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.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
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.
UPDATE 7:48pm FRIDAY:
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.