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Assisting Indigenous extension services: Key guidelines for training and development of extension officers dealing with Indigenous communities

Dave Brown1 and Derek Foster2

1. Extension officer, Innovative Rural Management, Department of Primary Industries, Queensland, Australia
Innovation and Development Specialist, Innovative Rural Management, Department of Primary Industries, Queensland, Australia


With the increasing trend at all levels of government to service the needs of developing Indigenous communities there is an increasing demand for the professional development of extension staff who will be responsible for the delivery of government services. Using an extension design framework as a basis for discussion, this paper identifies key aspects to service delivery that are important to consider when dealing with Indigenous communities in Australia. The paper will describe the emerging trends in service delivery and identify key assumptions that are necessary to contextualise a service delivery model for Indigenous communities.

Therefore this paper is providing for three groups of extension providers:

  • current staff who work with Indigenous communities
  • new staff employed to service Indigenous communities
  • people assisting the above two groups either through formal training programs or through less formal processes such as mentoring, coaching, or managerial supervision.


Since the 1991 inception of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) and its reconciliation documents Corroboree 2000 – Towards Reconciliation and A Roadmap for Reconciliation (CAR, 1994) there has been a slow percolation of effort through the layers of government. Ten years on and the effects of this initiative are being felt by field extension officers. In August 2000 the Premier, Peter Beattie, indicated his government’s commitment to reconciliation in his address at the ‘Walking Together’ event in Brisbane. Subsequently the Department of Primary Industries endorsed its alliance to State Government strategy documents and, at the time of writing, is developing a draft strategy ‘Strategic Direction for Indigenous Community Development’. This policy will embrace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) ‘National Commitment to Improved Outcomes in the delivery of Programs and Services for Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders’ (SCARM, 2001). With the advent of new policy, emphasis and commitment changes in resource allocation and staff duties can be expected. Staff who have been actively working with indigenous communities will find increased budgets, shifts in duty statements and an increasing number of project opportunities. New staff will be appointed to support these changes and will join existing staff in their endeavours. This will in turn place a demand upon training and skilling processes for all of these people.

Whilst this ten year percolation has been informed by an iterative interaction between policy developers, managers and active extension practitioners, there is an emerging need to learn from past experiences. Both existing and new staff need to be able to benefit from reflections on experiences over the past ten years.

Therefore this paper is providing for three groups of extension providers:

  • current staff who work with Indigenous communities
  • new staff employed to service Indigenous communities
  • people assisting the above two groups either through formal training programs or through less formal processes such ass mentoring, coaching, or managerial supervision.

Two years ago the Rural Extension Centre was invited to provide training for the Indigenous Land Corporation. The training was focused on extension best practice for community based planning. To create an effective delivery team for this training an extension specialist, a community based planning specialist and a field officer working with indigenous communities were brought together. The experience of preparing for and delivering this program created an opportunity for a more general reflection on issues pertaining to extension processes for indigenous communities. So this paper reflects very much the experiences and perceptions of the authors and the resulting model of extension processes for indigenous communities is a construction of personal theories based upon those experiences and perceptions.

Figure 2. Extension Design Framework

This paper will use a framework (Fig.2) for extension process design as a basis for discussion (Foster, D.,2001). This framework has been researched and refined over the past four years as part of courses run by the Rural Extension Centre and is used as an expository advanced organiser (Ausubel & Robinson,1969 ) to allow for the construction of personal models based upon the offered content within the framework. Extension officers who have used the framework have indicated that the area of most significant practice change has been associated with commitment to and processes for the Situation Analysis. Extension officers recognise that the precision and rigour that is ascribed to this activity will be related to the success or otherwise of the extension program. This framework offers five dimensions within the Situation Analysis, Broader issues, your organisation, clients, you and your team and available resources as a basis for reviewing the milieu in which the extension program will be placed (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Situation analysis

The paper will explore the key guidelines for engaging indigenous communties within these five dimensions. Observations relating to interactions with other components of the framework will also be included where appropriate.

Key guidelines for engaging Indigenous communities as an extension professional

Broader environment

An extension officer working with Indigenous communities may encounter a myriad of guidelines to follow that will prescribe how the work should be undertaken. Those set by the community (clients), those set by the officer themselves (you and your team) or the agency they work for (your organisation) and then there are also some guidelines that have been formed at State and National (broader environment) level as well. All these guidelines have an effect on the way extension officers will engage communities, either indirectly through managerial influence or directly through the officers conscious effort to provide the best service they can.

• National and State policies

Let us look briefly at the National scene to see the connection between these guidelines and how an Extension Officer may plan a program with an Indigenous communities representatives.

In 1991 the Commonwealth Parliament established the Council for Reconciliation to promote a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community for the benefit of the whole nation.

We have mentioned in the introduction a brief outline of the overarching policy framework that work involving Indigenous Communities may fall within. The percolation effect which may extend right down to project design level has also been mentioned.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation put forward national strategies which recommended ways of transforming commitment to reconciliation into actions. These actions were adopted by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) which in turn passed them onto it’s many committees and sub-committees to progress and implement. Through bodies like SCARM (State’s Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management) these actions filter down to state agencies and in turn to programs and therefore officer delivering services.

These guidelines and recommendations therefore form part of the policy environment that agencies and in turn extension officers consider as an important part of the situation analysis prior to engaging with Indigenous communities.

The actual recommendations from these overarching bodies are many and varied, yet all are equally important and critical to progress on the journey to reconciliation. We see one such policy framework that can and should influence thinking and planning at government, agency and personal level by viewing point IX listed in the communique from the Indigenous Community Capacity Building Roundtable held at Old Parliament House in Canberra on October 24th 2000.

Point IX) recommended that governments and indigenous people work in partnership, based on the following principles, in the design and implementation of programs aimed at supporting indigenous families and communities:

(a) responses should build on the existing strengths, assets and capacities of indigenous families and communities, and reflect the value of positive role models and successful approaches;

(b) programs should be delivered on a strategic, coordinated and whole-of-government basis and recognise the complex nature of the problems they seek to address;

(c) programs should provide a clear framework of transparent accountability for funding and evaluation that takes into account actual outcomes for people at the community level and the views of communities;

(d) programs should be based on the views and aspirations of the whole community, particularly those most affected by programs, and indigenous people themselves should have a central role in the design, planning and delivery of services;

(e) time is required to enable the participation of the whole community and this should be reflected in funding cycles;

(f) responses should aim to empower indigenous people in leadership and managerial competence;

(g) urgent attention should be given to initiatives which target the needs of children and young people, particularly in the areas of leadership training, self esteem building, awareness of one’s culture and family, and anti-violence training;

(h) programs should reflect the specific needs of local communities and families and not be designed on a “one-size-fits-all” basis;

(i) programs should contribute to practical reconciliation by empowering indigenous people to take responsibility within their families and communities for developing solutions to problems;

(j) priority should be given to initiatives that encourage self-reliance, sustainable economic and social development, and that encourage the capacity of families and communities to deal with problems as they arise;

(k) programs should encourage the growth of local economies;

(l) where possible, programs should take account of and respond to regional and local plans;

(m) and programs must be developed and delivered in ways that give priority to the building of trust and partnerships.

In the context of this paper and the extension design framework these recommendations form an integral part of all extension process/program designs.

The States have also responded to the plight of Indigenous people. Queensland has the “Ten Year Planning Framework for Indigenous Communities” and the “Cape York Partnership”. Once again these initiatives set guidelines and recommendations that will eventually influence the work down by an Extension Officer with an Indigenous Community.

• Changing Indigenous population and social impact

Attorney General Darryl Williams at a recent environment conference stated that

“ it’s not possible to accurately qualify the proportion of Australia over which native title may exist. The courts are still trying to resolve this issue. However, subject to the capacity of Indigenous Australians to establish continuing connection with the land, it is the case that up to 80% of the land mass of Australia could be claimed under the Native Title Act”. Canberra Times

At the Deakin Lectures in 2001 Associate Professor Marcia Langton also claimed that “by 2010 if current trends continue one million Australians will claim Aboriginal decent".

This raises the important issue of the relationships between Indigenous communities and their immediate surrounding communities and the broader Australian community. These issues may have significance in the resourcing and support for extension programs, both at the local level and perhaps at the State and National legislative and funding levels.

• Environmental demands

A lot of communities that are using Indigenous Land Corporation divested land are finding that environmental integrity has been a source great concern. Invasive weeds, feral animals and soil conservation are significant issues for these people and so an awareness of these problems and possible programs to assist in the management of these issues may have a bearing on the implementation of any extension programs. Even if there is no apparent connection between the developing program (for example an extension program pertaining to health, crime or substance abuse) and environmental issues, there could be economic and/or social constraints due to environmental impacts on the income generating capacity of the community.

• Globalisation

For communities attempting to become economically independent an understanding of globalisation and marketing may be of significance. These communities may have economically sound products that could be marketed internationally, so an understanding of global markets, products and services by the community and extension staff may be extremely significant.


• Cultural diversity

In dealing with the analysis of Indigenous communities it is important to note that there are over 1000 language groups in Australia and each has its own cultural identity. Culture may vary much more than the cultural variances in the majority of non-Indigenous community. These variances can be seen reflected in the differences in art and dreaming stories in communities throughout Australia. A significant variant is also the degree of traditional lifestyle embraced by the community. Some communities have very traditional lifestyles and so aspirations of such communities are very much grounded in the traditional ways of the Indigenous people. Other communities have a much stronger relationship to the non-Indigenous culture and so the values and aspirations may be more in line with those of non-Indigenous Australians. It is important for the extension officer to be sensitive to these variances and be prepared to suspend any assumptions about the community profile until a full analysis is completed.

• Community structure

When analysing the community the extension officer should be aware that some communities are more a collection of families rather than a community as a whole. To this end it is important to understand the array of families and to understand the relationships between families. In other communities there are ‘factions’ composed of cohorts gathered around key issues, goals or current activities.

One good example of this variation can be found in the Dhagamin Aboriginal Corporation's Scrub Hill Community Farm at Nikenbah near Hervey Bay Queensland. The QDPI has been involved with a number of collaborative work initiatives involving the property managers and clients of the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) that uses the farm as the main centre for it's activities. The property itself has some cultural significance to the local Butchella people (a significant traditional owner group in the area) but was obtained for other than cultural reasons. The CDEP scheme based at the property has from between 40 to 70 clients at varying times. These clients need not necessarily be descended from Butchella people or Indigenous in order to participate in the scheme. The vast majority of the people working at the farm are from urban or non-farming backgrounds.

Consider this situation in terms of analysing the cultural perspective and it's importance to the extension officers client group compared to working with a group of traditional owners from Cape York. The chances of the Cape York community having been "on country" for a long time and possessing technical land management skills is far greater than with the Scrub Hill Community Farm clients. The cultural perspective with respect to the ‘care for country’ ethics adopted by these two groups towards their land will vary. Therefore the process design implications of extension work undertaken will also vary greatly and due to the relative sensitivities to difference in traditional cultural perspectives and protocols of the different clients.

• Key individuals within a community

Understanding who the key individuals are within communities is also important. Within communities there are ‘Elders’ who hold the responsibility for ‘Care of the Country’, which may include land degradation environmental health and economic development. It is important to know who the elders are and what is the perspective of ‘care’ that is taken within the community. Other influential members of the community (male and female) will also be important to identify because they may be of either significant support or opposition to your involvement with the community.

IRM officers were involved in providing property management planning workshops for a community in southern Queensland in 1999. The community had been in possession of the property for two years and were struggling to make progress in terms of strategic direction for the development of the land. The Indigenous community owners were scattered across southern Queensland and were made up of people from both urban and rural backgrounds.

In gathering the community representatives together (including the Elders) to do a visioning workshop it was obvious from initial questioning that “care of country” was a priority for the group as a whole. When pressed by the facilitators as to what this actually meant in terms of details it became clear that "care of country" meant different things to different people. Different people placed different emphasise on economic, environmental or cultural components. Some people believed the property should provide economic returns to the community as soon as possible by a range of means (tourism, beef, and retail store). Others were more inclined to making the farm a place for spiritual healing and cultural education and thought these cultural issues should take priority. Again others believed the country should be restored to it's natural state before any other development took place.

This situation is more the norm than the exception when dealing with communities that have recently had country returned. It is important for the extension officer to ensure that all the people who have given varying definitions about what "care of country" is remain as part of the group working in the program. If, as in the case of the community cited here, Elders feelings and ambitions about the development direction of the property are deep seated, and inflexible, then problems may arise. In this case whatever priorities the group as whole came up with for action planning it only served to alienate the Elders who believed that their opinions weren't given due credit. The Extension officers then had to work with those community people left who felt comfortable with the agreed visioning the outcomes for the remainder of the program or workshop series. Any outcomes generated by subsequent workshops was seen by sections of the community as the property of one particular sector that had it's own agenda and therefore lacked the ownership that was required to drive strategic development forward.

This scenario has been played out a number of times in this particular community and perhaps if the IRM extension officers had carried out a more comprehensive situation analysis prior to commencing program activities they would have designed the program entirely differently with more successful results.

• Impact of events

Another important aspect of Indigenous life is that significant events, such as significant sporting events, general meetings or the death of a community member have an enormous effect on the activities and availability of people within the community. At these times there may be significant interruptions to any programs that are running.

As an example IRM extension officers, working with a large central Queensland Indigenous DOGIT (Deed of Grant in Trust) community, have seen one workshop rescheduled no less than four times due to deaths and subsequent funerals of members of that community. This particular DOGIT community has around 1500 inhabitants made up traditional owners or local people and other members who were moved years and generations earlier to the community by government authorities. These people are not only connected to other member of this community but of course through circumstances are related to Indigenous people in many other areas of the state.

Given the customs and protocols of a significant event such as a person’s death overlayed with the breadth and complexity of kinship in this community then having a workshop or meeting date postponed would not be surprising. Extension officers, understanding that this situation is likely to occur regularly, need to examine their own profession work practices and determine if they can personally and professionally operate under these circumstances. Another important factor in dealing with interruptions is to make sure a person in the community will act as a reliable liaison between the community and the extension officer. There is nothing worse than turning up to run a meeting or workshop and discovering that all the clients are at a funeral and no-one has told you.

Currently paid liaison positions are being built into some projects involving Indigenous communities to try and overcome this dilemma.

• Meeting processes

The extension officer who is visiting a community needs to understand that often it is important for other business relating to the community needs to be dealt with before the meeting will consider the purpose/s for the extension officer visit. During all meetings it is important to link purposes, information and events to Indigenous culture and events. This will ensure the material is contextually relevant and that cultural respect is demonstrated.

In conversation there should be a proactive attempt at demystification of language and concepts. Often economic issues, such as where money comes from, need to be described and careful understanding and use of language can be useful. Also sensitive questions and answers can assist the extension officer in understanding the community’s perceptions and thus provide a key to understanding how to provide responses to create clarity on issues. As English literacy is a significant variant knowledge of language is an important element in the early stages of interacting with an Indigenous community.

• Participation capacity

It is suggested that the extension officer needs to think about the degree of participation that is appropriate for any program. The extension officer will need to identify strategies for the appropriate level of participation for different sectors of the community. In some communities there will be significant population changes over different periods of time which will mean that an extension officer will need to embrace various strategies to achieve the appropriate level of participation.

• Wants vs needs

For a lot of communities there is a continuous flow of ‘wants’ streaming from council meetings and elders meetings. The extension officer will need to be able to discern between the ‘wants’ of a community and the ‘needs’ of a community. Only through thorough invetsigation of the situation will an extension officer be in any position to make these judgements.

Your organisation

There are three key issues that we have found to be significant when considering organisational environments.

• The relationship between the organisation and the community

Is the organisation an organisation associated with social development, economic development, regulation enforcement or a more specific aspect to the development of the community? This will have fundamental impacts upon the relationship between the community and the extension officer and also the style of extension program designed. High level participation leading to self-mobilisation is the aim of a lot of organisations and so empowering communities to do things for themselves is an important aspect of the extension process design. The organisation may have an enforcement role or a service role within the community and this may create, by association, a surrogate relationship that the extension officer may have to deal with.

• The relationship between the organisation and legislation

Some knowledge of the web of legality surrounding Indigenous land ownership and or management and the organisation’ s relationship to these legislation. Some key legislative documentation that may be useful to be familiar with includes:

  • Native title
  • ILC divestment
  • Indigenous Land Use agreements.
  • Indigenous land protected areas
  • Trust and reserve lands

• The relationship between the organisation and the extension officers

The degree that the organisation is prepared to support staff in dealing sensitively and effectively with an Indigenous community will be important to ensure that the staff have the flexibility to work within the needs of the community. Some key aspects to consider here are;

The administrative ability to allow staff to maintain a normal work load but also be able to attend meetings and gatherings in out of work normal work time. This important to ensure contact occurs in time that is appropriate in a community context.

Sometimes it will take longer periods to introduce and run workshops so there may be extended time frames needed for Indigenous communities due to process required to respond to the needs of the group.

The capacity of the organisation to allow for feedback from field officers. This feedback may be important with respect to policy development at various levels of the organisation and also to link in with State and National policy and policy development processes.

Preparatory training and professional development strategies for induction and ongoing staff development processes.

Your organisation and other government organisations

It is important to ensure that a whole of government ethos is embraced. This will reduce the quality of visits to the community by government employees.


• Existing programs

It is important to ensure that the extension officer has done a scan of existing programs. These programs may be in government departments (eg Farmbis, property management planning), community organisations (eg the Aboriginal Land Educational Project [ALEP] formed by the North Land Council and Greening Australia, WWF) or be available through international bodies from experiences in developing countries (iied, ACIAR, World Bank, FAO, Ausaid).

• Identifying the right pitch

Because of the great diversity in Indigenous communities throughout Australia there is a need to check the suitability of programs. Getting the ‘right pitch’ for the particular community is extremely important to assist in learning and adoption of best practices. This has the implication that programs need to be reviewed and adjusted with respect to the needs of the community and the community profile and not blindly transposed from either non Indigenous settings or other Indigenous community settings.

• Using community members to assist

It is important to access whatever help is available to ensure the program is as good as it can be. A local community member who is able to assist in communication and process implementation will be of great value to the program. Care should be taken however not to over utilise these people as this can lead to feelings of exploitation and may be insensitive community protocols.

• Skills in the organisation

In the early phase of the situation analysis there needs to be the identification of existing skills and knowledge within the organisation that can assist the extension program. As an example the NSW Department of Agriculture employs an Aboriginal Liaison Officer.

• Skills in other organisations

It may be that there are other organisations that are either working with the local community or can provide assistance. It is important to work collaboratively with these other providers to create a much more efficient process and to reduce the amount of duplication of effort within the community.

You and your team

• Understanding yourself and your own relationship to Indigenous communities

It is important to explore personal philosophies to ensure that personal principles, values and assumptions are raised and that they do not inhibit an individual’s capacity to work with Indigenous communities. An ability to cope with any variances in cultural background is important.

• Being caught between the cultures

There is also often a variation between the culture of the community and that of the Government Departments. The extension officer who works for a government organisation needs to understand that he/she may be the ‘meat in the sandwich’ between these cultures. From the perspective of the bureaucracy there are issues of deadlines, financial accountability, duty statements, reporting requirements, time sheets etc. that are an integral part of government systems. It may be that there will be conflict between these issues and the needs of an Indigenous community.

In Australia there are significant political issues associated with the reconciliation process. The extension officer may find that once again he/she is caught in the middle of these issues. Even though an unwitting participant, perceptional bias may influence communication, interaction and relationship issues between the extension officer and the community. A clear understanding of how these issues are perceived in by the community will need to be part of the extension officer’s situation analysis.

Process issues

As an adjunct to outlining key guidelines for design considerations we would like to offer some process tips and principles for your consideration.

Process tips

• Capture, carry and complete

There is often a need to assist with completing workshop worksheets in communities where literacy levels are not high there may be a need to document outcomes of workshops using a ‘capture, carry and complete’ process. This process is one where the extension officer tidies up the information and returns it to the community.

• Small manageable steps

Breaking large complex activities into small manageable steps often assists with the smooth implementation of workshop activities.

• Pre meeting preparation

Consider and factor in the amount of pre meeting preparation required. Time is often required to think about the issues of customising programs to specific community needs and then to develop new resources to address those needs. It is also important to take time to think about likely issues and involvement processes.

• Immediate needs

Addressing the community’s immediate needs (eg. rates, property maintenance) will create greater allegiance to the program and so it is important for the extension officer to become aware of these needs before the program design process is commenced.

• “Comedy double” facilitator and observer

Use of the “comedy double” facilitator and observer approach (Browne and Gardinber, 2000) can be effective. “Straight Man” works on content whilst observer works on process. One team member jumps in asks obvious questions, makes points, and has ‘shots’ at the facilitator to relieve tension.

Process principles

• Operational vortex

Getting dragged into the operational vortex (ie the facilitator becoming the ‘doer’) can be a trap. Where the program is aimed at a legacy of self-reliance and self-mobilisation The extension officer needs to ensure that there is a proactively designed escape mechanism in place to allow the extension officer the opportunity to divest action responsibilities.

• Experiential learning

Ensuring a program provides experiential learning opportunities through strategies such as good visual aids and less formal workshop environments involving role-plays case studies and ‘hands-on’ activities will create a better learning environment for most communities.

• Participatory approach

More participatory approaches in the area of planning and process design for community program will engender greater adoption and self-reliance. These participatory approaches will recognise the transitional stages from consultation to self-mobilisation and changes in levels of facilitation, information and support required at different stages. Sustained support for lengthy periods for some groups is sometimes important.


The diagram below identifies some of the key issues to think about when designing an extension process to assist an Indigenous community.

It should be reiterated that this paper has been the reflections of the authors’ practice reviewed within the framework of extension design. It therefore reflects very much the perceptions of the authors and is a construction of personal theory based upon those perceptions. This paper should be considered ‘work in progress’ and as such will be continually reviewed.

Figure 4. Situation analysis for Indigenous communities


  1. Ausubel, David P and Robinson, Floyd G 1969, School Learning – An Introduction to Educational Psychology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc
  2. Beattie, P., (2000), Speech at the ‘Walking Together’ rally, Brisbane, August 2000.
  3. Browne, W., Gardiner, B., (2000), Facilitator Experiences in NSW – Canoon, Proceedings ‘Appropriate Planning Tools for Indigenous Communities’ workshop, Indigenous Land Corporation, Adelaide, Australia.
  4. Canberra Times, January 21, 2001.
  5. Communique from the Indigenous Community Capacity Building Roundtable held at Old Parliament House in Canberra on October 24th 2000
  6. Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, (1994), Corroboree 2000 – Towards Reconciliation
  7. Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, (1994), A Roadmap for Reconciliation
  8. Foster, D., (2001), Developing Workshops and Extension Packages - course notes, Rural Extension Centre, Gatton, Queensland, Australia
  9. Kennet, E., (2001), Draft Strategic Direction for Indigenous Community Development In DPI, unpublished DPI policy paper under development.
  10. Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management (SCARM), Agenda and Minutes, 7 March 2001.

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