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How organisations can build trust when collecting and handling the personal information of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

This blog post was published during NAIDOC week 2020. The theme for NAIDOC week 2020 is Always Was, Always Will Be. OVIC recognises the spiritual and cultural connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to the land we live and work on.

Trust in government is essential. It builds and maintains government legitimacy and social cohesion, allows government to successfully deliver public services and policies, and enables public institutions to function effectively and fairly. Trust also gives government the licence to collect, use, and disclose the personal information of its citizens.

However, gaining and upholding the public’s trust isn’t always easy. A negative experience with government can have a significant impact on trust, both at an individual and community level. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia, the historical injustices experienced by these groups have adversely impacted on their trust in government.

This was reflected in research conducted by the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia (CIRCA) on behalf of OVIC, which explored Aboriginal people’s perspectives towards information privacy. The research also identified ways that government organisations can build trust among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some key take-aways from the research are summarised below.

Key take-aways

  • Genuine and effective consultation: participants highlighted the need for genuine and wide consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities on issues that affect their lives, including matters involving their personal information. As one participated noted, personal information should be used ‘… in such a way that doesn’t dismiss the voices from community that may not agree with the masses’.
  • Adopt a human-centred approach: this involves adopting a personalised approach that caters to the diversity of needs across different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This could also involve providing individuals with the option to deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander liaisons and service workers.
  • Organisational cultural awareness: ensure employees have cultural awareness training and do regular Acknowledgements to Country. Create specific men’s/women’s services.
  • Effective communication: this includes tailoring communication approaches to people with different levels of literacy and education, and framing issues in culturally appropriate and relatable terms. Some practical suggestions were minimising the use of jargon and using infographics to assist understanding.
  • Informed consent: having the ability to provide consent for the use and disclosure of personal information was a key theme throughout CIRCA’s research. Participants highlighted the importance of being able to control what was being done with their personal information, through the provision of consent.
  • Transparency and accountability: being transparent about the collection of personal information, how that information will be used (including for secondary purposes), and with whom it may be shared.
  • Community control: entrusting and empowering Indigenous communities to handle their own information was another suggestion for building trust. As one participant noted, ‘Now more than ever government should be helping to fund Aboriginal [organisations] to do the work and store the data so there is oversight by the mob of how it is used.’

Establishing trust takes time, and it can be easily lost. But it’s an important and worthwhile effort – by building trust in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals’ personal information is handled, organisations can continue to collect and use this information to deliver public services and programs, and function effectively as public institutions.

Informed by CIRCA’s research, OVIC will shortly publish a paper exploring Aboriginal perspectives on information privacy, and the interaction with the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014 (Vic).

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