A personal journey toward evaluation

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May 2019

By Scott Williams

It was never going to be easy coming back to Sydney after so many years. I was 42, newly separated from a marriage and leaving behind those I loved and a home I thought I would retire in someday. The Riverina region was my home and was a place that held cultural ties to my family for generations. We came from the Ngiyampaa nation, a desert dwelling people who lived where the township of Ivanhoe now stands, not far from Lake Mungo. In the early days, my ancestors were moved off their traditional land, eventually scattering after the Catholic mission days and finding work as shearers and on cattle stations as cleaners and maids. They lived hard lives for very little reward, but change would come for their children, and their children’s children.

It would be me who would experience the prosperity that education would bring and the recognition that past generations had sacrificed and fought so hard for on the battleground of civil liberty. I had a PhD in microbiology/ geology waiting for me in the east and a new life was beginning. When I set off for this brave new world, I could never have imagined the twists and turns my professional journey would take. But a self-funded PhD candidate needed work, and the university was only too happy to provide. I began conducting research into sexual health outcomes for Aboriginal youth in metropolitan Sydney. It was not too long before this expanded into researching peer interview strategies for a whole range of issues, from drug addiction and socioeconomic disadvantage to the power differentiation in social research.

The work was fascinating, and I put the word out to academics that I was searching for opportunities to broaden my experience. Then the day came when an email dropped into my inbox describing an opportunity to join a social policy evaluation consultancy as an Indigenous Intern. I jumped at it and after a successful interview found myself drawn into a space I had never experienced. Evaluation was completely new to me, but ARTD welcomed me with open arms.

The Aboriginal Internship

The internship was a full-time, 12-week, experience over the summer of 2018–19 that exposed me to a range of evaluation projects, methods and outcomes. I was assigned an Aboriginal mentor, Simon Jordan, Director Aboriginal Projects and Partnerships, and I hit the road running contributing to qualitative data analysis immediately. In concert with this, I gained early exposure to the conceptualisation of program logics, evaluation theory, interview transcription, summary writing and internal research methods. There were also opportunities to explore data visualisation, a subject I have grown quite fond of.

A highlight of those first weeks was a visit to a prior ARTD client, The Aboriginal Health Unit within St Vincent’s Hospital. It was a rewarding experience to see how ARTD’s evaluation work had real world effects on the health outcomes of Aboriginal people and the broader hospital environment. Conversations arose around the services Aboriginal people from country areas would now be able to benefit from. My thoughts drifted back to my younger years in the mid-1980s when I visited various rural Aboriginal communities with my mother, who was an Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol worker at the time, and seeing the destitute living conditions in corrugated iron shanty towns along river banks and impoverished communities on the fringes of townships. It was a scene of disfunction, disempowerment and loss of hope.    

It was impressive to observe ARTD’s positive and supportive relationships with various Aboriginal units and organisations. ARTD staff, with the guidance and advice of Aboriginal members, understood the importance of cultural and social protocols in forming mutual trust when working with Aboriginal communities. This reinforced my belief in the great potential value that evaluation holds for clients and the people they provide services to. During my lifetime, I have been witness to significant improvements in the living standards within some Aboriginal communities and their inclusion in the decision making processes that affect them.

Monthly meetings with Simon and senior management kept me informed on my progress and stimulated my growth in knowledge and experience. I found myself filling with confidence, which enabled me to take on tasks with more speed and accuracy and better time management for deadlines. The internship offered me the flexibility to work in areas I found interesting and the space for personal development in order to hone skills that I could build upon. There were also opportunities to participate in learning workshops, seminars, staff meetings and face-to-face client discussions.

By the end of the internship, I had amassed a variety of new skills and gained a more rounded understanding of public policy evaluation and social issues and outcomes. All in all, I contributed to more than 10 evaluation projects. But more than this, I had the great pleasure to interact with supportive, professional and dedicated teams within ARTD. What impressed me so much was their knowledge in a wide variety of policy areas and their nuanced understanding of social issues. The focus on getting the work right and doing the best for the client, and the communities and individuals they serve, is always at the forefront of what ARTD does. They are also driven to advance learning, enhance flexibility and embrace creativity in the workplace. 

Where to now?

I’ve come a long way since starting the internship. I no longer aspire to make breakthroughs in the disciplines of microbiology and geology, though they will always be of great interest to me on a personal level. I have changed focus and re-aligned. Now I have the chance to be part of an effort to improve the outcomes of social programs and policies and, ultimately, improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in communities across the country. There is the opportunity to be part of the ongoing effort to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to carry on the work of those who pursued change in their time. You could even say I now have a rejuvenated sense of purpose, a reinvigorated passion for creativity and a deep appreciation for how ARTD approach the evaluations they do.

It was with great delight and enthusiasm that I accepted an offer to stay on with ARTD after the internship, feeling prepared for the work ahead at ARTD and my career more broadly. As an Aboriginal person I feel I have a valued and important perspective to provide to the work we do.

I would thoroughly recommend the Aboriginal Internship at ARTD to any aspiring Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islander person who would like to learn more about public policy, understand evaluation processes and outcomes and grow within a supportive workplace.

I did it, and the future is very bright!