Working on country

Working on country: a case study of unusual environmental program success

Kathleen Mackie and David Meacheam School of Business, University of NSW, Canberra, Australia


Many programs have failed in attempting to tackle Indigenous disadvantage, through remote-area employment and environment activities. In the 1990s and 2000s, the federal environment department’s Contract Employment Program for Aboriginals in Natural and Cultural Resource Management and Indigenous Protected Areas program made small but valuable advances. In the post-2005 Indigenous reform agenda, the environment department took the opportunity to go the next step, proposing in 2007 a program paying award wages for Indigenous rangers caring for country. The result, Working on Country, is acknowledged as an environmental, employment, and social success. By September 2013, nearly 700 rangers in 90 projects cared for 1.5 million square kilometres of country. Theoretical understanding of ‘policy success’ is recognised as an embryonic field within public policy theory. Working on Country provides a fertile case to investigate ‘policy success’. Interviews with federal environment departmental officials show that, in the particular case of Working on Country, keys to policy success were the lengthy evolution and ‘road testing’ of the program concept, authentic stakeholder engagement, and subsuming the environment objectives. We enunciate the unusual factors that were brought to bear in that success, and inquire if they are replicable.

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