Australia Day Honours 2016: Matthew James awarded Public Service Medal

Australia Day Honours 2016: Matthew James awarded Public Service Medal

"With Indigenous affairs, sometimes people would be forgiven for thinking that nothing is getting better, that everything is static or getting worse and that's not true," Matthew James says.

But without the work of Mr James and his team at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, we would know much less about what is working and what is not.

Public Service Medal: Prime Minister and Cabinet's Matthew James.

Public Service Medal: Prime Minister and Cabinet's Matthew James.

Photo: Rohan Thomson

The 48-year-old has been honoured with a Public Service Medal (PSM) for his efforts as manager of his department's Information and Evaluation Branch, the outfit that analyses all the data underpinning the Prime Minister's annual Closing the Gap reports to Parliament.

Mr James has provided unparalleled intellectual leadership to the effort to close the gap in life outcomes for Indigenous Australians, according to the Governor-General's office.


"His work has shifted national policy debate by highlighting where policies are gaining results, and where they are proving ineffective," the office wrote.

Closing the Gap may attract the headlines each year, the senior executive says, but it is only a small part of the data analysis and evaluation work his 30-strong team undertakes.

"We provide a lot of internal advice and try to reach out and try to assist throughout the process," Mr James says.

"We do a lot of work informing the minister's office about how things are going.

"My branch is responsible for a much bigger and more detailed report that we produced last year called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework Report.

"Obviously the PM's [Closing the Gap] report is a reflection of a lot of other work that we do.

"A lot of the data we draw on is brought together by other agencies such as the ABS, the AIHW and ACARA and we work closely with these agencies and the Productivity Commission.''

That work is not just Canberra bureaucrats crunching numbers.

Indigenous communities themselves are increasingly encouraged to be part of the data-gathering process.

"One of the things we've funded over the years is local research projects where we fund local Aboriginal people themselves to conduct surveys and be involved in the collection and analysis of data for their communities.

"This not only improves the quality and breadth of the data itself it also means that local people have critical information to help shape their own future," Mr James says.

Of the high-profile Closing the Gap report, the senior public servant believes it has come a long way, and is a more effective document seven years after the first edition was produced for then-prime minister Kevin Rudd.

"Over time, as we've obtained better data we're able to tell a better story and provide more useful information. In the early years, the report mostly provided a baseline picture but as we've obtained better data and as time has progressed we can now provide a much clearer picture on what's going well and what's not going so well," Mr James says.

Mr James is married with two children and lives in Canberra.

Noel Towell

Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age

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