanation, under the National Agreement, targets are specific and measurable goals that will be monitored to show how progress is being made across each of the outcome areas. Under each of the targets there are indicators that help to provide an understanding of how progress will be tracked. The outcomes are the desired result for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Therefore the Dashboard highlights what is being monitored against the available data and what is ‘on track’.

The Dashboard was followed by last week’s publication of the Productivity Commission’s first annual data compilation report, which is fundamental to accountability under the National Agreement.

So, what do they provide and what else do we need to ensure that the National Agreement lives up to its promise for improved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing?

Data on expanded socio-economic outcomes and targets

At this stage, the Dashboard includes a ‘point in time’ national snapshot on available data pertaining to the 17 outcomes, targets and indicators, expanding on the original seven Closing the Gap targets on life expectancy and other health issues.

The expanded outcomes and targets include the wider social and cultural determinants of health; including language, housing, child protection, family violence, social and emotional wellbeing, and our rights to land and waters.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities fought hard for many years for these additional outcomes and targets. They provide a more comprehensive approach and focus on critical areas of need that have been long neglected in government policy frameworks.

For example, Outcome Areas 10, 11 and 12 and their associated targets seek to address over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system and of children in child protection.

This is crucial given the failures to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, evident in the Black Lives Matters movement in Australia, and the intergenerational harms of over-incarceration and our kids in care.

It’s a good start, we have never had this level of reporting before.

Room for improvement

But there is a way to go on data collection.

For example, Outcome Area 16 is “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and languages are strong, supported and flourishing.”

However, it appears the target only addresses languages, calling for a sustained increase in the number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken by 2031. The Dashboard reports there are 123 currently spoken, but only 14 languages considered “strong”.

It also needs to be said that while language is a vital component of culture, it is only one of the cultural determinants of health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Therefore, there exists a future opportunity to expand the data and reporting for the outcome area, to include other components, such as cultural knowledge, expression and continuity, and strong kinship systems.

We must also acknowledge that the Dashboard provides a national picture, which doesn’t always reflect what is happening in specific communities. Place-based data or local data, and its associated story, is important for local planning. Proposed future disaggregation of the data, based on location, gender and age, is promised and welcomed.

Priority reform data is still to come

As the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said, the Dashboard is “another step” in a positive direction.

However, just reporting on the 17 targets alone cannot deliver the change we need.

It is imperative that we also track progress on the four priority reforms that have been strategically identified by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as overarching areas required to drive better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.  All governments have committed to them in the National Agreement. They are to:

  • share decision-making through formal partnership arrangements
  • build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector
  • improve mainstream institutions and government organisations, and
  • share access to data and increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led data.

It is the priority reforms which provide the impetus for a critical shift in the current approach to data reporting and, most significantly, to the way all governments and mainstream organisations work with us.

They are the missing pieces of the puzzle that need to be fully embraced and implemented if we are to truly have a “game changer”.

Data to address the indicators for each priority reform is currently under development in the Dashboard, but this requires focused planning accompanied by a commitment to monitoring and evaluation, with mechanisms for gathering data on the nature of actions taken and the outcomes achieved that can be consistently applied and nationally reported.

For example, for ‘Priority Reform 3: Transforming Government Organisations’, the target is a ‘decrease in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have experiences of racism’.

The outcome indicators are: 1. ‘Proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reporting experiences of racism’ and 2. ‘Proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who identify as feeling culturally safe in dealing with government mainstream institutions and agencies’.

Significant work remains to be done within and across government mainstream institutions and agencies to ensure there is better understanding, recognition of and supportive responses to experiences of racism, as well as the implementation of strategies that prevent racism occurring.

Data on this is yet to be collected by governments, let alone reported on. At the moment, the only relevant measure we seem to have is around discharge from health care against medical advice. Again, that continues to put the gaze on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, not the system’s failures due to systemic racism.

Like with any of society’s wicked problems when they are finally recognised, if this is successfully done, we will have to brace ourselves for high rates of identification and reporting of racism before we see improvements.

An existing model we could look to is Reconciliation Australia’s State of Reconciliation Report and its Reconciliation Barometer.

First annual data compilation

As was widely reported, the first annual data compilation report released last week by the Productivity Commission included positives on the enrolment of children in the year before full time school and some improvement in youth detention rates.

Unsurprisingly, we are not on track for other critical areas. Our life expectancy remains much lower and our people are still far more likely to be jailed, to die by suicide and have our children removed. We need to acknowledge that with the weight and the urgency it deserves. Our communities and families have been forced to suffer and grieve for far too long.

But, while we acknowledge this urgency, it’s important too to note that this data is baseline, the ‘before’– it doesn’t show any impacts from the National Agreement yet. Subsequent data development and reports will begin to show if we are making inroads.

What it does do is highlight the scale of work that needs to be done, particularly in relation to data development.

One of the recommendations of the 2021 Close the Gap report, written by Lowitja Institute on behalf of the Close the Gap Campaign, was to invest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data development, infrastructure and workforce (data navigators?) at the local level that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with access to place-based data.

That would mean we can develop local surveys, respond effectively to crisis situations and conduct ongoing health planning consistent with Indigenous Data Governance and Sovereignty principles and the National Agreement’s Priority Reform Four on data. Also for consideration are the CARE principles: CARE Principles of Indigenous Data Governance — Global Indigenous Data Alliance (gida-global.org)

An example of what that work could look like is Mabu Liyan, an initiative of Yawuru peoples who stepped away from a Western-centric view and defined within their communities what wellbeing and a good life means to them.

This resulted in the ‘Community wellbeing from the ground up’ report outlining the Yawuru wellbeing indicators. This is an example of communities filling gaps in the data and collecting information that is important to them. Approaches like these need much more support and infrastructure to become the rule for community-led data collection rather than the exception.

Strengthen the data

Reliability is a common issue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data. For example, the life expectancy indicator requires both Census (for population estimates) and mortality data.

The most recent Census estimates an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undercount of approximately 17 percent and thus requires an adjustment to more accurately estimate the population.

Mortality data is compiled at the State and Territory level and is considered ‘reliable’ in most but not all jurisdictions. In addition, there is evidence that misclassification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is increasing over time, potentially producing inflated life expectancy and artificially closing the gap.

The ongoing improvement of the quality of the data will be beneficial to all.

But it is also the gaze of the data, and the narrative it tells that is critical.

The data is not yet telling us what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are doing well, about some of the great programs or interventions that are stopping things from being worse.

We have to make sure the data doesn’t again lead a deficit discourse — such as looking at the problems with prisoners, not addressing the systemic issues in the justice system that contribute to the high rates of incarceration and death in our justice system.

Invest in communities

It needs to tell us too what governments could, or should, do to meet their Closing the Gap commitments, because there are ample examples of what governments can do. For example, we have been campaigning for a long time to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14, a big systemic failing that disproportionately impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

And we have to be careful with nationally aggregated reports on culture, when our peoples make up so many unique nations.

The Productivity Commission’s Information Repository is a great start, although it relies on data from a Western-centric view of the world, and we are yet to see clear details from governments about how the targets and reforms will be met as part of the National Agreement.

The next major step to come is the Prime Minister’s tabling of the Federal Government’s Closing the Gap report.

We will be looking for him to show how he understands the implementation of the National Agreement and to provide the funding needed to put it in action in the right places.

We need to get moving on the data development, and invest in communities so that they are collecting data that are the missing pieces of this puzzle.

Self-determination has always been the key, and it is what has delivered the great outcomes, along with true system reform that dismantles racism and goes hand in hand with explicit and intentional racial justice and historical truth-telling and acceptance.


See Croakey’s archive of stories on justice and health.

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
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Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
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2014 conferences
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Congress Lowitja 2014
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Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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