ABC The Drum:  The recent Northern Territory election result goes beyond party and policy lines, to a system that does not afford Aboriginal people living in remote communities much influence.

As Sara Everingham wrote in the Drum, people are “fed up with not being listened to”.

Across the NT, it’s not uncommon for ‘community meetings’ to be held without any local leaders or members of the community present. Instead, arrayed around the table will be employees of governments, NGOs and other service delivery contractors. They’ll be the ones working over community priorities, reviewing progress reports and making plans for the future.

Through a gargantuan effort of government personnel and funds, Australia has amassed a remarkable edifice of service delivery systems, contracts and procedures which are able to be sustained in the absence of local engagement or governance.

In 2008, the NT government divided its vast land mass into super shires, amalgamating a previously dispersed network of local councils. The centralised structures of the shires, with their vast distances and offices in regional centres, the strict separation of powers, and lack of delegations to local boards, are poles apart from the local councils that they replaced. The rationale was the poor track record of these local councils, including their poor accountability for public funds.

Imagine being an administrator of one of the remaining local Aboriginal organisations, with 200 members drawn from a remote community of 400. You are receiving funding from 35 different programs, mostly from the Federal Government but also the Territory Government. None of them cover your core operating costs. Few of them give you the discretion to respond to the community members walking in your door, demanding assistance with everything from filling in forms to complex legal negotiations. Each of the 35 programs has separate acquittal and reporting requirements and their rules are forever changing. You spend more time attending to government demands than those from your employer, including its elected directors and their constituents.

You realise that more than one provider is prepared to fund you to do much the same thing. Overlaps are common. You begin moving money between accounts, to free up money to respond to community demands. You are on the front line of Indigenous development and you want to do something worthwhile. You use the money earmarked for training to pay for fuel, as basically the same training was done last month funded by another department’s program. You know that programs within the same department sometimes share information, but seldom does this occur between different departments. Most of your funding comes through two mega-departments whom you know don’t get on and never share information unless pushed by an audit or executive decree. You start to operate your accounts either side of that invisible line.

Then the community down the road goes bust, and even though it’s 100kms away and your community has nothing to do with it, you are somehow placed in the same basket. Your funders introduce disciplinary measures to manage risk and the values of grants are reduced, as is their duration. And then in an efficiency drive they start tendering the work out, and regionalising it to organisations at higher scales. The level of funding is further reduced and the administrative workload goes up. New contractors start appearing in the community, demanding your assistance with local connections and knowledge, but without sharing the funding they now hold, and making it clear that you are working to them.

Through sheer hard work and innovation, you develop an informal system of operating which is in a parallel universe to that imagined by your funders. You start working long hours to hold it all together. The formal system is meticulously documented, but the informal system exists only through you. One day, you pack up, exhausted and burnt-out. Picking up the pieces, your replacement has no idea how you made it work, or how to make it work.

Now imagine being the elected Aboriginal chairman of that Aboriginal organisation. You know the people who voted you in and they are looking to you. You used to have some influence over the administrator, but now she is too stressed attending to all of this new government business. Visiting government officials only seem to talk to her, and you hear about it second hand after they have gone. You’ve worked out a way to work with her, but then one day she is up and gone. Over your tenure you try to bring in a few changes, but nothing eventuates. At some point you realise there is no point in attending meetings.

This is the recent history of local governance in Central Australia.

There is no escaping that the communities in most need of government services have the least capability, and so inherently constitute a higher risk. In the interests of protecting taxpayer funds, government responds to this risk with a punitive public finance system, which privileges administrators and shackles community leaders. Multiple departmental surveillance systems focus on narrow outputs rather than the competence of the organisation overall. It is the very opposite to a developmental approach which is needed to enable improved governance capability. Multiple accountabilities do not add up to more accountabilities overall.

Now imagine yet a different scenario, which takes a ‘whole of organisation’ view to Indigenous governance.

It puts organisational capability and leadership, at the forefront, not the departmental silos. You build the accountability framework from the ground up; negotiating agreed social and employment outcomes between community leaders and government stakeholders. Participation of elected leaders and their constituents is key, but not in ways akin to ‘chucking money over the fence’. Working together, Indigenous leaders, administrators, and government stakeholders build a framework of outcomes and key performance indicators and agreed ways of measuring them. Funds are made available on the basis of shared outcomes, and much greater discretion is given to local leaders as to how these outcomes are attained.

Such a holistic accountability framework permits increased surveillance across departments, reducing ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ effects. Giving real decision-making powers to Indigenous leaders improves their standing among their constituents. They start to turn up.

Block funding models do not imagine some cohesive utopian community. Rather they embrace the substantiative politics of communities, including competition, privilege, exclusion and factionalism that are typical everywhere. When incentives are in place, including reward and sanction at the ballot box, new types of leaders start to emerge, and even the most privileged elites are encouraged to act more in the public good. When downward accountability is permitted, it can work to balance out the omnipresent penchant in governments to turn accountability systems upwards to themselves.

The incoming Country Liberal Government has signalled its intention to review the super shire arrangements. Federally, the Department of Finance and Deregulation is reviewing the legislation and guidelines that control accountability of public finances.

This is an important opportunity to rethink how citizens in Indigenous and other similarly disadvantaged communities in Australia can have more say.