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Key points

  • Improving Indigenous employment is a responsibility for all Commonwealth agencies. 
  • Indigenous employment levels have stabilised in the APS over the last few years. However, insufficient progress is being made.
  • Indigenous employees are over-represented at lower level positions, and under-represented at higher level positions.
  • Indigenous people are the fastest growing population in Australia.
  • Meeting the 2015 target is about workforce capability and good people management.


Increasing Indigenous employment and reducing the level of disadvantage among Indigenous Australians is an integral part of the Australian Government's agenda. The Commonwealth has an important role to play, modelling better practice to the broader workforce, and strengthening community capacity.

The Council of Australian Governments' (COAG's) National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Economic Participation (the Agreement) aims to accelerate improvements in 'closing the gap' in economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. A key element of this Agreement includes the review of public sector Indigenous employment and career development strategies. The aim of the review is to increase Indigenous employment across all classifications to reflect the national Indigenous working-age population share of at least 2.6 per cent by 2015.

The Commonwealth raised this to 2.7 per cent representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees across the Commonwealth public sector, and the onus is on all APS and non-APS agencies, to determine how they will meet the COAG target. Some agencies already in excess of the Commonwealths' 2.7 per cent target, are working towards an additional 20 per cent proportional target.

While the Commonwealth's commitment to Indigenous employment is expressed as a target, the target should be regarded as a performance measure. The intention of the commitment is to ensure a holistic, sustainable plan for diversity, and strengthening existing strategies for recruitment, retention and career pathways.

It is important not to view the meeting of this target as an onerous task. An Indigenous Employment Strategy that considers the workforce needs and issues of your agency will prove an effective and necessary element to demonstrate an agency's progress towards achieving the target and improving employment outcomes. As shown in Figure 1, the increase, in comparison to overall employment, is minimal.

Figure 1: Representation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ongoing APS employees

Since August 2005, the APS Employment and Capability Strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employees (the APS Strategy) has contributed to stabilising Indigenous employment in the APS, and the Australian Governments' wider agenda of improving employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians (see Appendix A for more information). Figure 2 highlights the factors which contribute to low Indigenous employment rates. All of these factors are within the control of agencies and can be overcome. The trouble-shooting guide provided in the Resources section suggest a range of possible strategies to address factors which contribute to low Indigenous employment rates.

Figure 2: Agency factors contributing to low Indigenous employment rates.

Indigenous employment statistics

Indigenous employment reporting

All Commonwealth public sector agencies and organisations need to reach the target. All agencies are encouraged to keep data to assist in tracking strategies and progress towards the Indigenous employment target.

However, comprehensive Indigenous employment statistics are not available across the Commonwealth public sector.

The Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) has responsibility for supporting the Australian Public Service (APS) response to targets. The Commission keep the APSED (APS Employee Database) and other data which is the primary source of information for Indigenous employment reporting on APS organisations.

There is currently no centralised data point for non-APS organisations to track progress towards the target. The ABS Census Report (2006) reported 0.9% representation of Indigenous employees in over more than 80 non-APS organisations.

For the purposes of reporting under element four of the National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Economic Participation, (the Agreement) the definition of an Indigenous public sector employee is:

A headcount of employees:

  1. who have self-identified as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and/or in a position which can only be held by a person of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent; and
  2. of State, Territory or Commonwealth public sector organisations (based on the ABS SESCA Level of Government classification); and
  3. are in paid employment types that include permanent and non-permanent positions or roles.

An example of the type of data that needs to be collected to enable reporting and tracking of progress is included in the Resources section in the Agency 'snapshot' report.

Indigenous employment data

Comprehensive employment data is essential for effective workforce management and planning. In the case of diversity data, those agencies who are confident in the quality of their data, will be in a position to better inform targeted workforce strategies, and measure their progress. As a guide, alongside standard employment statistics which capture appointments, level of appointment, length of service, and separation, agencies can also ask potential applicants and employees whether they identify as:

  • Aboriginal, or
  • Torres Strait Islander, or
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

While it is an individual's choice to disclose their Indigenous status, having good quality data enables agencies to better track, and understand Indigenous employment.

Across the APS, 24.5% of ongoing employees do not declare whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous.3 This equates to just under 37,000 employees.

Agencies can directly influence their progress against the target by improving their data. Strategies to increase disclosure rates will provide agencies with better quality diversity data, and a more comprehensive understanding of their progress against improving Indigenous employment.

It may be possible to increase disclosure rates if people are informed of:

  • why it is important to disclose such information
  • what the information will be used for, and how.

Employees may also be more likely to disclose if they feel the workplace is supportive, and free from potential discrimination or harassment.

The value of employment data is significantly enhanced by information which reports on employee experiences in the workplace. The use of staff surveys, exit surveys and exit interviews can highlight particular issues which can be addressed by the agency. Data which reveals factors that are causing Indigenous employees to be less engaged, less satisfied and leave the agency can be fed into ongoing implementation of the IES.

Indigenous employment in the APS

Current facts relating to ongoing Indigenous employment in the Australian Public Service (APS), as at 30 June 2010 include:

  • Between 2006 and 2010, representation across the APS stabilised at 2.2%.5
  • Over half (55.8%)6 of ongoing Indigenous employees were at the APS 1–4 classifications, compared with just over a third (37.8%)7 of all staff APS-wide.
  • The proportion of ongoing Indigenous employees at the APS 5–6 and EL classifications has steadily increased to 41%.8 Only 0.5% of SES staff are Indigenous.9
  • Indigenous employees made up 4.2% of all engagements, the highest level since 1997–98.10
  • Indigenous employees are more likely to separate from the APS than other ongoing employees, with 11.7% separating compared to the overall APS rate of 6.4%.11
  • They also have a much shorter length of service with 16.8% of Indigenous employees separating within one year of service, compared to 9.1% of non-Indigenous employees.12
  • Four agencies employed 59.8% of all ongoing Indigenous employees. Representation is highest in agencies delivering services predominantly to, or working with, Indigenous communities. Twenty-six APS agencies had no Indigenous employees.13
  • The proportion of Indigenous employees with graduate qualifications is much lower than the APS average—28.3% compared with the APS average of 55.5%,14 but compares favourably to the Indigenous population.
  • Data on Indigenous status from the Australian Public Service Employment Database (APSED) is available for 75.5% of ongoing employees.15

Further results from the 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees (2009 Census) revealed that Indigenous APS employees were most likely to be involved in service delivery to the public (41%), with the next most common types of work being program design and/or management (15%) and corporate services (12%).16

Indigenous employment has been affected by changes including changing classification profiles and an increased reliance on graduate qualifications. Recognising the impact these changes have on Indigenous employment is important if agencies are to improve the way they employ and retain Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

What do Indigenous APS employees think?

The 2009 Census produced some positive findings. Indigenous APS employees made the following observations:17

  • 96% were willing to put in extra effort to get the job done
  • 92% had a clear understanding of how their job contributed to the work of the team
  • 87% clearly understood what was expected of them in their job
  • 82% were satisfied with their supervisor's support for them to use flexible working practices
  • 81% on average expressed positive views about the job satisfaction factors that they nominated as important
  • 78% of those with caring responsibilities were satisfied with their supervisor's support in assisting them to meet their caring responsibilities
  • 76% were satisfied on average with their supervisor's performance against the attributes that they consider to be important
  • 75% agreed that they had the same opportunities to access learning and development as non- Indigenous staff in their agency.

However, some results indicate areas for improvement:

  • One in four (27%) Indigenous employees reported they experienced bullying and/or harassment, compared to 17% of all APS employees.18
  • In regard to career advancement, 46% felt that there were factors that hindered or prevented them from applying for higher positions. The top three reasons cited were:
    • limited number of opportunities at higher level (49%)
    • lack of self confidence (38%)
    • not yet having the necessary qualifications and/or experience (29%).19

The 2009 Census results highlight four key areas that require further attention by agencies:

  1. Strengthening the focus on retaining Indigenous employees.
  2. Recruiting Indigenous employees.
  3. Promotion of wider job opportunities for Indigenous employees.
  4. Improving opportunities for career development and advancement.

Initiatives in these areas are likely to assist agencies to contribute to the target of 2.7% Indigenous representation in the Commonwealth public sector by 2015.

The business case for employing Indigenous Australians

Being an employer of choice is essential in the face of skills gaps, skills shortages, an ageing workforce and private sector competition. Innovative recruitment and retention strategies can include exploring relatively untapped labour pools, and investing in the recruitment and development of workers from non-traditional areas, including Indigenous people.

The Indigenous population in Australia is growing at a faster rate than the non-Indigenous population and has a very different age profile. About 56% of Indigenous Australians are under 25 years of age, compared with about 33% of the rest of the population. 20 The growing number of young working-age Indigenous Australians is a valuable source of labour for Australia's workforce today, and an essential one for the future. There are ongoing improvements in education and employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians, which will in turn increase the pool of 'job ready' candidates.21 In addition, agencies may consider implementing initiatives to improve 'job readiness' of potential candidates, such as training in skills relevant to agency business needs.

Indigenous employment:

  • Raises the profile of the public sector and promotes it as an employer of choice particularly when the demand for skilled and talented staff is forecast to increase.
  • Incorporates Indigenous employees' varying perspectives, experience and knowledge. This can add substantial value to business outcomes, making significant contributions to the development of government policies and delivery of government services to the Australian community.
  • Increases the diversity of agency's employees, promotes cross-cultural interaction, and enhances knowledge and awareness of, and competence in, working with people from a range of backgrounds.
  • Contributes to the COAG policy objectives of 'closing the gap'.
  • Contributes to meeting the 2.7% target by 2015.
  • Improves cultural competency, not only in the workplace, but also in the delivery of services to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

Identifying, attracting and engaging with Indigenous candidates will play an important role in improving outcomes for Australian society generally. It will also contribute substantially to the Australian Government's priority of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, an ambitious aim that requires 'sustained action across all levels of government, all sectors'… and … 'better engaging Indigenous people in developing solutions….'.22

Why an Indigenous employment strategy?

The critical message is clear: agencies need to do more to improve the representation of Indigenous employees. Indigenous employment strategies can drive action, and deliver meaningful employment results.

The National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Economic Participation23 mandates action to be taken at all levels of the public sector to significantly improve employment opportunities for Indigenous people. Portfolio secretaries have reiterated this commitment for the whole of the Commonwealth.

For APS agencies, the APS Regulations state each agency must have a Workplace Diversity Plan. As part of this it is expected that a separate IES is developed. Workforce Diversity plans will continue beyond 2015, hence the need to ensure strategies for achieving targets for representation are sustainable.

Developing an IES is an opportunity for agencies to address workforce planning and development issues. An IES can be one pillar in a workforce strategy to attract the best people to meet business needs.

An IES can also help agencies build the skills of all of their employees, so that they are more confident and capable in developing and delivering services to the entire Australian community.

The goals set for any IES require a considerable commitment of financial and human resources, and goodwill.

Formulating an agency-specific IES is a significant step for agencies towards making that commitment, and the initiatives provided in this Kit will offer some ideas on how to achieve agency goals.

In the APS, Portfolio Secretaries have committed to working collaboratively with portfolio agencies to reach the 2015 target. Touch base with your portfolio colleagues to work together to utilise resources, participate in current initiatives, provide secondment and mentoring opportunities, and provide support in your journey to improving Indigenous employment outcomes in your agency. Similar approaches could be adopted across agencies which are regionally located.

As with all strategic documents, an effective IES has a mechanism for evaluation and review. If you have an existing IES, is it time to consider a review of its current effectiveness? Within the review process, conduct an analysis and consider where the real gains and improvements can be made (use the Agency 'snapshot' report in the Resources section to assist with tracking progress). Is there an opportunity to reconnect with other strategic priorities or stakeholders or implement new strategies or tools? Innovation is the key to moving on from business as usual.

Indigenous Employment Strategies and Reconciliation Action Plans

There is a difference between an IES and a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). An IES focuses on workplace environment, recruitment and retention issues affecting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees in your agency.

A RAP is a tool to help organisations build positive relationships between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians, to identify specific actions that will contribute to the improvement of the lives of Indigenous Australians in a wider sense, not solely focussed on agency business. An organisation's RAP and IES will overlap in some areas and are important guiding documents to your agency's efforts in improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

A RAP may include an agency-specific IES as an opportunity to increase Indigenous employment in your agency.

Commitment from individual agencies to the implementation of their own RAP in partnership with an IES is likely to result in substantial improvements in Indigenous employment outcomes. It is important however, that all areas within the agency commit to action under both the RAP and IES in order to bring about the cultural change required to make the Commonwealth public sector an employer of choice.

For further information on developing a RAP for your agency, visit Reconciliation Australia's website at http://www.reconciliation.org.au/home/reconciliation-action-plans.

Workplace environment, attraction and recruitment, and retention

Employment strategies generally include the three key themes of workplace environment, recruitment and retention, with the relative emphasis varying according to the challenges each agency faces.

Workplace environment

One of the factors driving high separation rates of Indigenous employees is the extent to which workplaces are able to adapt to and support the cultural needs and expectations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees.24 This is, in fact, one of the greatest challenges in supporting Indigenous employees.

Agency-specific actions are fundamental to achieving change, and need to involve approaches where workplaces are able to welcome and support Indigenous employees, ultimately attaining higher retention rates.

For example, showing respect and sensitivity for cultural differences, needs and expectations will help to enhance an agency's reputation as an employer of choice for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

Agencies can also encourage staff to engage with the Indigenous APS Employees Network, which provides considerable professional support to Indigenous employees through networking and mentoring opportunities, as well as avenues for cross-agency collaboration.

Managers play a very important role in setting a team environment that is collaborative and supportive. Employees join organisations, and leave managers.25 Agencies need to be conscious of how big an impact the workplace environment is having on an employee's decision to continue with a career in the Commonwealth public sector.

Attraction and recruitment

All Commonwealth agencies need to focus their efforts to recruit Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders at all levels and find new ways of attracting Indigenous Australians. This includes looking at innovative ways to becoming more active in better preparing Indigenous Australians for public service jobs.

A starting point is to review recruitment processes to ensure they are culturally appropriate and effective. For example, agencies could consider employing non-traditional advertising methods for reaching Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, and encouraging them to apply for advertised positions. Streamlined and efficient recruitment is also likely to increase application rates (for example, selection processes do not always need to include a formal interview, or a written exercise).26

The development of initiatives to attract and recruit Indigenous Australians from regional areas will be particularly important for any agency strategy.

In the APS context, centralised, targeted recruitment efforts, coordinated by the Commission under the APS Strategy, have resulted in attracting and recruiting an increased number of Indigenous employees, particularly through the Indigenous Graduate Program, Indigenous Cadetships and the Indigenous Traineeship Program. Encouraging Indigenous employment in 'mainstream' positions is essential to improving attraction and recruitment.


Progress made through recruitment has been eroded by high separation rates of Indigenous employees. Effective retention measures are required within agencies to address the issue.

Like all employees, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees benefit from a range of practical and innovative retention strategies. For example:

  • Induction—a welcoming approach, clear expectations, meaningful work from Day 1, general support and delivering on the agency image sold during the recruitment phase are key to establishing early engagement.
  • Professional development—provide access to opportunities which develop people for their current role, and help build their future career pathway. Career growth is important in engagement and an employee's sense of being valued by their agency.
  • Mentoring—a valuable method for guiding new employees in their learning about the public sector, and their agency's business and culture, as well as helping them achieve their professional goals.

Highly effective initiatives for eliminating factors that impact negatively on an employee's experiences will be essential in the bid to retain Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander employees.

The following sections provide further detail on the three focus areas: Workplace environment, attraction and recruitment, and retention. In addition to the advice provided below, the Indigenous Employment Strategy Checklist and trouble-shooting guide in the Resources section may provide you with further assistance.

1 At June 2010 the APS had 150,871 ongoing employees, of which 3,307 were Indigenous employees (refer pgs 176 and 152 State of the Service Report, 2009–10).

2 If the person has been recruited and appointed under a Special Measures position, it is a requirement that they provide proof of their Indigenous heritage.

3 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.149

4 Based on 24.5% of 150,871 ongoing APS employees, (refer page 176 State of the Service Report, 2009–10).

5 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.148

6 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.152

7 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.182

8 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.152

9 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.6

10 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.152

11 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.153

12 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.153

13 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.151

14 APS Statistical Bulletin 2009–10, p. 9.

15 State of the Service Report, 2009–10, p.149

16 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees p.19.

17 See Chapter 5 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees

18 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees, p. 40–41

19 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees, p. 67

20 ABS, 2006 Census data

21 The Review of Government Services report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2011, found positive changes for indicators relating to employment and educational attainment.

22 Budget – Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; Statement by The Honourable Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 13 May 2008.

24 See, for example, the 2009 Census Report: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander APS Employees, the State of the Service Report 2009–10, and An Evaluation of the APS Employment and Capability Strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employees (2008).

25 Nearly one in two people report having left a role because of a bad manager, Yen, M. 2006, 'References check bosses poor people skills', Human Resources Magazine, 24 January 2006, www.humanresourcesmagazine.com.au.

26 A useful publication to reference is Better, Faster: Streamlining Recruitment in the APS

Last reviewed: 
6 June 2018