EXCLUSIVE: Desert Knowledge: management, board to be replaced after crushing report



In September 2009, Desert Knowledge CEO John Huigen (blue tie) and NT Minister Chris Burns (on the screen at left) in Darwin joined Federal Parliament and nine towns in Desert Australia via a video link on Monday to launch an initiative that will make the buck stop in the outback. Joy Taylor, DK Network Development, did the talking in The Alice. Ron Saint, from project partner Telstra, was in the launch audience. PHOTO from our archive.

The hype was huge when nearly five years ago, a $10m Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) project linking businesses across the outback was launched in Alice Springs with a video conference across much of the nation.
Not a lot is left of that today as a review commissioned by the NT Government has little good to say about the organisation that suffered from “myopic optimism that … is further demonstrated in the self-referential nature of the Board, the senior management and those with whom it decides to engage.”
This has prompted Treasurer Dave Tollner to comment that it is time to embark on a new direction: “The timing is right to put a new focus on the organisation, replacing the management and the board.”
In September 2009, keeping the money in the desert was the motto, encouraging small businesses in The Centre, and in eight other desert regions, to work collaboratively, across state borders, “so they can identify and pursue opportunities to strengthen and create business,” said John Huigen, CEO of DKA.
“Local alliances will build capacity and capability and mean that local desert firms are better able to compete against the big city firms. More business won by desert businesses means more money circulating in local economies, more jobs, more skills-development opportunities and stronger local communities,” said Mr Huigen.
Not enough of that has become reality: “Personal causes and trends have provided the strategic guidance for DKA for the past five or six years.
“A self-referencing environment dominated by a consistent group of persons has emerged and contributed to an operational style that is inconsistent with contemporary governance standards.
“In spite of indicating that the NT Government would consult with the community in a review of DKA three years after the legislation was passed [in 2003] this is the first such analysis.”
The review author, Dr Don Zoellner, of Charles Darwin University’s Northern Institute, says the views in the document are largely those given in “confidential consultations with 47 individuals and 140 documents and websites.”
He preferred descriptive story telling “to cut through the buzz words, complexity and confused messages that are associated [with] DKA in order to determine what government has inherited.”
Dr Zoellner also says that “in spite of the loss of connection with the political and public service leadership, DKA has made a significant return on the NT Governement’s investment while helping to diversify / support economic development in Central Australia.”
He says the government’s investment of $9m has resulted in more than $130m of economic activity, an overall return of $14.60 for every dollar invested, although it appears unclear to what extent organisations spawned by DKA had a hand in this, such as the Alice Solar City program (see comment).   Nevertheless, “serious consideration should be given to a combination of legislative change, board and senior management renewal and Ministerial direction”.
The organisation’s objectives were “not only wildly optimistic, but neglected the reality of how funding is distributed and what types of behaviours are rewarded”.
The overall impression of DKA that has emerged from the [review] process was that:-
• Nothing about DKA is as it seems.
• Its uncritical adoption of “buzz words” is irresistible.
• DKA has moved from being engaged and listening to aloof and lecturing.
• This is an organisation that has lost its way, most likely due to an initial overly optimistic assessment of the potential of synergies and collaboration being rewarded in both financial and operational terms.
DKA was set up to respond to economic downturn in the late 1990s by looking for new industries, and to develop a desert ecosystem model to serve as the foundation of DKA.   But a view that the DKA model could be exported to the world was heady, optimistic, romantic and possibly naive, Dr Zoellner says his respondents had told him.
A good relationship between the NT bureaucracy and DKA “has not been maintained over time”.
Outcomes were “intellectually unadventurous … drifting into safe areas” such as education which are “already well served”.
There was significant external funding early in its life but DKA is now “totally reliant upon continued NT Government funding to provide the base from which the other projects can operate”.
Outcomes of DKA objectives defined in the Act – “facilitation, encouragement and development” – proved hard to measure.   Regardless, many spoken to felt that DKA “was one of the few ‘good news’ stories from Central Australia”.
The review is highly critical of the thinking behind three of DKA’s “major outcomes / deliverables – the Desert Leadership Programs, remoteFOCUS and Collective Impact – as “intellectually unadventurous and typically Australian” in its approach of “what is the problem and what is government trying to do to address it”.
The leadership programs have received close to $1m in financial support since beginning in 2006-07: “In typical Desert Knowledge Australia style it is difficult to clearly describe what this suite of activities actually accomplished,” says the review.   It also comments that the programs for many Alice Springs people are the only thing that they can attribute to DKA. The experience is “highly valued” by participants, but its content has been imported and is described by some as “standard Harvard Business School”.   The review questions the program’s claims of the uniqueness of its “intercultural” character. Other organisations are working intensively in the same area.
remoteFOCUS, supported to the tune of $1.7m from a diverse range of organisations, is resoundingly criticised for its “intellectually impoverished discussion” of governance issues, constraining “genuine innovation,” as well as for being another DKA group of “self-selected and self-referential persons”.
Collective Impact “typifies standard DKA operating procedure and its inability to resist buzz words and phrases,” says the review. It has only one activity current, in early childhood development.
Other major activities assessed included:
• The provision of low-cost student accommodation using flats at Priest Street, from 2004. This finished in 2008 when it became clear that the demand for year round accommodation was not there.
• The establishment of the Desert Knowledge Precinct, as required by the Act. However, says the review, the DKA board believe they do not have the time or expertise to continue developing and managing the precinct, as also required by the Act. The review describes this as a “significant misalignment of legislated responsibility and strategic direction”, especially given the scale of public funds invested in the precinct infrastructure – as much as $40m. The review also says it is “exceptionally rare” for any organisation to not seek direct control of its land and facilities.
• A Regional Video Network was established in 2003, linking regional and remote areas across state borders. The network morphed into the Virtual meeting Place, out of which grew the Outback Business Network, attracting over $6m worth of funding in 2008-13. Other than the precinct itself, it is the single largest activity of DKA, with BHP Billiton a major contributor as part of their Reconciliation Action Plan. The company now feels that its corporate objectives have been met and will no longer support this activity, the review says.   The review comments that DKA’s capacity to meet due diligence requirements of major corporations and philanthropies is “one of the strengths of this body”.   However it also refers to questioning by the media “as to what is actually achieved through [the network’s] activities”, and describes it as relying heavily on “testimonials and soft focus stories” as a way of reporting on them. The review was unable to uncover, for example, any surveys of members.
• The DKA Solar Centre had its $2m funding acquired by the Centre for Appropriate Technology and then transferred to DKA, as was about $700,000 for additional solar equipment. The review questions the board’s understanding of the real costs associated with the project’s ongoing operations. There is no record or recollection of a profit and loss statement ever being presented to the board for the project, although income from it has been reported. In spite of a lack of clarity and the absence of a risk analysis, DKA intends to expand this activity to fund a dedicated position on renewable energy.
• The original DKA consortium provided an essential contribution to establishing the Alice Solar City program, but the review say views vary on how much credit is due to DKA.
• Establishing deductible gift recipient status, identified as a goal in 2004, was finally achieved in 2013 when the wholly-owned company Desert Knowledge Foundation was set up. The review expresses caution on how strategic an action this might be, “involving huge amounts of relationship maintenance”. The foundation was also seen as a way to establish a research agenda, guided by a volunteer committee “apparently chosen by the now familiar self-referential processes”.
• The Indigenous Education and Employment Taskforce, established in 2006, was criticised by many spoken to as well-intentioned but ineffective. Its website, Alice Career Connections, is “effectively useless”. Current activities of the taskforce compared to original goals “demonstrate a recurring pattern of policy drift and unclear strategic direction”. The review also notices the absence of formal relationship with the Centre for Remote Health, whose research could have contributed usefully to its work, and a disconnect with the research program of Ninti One (which grew out of the original DK CRC).
A transfer of DKA to Charles Darwin University is one of the options considered for the future of DKA, and so is selling the precinct; turning DKA into a NT Government agency; or using it as a National Centre of Indigenous Arts and Culture.
Mr Tollner issued the following media release after the publication of the report above:-
Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) in Alice Springs is to embark on a new direction.
Following the recent DKA review, government decided the timing is right to put a new focus on the organisation.
DKA was an initiative of the former Country Liberals Government in 2001 and was conceived as an expert organisation that would harness local knowledge of arid environments locally and commercialise that expertise.
Sadly the previous Labor Territory Government dropped the ball after a promising start.
While DKA generated a number of programs and attracted investment to Alice Springs clearly more value could have been generated for Territorians if there had been closer engagement between Government and DKA.
The Country Liberals government intends to reinvigorate DKA so it represents better value for taxpayers and better fulfils its objectives.
DKA can play an important role in helping inform public policy not only in Central Australia but across all of remote Australia. The organisation has the potential to drive real and beneficial social and economic change, but it needs a fresh approach
As a Statutory Authority there is an opportunity to more closely align DKA’s agenda to government’s priorities – particularly economic development and in support of the Northern Australia agenda.
To take this new direction forward a new board and senior management will be appointed and the government, unlike the previous, will be more closely involved.
We are sincerely thankful for the efforts of the present Chair, board and management of DKA who have provided the foundation for the future.
Mr Tollner’s release included comments from DKA chairman for the past seven years Fred Chaney:
“We have established some key approaches to tackle the underlying barriers to growing the economy and strengthening the desert community and brought partners together to create enduring capacity for Alice Springs.”
“I take this opportunity to thank DKA’s many partners and sponsors, supporters and our staff. I know that the dedicated staff of DKA stand ready to work towards the new future.”
Mr Tollner said the process of appointing new board members was already underway.
“On behalf of the Government I thank the departing board members for their service and wish them all the best,” Mr Tollner said.


  1. Is there a link to the full report?
    As a person involved in business I am gobsmacked that an organisation set up to “link” businesses throughout the outback couldn’t even get that right. There are huge opportunities in this realm and it is shameful that DKA hasn’t tried harder to engage their local community. It might be time for the “academics” to get out of the way and let people who know how to operationalize these things get on with it.
    Having wasted precious business resources once to participate in their “expo” I was gobsmacked at how they thought it appropriate to wine dine and navel gaze at the taxpayers’ expense, all the while looking to charge businesses fees to participate.
    Engaging the wider business community – not just the “clubby” ones is what is needed. The ideas that DKA had in principle are okay – but let’s get some practical people in there. The whole business landscape is changing before our eyes, and it would be great if that old can do attitude of the outback made a comeback against the snout in the trough that we are currently seeing from our academic and tertiary institutions.

  2. I think the aspersions cast in this article lack specificity. If $9 million dollars of government investment results in $130 worth of economic activity, surely that is the story? Is there a major organisation anywhere that does not gild its own lilly?

  3. Sadly, the DKA Board and Management have been personally warned for several years that they are a private club of high-level bureaucrats who devalue proven local “desert” knowledge in favour of high-status theories from Harvard (Leadership Forum), Stanford (Collective Impact) and Canberra (remoteFOCUS). DKA don’t listen to people “beneath” them.
    For example, Fred Chaney was asked after his remoteFOCUS lecture late 2012 in the McNeill Room why his project was run by a small Old Boys Club and not by a more representative group with women, youth, small businesses, pastoralists, remote residents, Aboriginal people, etc. He said “it worked for me when I was Minister; I see no reason to change.” Unfortunately, this self-referential thinking is shared by too many government and industry bureaucrats.
    I hope this report encourages us to keep organisations accountable for producing real value (not just “economic activity”). As a recent example, our priceless desert resources are being shipped to China to make a few wealthy but little trickles back down to citizens, as Maurie Japarta Ryan et al remind us.
    Time for ALL knowledgeable desert citizens to work TOGETHER. Why do we need official research reports to see what’s obviously missing?
    [ED – We are offering Mr Chaney the right of reply.]

  4. What a terrible shameless waste! Don’t waste your time listening to inexcusable propaganda about funds attracted and spent in the local economy!
    Just stand back a little and view what we have actually acquired with that funding! What ongoing income generating capacity have we gained? What enormous opportunity lost! Possibly forever!
    I am absolutely astounded that any government let alone private enterprise even considered, let alone actually granted funding to, applications from DK for what amounted to a fairyland where we all held hands in a united milking of the welfare system, feeding the funding through each others hands until there was nothing more than a trickle left for those for whom the funding was intended.
    From a business point of view, just a rather poor opposition to Local directories or Yellow Pages.
    Why did we ever need a separate business network when anyone can just Google? Oh that’s, right, it was about the business partnerships!
    Can you have business partnerships between NGOs and government departments, or would that just be more dead weight bureaucracy, I wonder.
    How funding was ever acquired is beyond me although it is testament to just how willing other Australians are to do something for the people of Central Australia.
    Let’s hope that good will along with the Center’s credibility hasn’t been forever lost with what can only be described as the DKA debacle!

  5. Steve. “Terrible shameless waste!” you say, “inexcusable propaganda” “Just stand back a little and view what we have actually acquired with that funding!”
    Look around mate, there will be (or should be) many executives of Alice Springs organisations who are saying “There but by the grace of God go I.”
    We live in the desert heartland of rhetoric driven funding that doesn’t deliver, of poor outcomes and questionable governance.
    Witness the number of corporations delisted or under administration by the regulators each year.
    And what are the cardinal sins of DKA? The review criticises them as “intellectually unadventurous and typically Australian.”
    Coming from Don Zoellner, who floundered in cross cultural shock when he was briefly dealing with remote schools as a Department of Education manager, this is a bit rich.
    I suspect that DKAs real crime is that “a good relationship between the NT bureaucracy and DKA has not been maintained over time”.
    With dwindling funds from the Feds the luxury of an independent DKA could no longer be tolerated.
    DKA must be harnessed to the Government’s agenda. Coincidentally this is the agenda that Zoellner is personally involved in through his Northern Institute. Conflict of interest?

  6. If anyone is confused about the role of Desert Knowledge, there is a helpful overview which can be found on Youtube, entitled “Desert Knowledge Perspective (3)”.
    I would encourage the government to abandon the resourcing of academic and theoretic approaches to issues which are already over analysed, and re-direct funding towards the achievement of real, practical and measurable outcomes.

  7. @ Interested Observer, you obviously haven’t quite worked out what’s happening to DK and the other agencies you mention. There is a political realization, not just in the Centre but across the nation, that the nation’s been subjected to a gigantic con by many agencies.
    The good will and intentions of governments have become the feeding ground of many parasitic bodies whose contribution to the nation is one of added cost with no corresponding increase in productivity and or no appreciable effect upon the issues that governments are attempting to solve.
    They are in fact a dead weight, an impediment, to the progress of our nation.
    Governments now wake up to the huge burdens imposed by parasitic agencies, are imposing what I see as a good solution to a festering problem, by issuing to the many and varied agencies an ultimatum: Either bring about a change of direction leading to an outcome that will see institutions such as DK becoming nett contributors to our nation’s productivity, or be sold up and shut down.
    You are right about a lack of communication with the Territory Government, but it’s not a communication needing the NT Government to understand DK’s point of view. It is about DK having the intellectual capacity to understand the message being sent to it. The real issue for DK and the Territory is contained in your comment, the sickening acceptance of welfarisim and dependence!
    The “this is a Government economy” statement that I have heard on several occasions from various board members, the total reliance on taxpayer handouts as the only option for the future
    That is the “welfare mentality” to which our Chief Minister continually refers. The real tragedy is that this mentality exist in the very midst of enormous opportunity for private enterprise development. If only the millions wasted on propaganda glorifying a totally futile direction for DK had been put towards developing new industry in association with private enterprise, DK may well have become a world leading authority on dry land agriculture, solar power, waste water recycling and so on. The question now remains, will we ever get another opportunity?

  8. What a marvelous and accurate description, “self-referential” and “adoption of buzz words”.
    In recent years I twice asked management for a brief description of their aims and achievements.
    On both occasions I was met with open hostility where my intention was to gain knowledge and promote the organisation throughout my own networks both locally and interstate.
    The claims that economic activity has been achieved by this organisation has not been supported at any time.
    “Just stand back and look at what?” Please explain without the catch phrases and angry responses.

  9. It would be terrific to see this as an opportunity to turn DKA around, do some serious engagement with the remote community about economic and social needs, link it with the Federal approach to northern development, made sure remote Australia is represented at the decision making level.
    Unfortunately I don’t think the future options outlined in the above article will do that. A CDU takeover? Turning DKA into an academic institution isn’t going to deliver results for remote Australia. And becoming an NTG agency? I don’t think so.
    CKA failed in the implementation, not the ideas. A change of board, of focus and a CEO who can develop and articulate clear objectives would be a good start.

  10. Removing it in its present form is overdue, but it could have done such a lot in a different form in the way of research and development in many areas which would have benefited this area. Some examples:
    1. Israel is refining waste water at a cost of under 60c a tonne. Why not here? Either not seen or outside their expertise and ignored, not seen as being not relevant.
    2. Queensland is producing high quality cattle fodder from algae grown in sewerage water. Anything done here?
    3. Dysol, a Canberra based research firm produces solar power via window based panels. The technology promoted at DK was obsolete years ago.
    4. In a dessert why build a building with no rainwater collection facilities? And why plant large gum trees adjacent to a building so that the roots can interfere with foundations etc?
    5. Composting toilets micro biology? These toilets are OK for roadside stops but over 10000 installed domestically in Australia. What an opportunity to demonstrate the water savings.
    6. Why is it that so many cattle go South for fattening when we have some great plant species here that need developing as fodder? Rhizobium research on our native legumes? All done overseas.
    The list goes on but their research needed to be market directed and applied. There was great case for science and technology to be researched as applicable to this area and then applied. The commercial market for this was immense but DK turned into a repository for non commercial thinking bureaucrats with theoretical aspirations.


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