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Throughout 2021, Professor Vinh Lu from The Australian National University (ANU) College of Business and Economics (CBE) led an interdisciplinary team of ANU researchers developing a Community Engagement Plan for SEARMS Aboriginal Corporation – a provider of secure, affordable and culturally appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing, and community services across the greater capital region and South Eastern NSW.
Considerations for the team included SEARMS’ core business in the service delivery of tenancy and property-management services for regional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, while taking into account the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-housing sector undergoing a significant period of policy and regulatory changes, and the impact of bushfires and COVID-19.
“The aftermath of the Summer Bushfires was difficult for everyone affected. It was during this emergency phase that we noticed that many of the companies and organisations we were reaching out to for assistance with supplies, funds or housing were not aware of SEARMS – who we were, what services we provided, or to whom. This presented an issue to be addressed,” shares Kim Sinclair, SEARMS’ Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
SEARMS was awarded a Foundation for Rural and Regional grant from the Snow Foundation to increase awareness of their services.
“ANU was our first choice to work with us on this project – their research experience and capacity, their respect of cultural sensitivities in their approach – was a good fit with our Board," says Kim.
The project involved consultations to identify key stakeholders, along with an extensive review of the literature for knowledge related to community engagement, particularly in Indigenous housing.
“SEARMS has a complex ecosystem of stakeholders including local Aboriginal land councils, government agencies at federal, state and territory levels, community associations, professional bodies, and service providers across the housing and construction sectors,” Vinh says.
Following the identification of these key stakeholders, the project team carried out interviews to learn about their experiences of engagement with SEARMS. These interviews were analysed, and findings were mapped against literature to identify best practices for SEARMS to engage with their stakeholders.
The interdisciplinary team, also including Associate Professor Ying-Yi Chih from CBE’s Research School of Management, Dr Brett Scholz from the ANU Medical School and three research associates, ensured that the Community Engagement Plan was responsive to the needs of and feedback from diverse stakeholder groups.
“Ying-Yi’s project-management background helped us deliver an outcomes-focused plan, while Brett’s work in co-production meant that we considered the importance of power and collaboration between stakeholders. Their expertise complemented my experience in relationship and service management,” he says.
“The Community Engagement Plan that we have developed as a result of feedback from stakeholders of SEARMS has not only provided the organisation with insights and guidelines based on evidence and theory, but also practical steps that can be taken to build new relationships and strengthen existing connections.”
This will allow SEARMS to affirm their commitment to high-quality service offerings and outcomes for communities.
“In the words of one of the stakeholders interviewed for the project, the plan will support SEARMS to ensure that their work is aligned with what the community wants – not just what institutions have imposed on communities,” Vinh shares.
SEARMS is looking forward to putting the plan into action.
“As a result of Vinh and the team’s work, we now have a plan on how to improve our community engagement as well as the data and evidence to support future grant applications to action it,” Kim says.
Furthermore, the project with SEARMS aligns with the ANU by 2025 Strategic Plan, particularly through the promotion of better engagement with First Nations Peoples, support for the study of First Nations traditional knowledge, and demonstration of the social value of such knowledge to all.
“It has been an absolute privilege to support SEARMS on this specific project. We very much look forward to seeing how the organisation will utilise the work we produced for their community engagement and future market expansion,” Vinh says.
The College is always keen to explore research collaborations with the public and private sector and to reconnect with alumni. Please get in touch if you would like to know more about partnering with us.