3.1 Assessing your Governance
“Someone has to lead the way. It may be an individual, it may be a group.
It may come from senior leadership, or from local communities, or from schools, or from organisations. Leadership can be found anywhere. What’s needed is some set of people who realise that fundamental change is needed, and are willing to take the lead.”
(Manley Begay, ‘The responsibilities and challenges of indigenous leaders: insights from American Indian Nations’, presentation to Building Effective Indigenous Governance conference, 4–7 November 2003, Jabiru, Northern Territory)
In footy, you know pretty quickly if your game is off. Your goal kicking looks amateurish, your captain has forgotten the game plan, your players are not working as a team on the field, they fumble the ball, the coach is ranting and raving on the sidelines—you start losing.
The first thing a footy team does to try to get back on track is have a good hard look at what they are doing right, and what they are doing wrong.
And just like footy, there are some telltale signs that show when you might have a governance problem. Depending on your situation, they could include:
- internal conflicts
- poor performance
- lack of voice and participation by members
- a corrupt and/or bullying leadership
- complaints by members
- lack of consensus
- confusion about different roles and responsibilities
- ill-informed decision making
- bad management of resources
- erratic funding and poor financial performance
- inability to respond to change
- low morale among members
- high turnover of staff
- a bad working relationship with external stakeholders
- conflict between managers and governing boards.
As one thing can affect another, you may notice several of these problems happening at the same time.
Thinking about changing your governance
Before you start changing your governance, it’s a good idea to spend some time thinking clearly about why you want to make changes in the first place and how you’re going to get started.
Sometimes people have to make urgent changes to their governance because of an internal conflict or immediate crisis. Sometimes changes to governance are imposed on groups and organisations by external agencies or government departments.
Whatever the initial cause, your changes will be more effective and sustainable if the governance problems and solutions are identified within your own group or organisation.
The leaders of a nation, community or organisation are responsible for making sure things stay on track—that people carry out their roles and responsibilities so that things get done properly and well.
If the leaders are seen to be doing the wrong thing and not leading well, or if there is no sense of a collective future direction, it can affect how people (both inside and outside the nation, community or organisation) feel and react.
But everyone has a role to play in keeping governance on track, not just leaders. It is important to do your own job the best way you can, but also to ask the hard questions when your community or organisation doesn’t seem to be achieving its goals.
There is no single, correct way to get started. Each nation, community and organisation is unique and will make changes in different ways, and at a different pace.
But there are some tips we have documented from the efforts of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups that may help reduce the burden.
3.1.1 What is evaluation?
The first step in rebuilding governance is to identify what’s working and what’s not.
You can’t change something if you don’t know what the problem is. And you won’t be able to develop workable solutions unless you have a good idea of your strengths, talents and skills.
That means one of your first steps must be to get on the front foot and evaluate your governance—before you are hit by crises or external demands for change.
What to evaluate?
You could evaluate how well all these different aspects of your governance are working:
Definition: Evaluation is the process of thinking about and analysing the worth or value of what you have been doing in your nation, community or organisation, and your processes and strategies for achieving your intentions. Then ask yourself if those are working or not, whether you are heading in the right direction, and what you need to change in order to be more likely to achieve your original intentions.
You can evaluate a program, a person’s work performance, values and behaviour, decision-making processes, leadership capacity, structures, rules and policies, goals and outcomes, your communications, internal and external relationships, and so on.
When you evaluate something, you tend to assess its effectiveness, efficiency, accountability, cultural legitimacy and sustainability.
3.1.2 Evaluation types and methods
You can evaluate your governance using different methods, including:
- Interviews (face-to-face). Ask your group members, clients and stakeholders what they think about the job you’re doing, and where and how you might do it better. By speaking individually to people and in private you can ensure their answers are confidential, which encourages people to be more frank.
- Surveys. Draw up a simple survey (a list of questions) and ask a variety of people to answer it. You can focus on one or several issues, and then compare the different answers to the same questions. Are people raising the same issues and concerns? The results will help tell you whether you’re on the right track.
- Group discussions, meetings and workshops. Bring people together to share their opinions on your governance and your work. You will hear new ideas and get fresh insights.
- Research. You can arrange to have your own research conducted and the results analysed for you. How do other nations, communities and organisations fulfil the same functions? What solutions have others developed for the same problems? What can you learn from them?
- Data analysis. You can get some hard facts. For example, demographic data about your membership will tell you a lot about the future demands on your governance and services. How many young people are involved in your decision-making processes? Have your decisions over the last year been implemented or not? How many members are attending annual general meetings or are involved in selecting or electing your leaders? These data will give you a better idea of your governance performance.
Often people use a combination of methods so they can gather different kinds of information and views.
Remember to include young and older people, men and women, leaders and workers in your evaluation discussions; they may see things differently and have different solutions.
Above all, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, and be honest about answering them.
Evaluation generally gives the best results when it is done progressively through ongoing monitoring. That way it’s part of a cycle of linked stages rather than a one-off snapshot of how things are.
3.1.3 Evaluation: DIY or bring in the experts?
You can use an external evaluation expert or do the evaluation yourself. There are advantages to both and often people use a combination.
Definition: Self-evaluation is where the people in a nation, community, organisation or governing board give their own views and judgements about their governance arrangements and performance.
Usually someone in authority decides to get this going, the best way to do it, who will be involved, what the focus will be and how the results will be implemented.
But even in these cases, people often still call in external expertise to assist them.
One challenge when doing this by yourselves is making sure you tackle the hard issues and questions. Sometimes this is difficult because it may challenge existing vested interests and people’s comfort zones.
On the other hand, it’s good to do a quick self-evaluation of how you’re going. You can use it as a starting point from which to dig deeper into your governance gaps, risks and strengths.
These days a lot of nations, communities and organisations prefer to do what’s called participatory evaluation.
Definition: Participatory evaluation is where the people on the ground become directly involved in undertaking some aspects of the evaluation together. These activities may involve identifying the problems and their possible causes, defining the appropriate standards for performance, gathering and analysing relevant information, providing feedback, identifying solutions, communicating the results and making the recommended changes.
Getting on the front foot and doing your own self-evaluation—and making sure your members and staff participate in the process—puts you in greater control of identifying your own indicators of success and failure, and of using relevant evaluation methods that work best in your local culture or organisation.
An additional benefit of this approach is that individuals build their own capacity and understanding of what works well—and what doesn’t and why—so they are more able to take responsibility for corrective action and to make sustainable changes.
3.1.4 Why evaluate your governance?
There are a number of reasons why evaluating your governance every so often is a good idea. It helps you to:
- be accountable to the members of your nation and community, and other stakeholders
- improve your cultural legitimacy
- improve the quality of your work, your governance and your actual services
- strengthen your decision-making processes
- develop more effective governance policies and rules
- identify and update out-of-date procedures
- encourage people to update their skills
- inform everyone about your governance situation
- cope with unexpected crises and changes
- keep in track to achieve your goals.
It is best to evaluate your governance at regular intervals so that you can immediately consider what needs to be done and develop actions to address any problems or gaps before they get out of hand.
Evaluating your governance should allow you to see what’s working and what needs some more attention. This will help you find ways to improve how you do things.
The point of any evaluation is to make a decision or judgement—should we do more, do less, do something different or do nothing at all?
What can we do? Seven steps to evaluation
This resource outlines seven key steps to evaluation and important questions to ask along the way.
3.1.5 A quick governance health check-up
Organisations, nations, communities and informal groups can use this quick check-up to get an immediate idea of where they are in terms of their governance.
This check-up shouldn’t replace a thorough evaluation of your governance arrangements; it is simply a starting point, to give you an overall picture.
Its main purpose is to help you:
- identify major areas of your governance where there might be some problems or gaps
- identify your governance strengths
- start discussions and get people involved
- work out which areas need closer evaluation and possible change
- figure out some initial priorities.
Once you’ve identified a problem area or gap, you can go to a specific topic area in the toolkit for more detailed information.
Check-up: An overall governance health check-up
You can use this check-up to give you a quick assessment of where you are at with your overall governance. It will help you to identify what you are already doing well and the areas you can focus on for improvement.
3.1.6 Start a governance development and action plan
At this early stage, it may help to begin writing down some of your ideas, and the solutions and options for putting those into practice.
You can do this by starting your own governance development and action plan. This sets out your plan of attack—your best options and tactics for achieving your goals.
It will help you keep track of where you are at and consider implementation issues:
- What are your ideas and options for improving problem areas?
- How will you achieve them?
- Who will do it?
- What resources, support and skills will you need to help you get there?
- What are the risks involved?
- How will you know if you’re getting the governance outcomes you want?
Below is a template for one version of a governance development and action plan.
Topic 5 includes more detailed information about the type of planning involved in creating a governance development and action plan.
You can use the plan together with your quick governance health check-up and the other check-ups in the toolkit to progressively address more specific areas of your governance that need to be addressed.
Template: Governance development and action plan
This Governance Development and Action Plan is based on a strategic planning template that was developed by Dr Ian Hughes at the Yooroang Garang: School of Indigenous Health Studies in The University of Sydney. You can customise the template to suit your own needs, doing it in chunks, or using it to create a longer-term strategic approach to your governance rebuilding