5.3 Decision making by the governing body
WYDAC’s board and decision making
The Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation (WYDAC) board members make the decisions that shape the organisation. Nurturing good relationships between board members is a key dimension to ensure the effective governance of the organisation.
Decision making is central to governing. Informed decisions are an essential ingredient for effective governance.
5.3.1 Indigenous consensus approach
Decisions in Indigenous nations, communities or groups are usually made through extensive collective discussion and consultation. These decisions are also often open to ongoing negotiation. This is called consensus decision making.
In resolving issues and making decisions by consensus, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people usually spend a lot of time hearing from those for and against the issue.
This process helps maintain harmonious relationships and allows people to share ideas and raise concerns. It also builds legitimacy for any eventual decision and actions taken.
5.3.2 Decision making in an organisation
A governing body’s decisions may be about long-term policy or strategic planning, or about everyday matters such as short-term projects or events.
Consensus decision making is possible within an organisational setting, but to achieve it, the chair of the governing body needs to take on the role of a facilitator, negotiator and mediator, rather than acting as someone making the final decision.
A decision by the governing body must be made collectively by a quorum; it cannot be made on the opinion of one person.
“We make decisions like a washing machine. First we just push it all around, everything round and round and have a good talk about every part of it. Then we come to a decision. Once a decision is made, Board members think it is important to stick to it … then we agree as one. Once a decision is passed, that’s it, it’s finished. Then we’re under one agreement, we get on with it.”
(Yarnteen Corporation Board member, quoted in Diane Smith, Yarnteen Board Self-Evaluation Report, 2006)
To gain a wider legitimacy that takes hold amongst group members, a governing body needs to consult widely beforehand and after making its decisions.
Most of the organisations that were finalists in the Indigenous Governance Awards said they always used or preferred to use consensus approaches to decision making. However, if they could not reach an agreement, they would use a western democratic process such as voting. Many used a mix of methods and approaches to making decisions.
In some cases, Australian and state government legislation allows for traditional decision-making procedures. This brings consensus decision making into the legal frameworks of governing boards.
5.3.3 What makes an effective decision?
Governing bodies are often under daily pressure to make multiple fast decisions about major issues that have important consequences for the future of their communities and nations.
Unfortunately, they often do so without the necessary information and without any risk assessment or consideration of other options.
They then proceed to choose and immediately implement projects without having a stable foundation of strategic priorities identified, ways of communicating to members, or monitoring and reporting processes to let them know if they are on track with getting outcomes.
Don’t agree to proposals or action you don’t understand. Effective governance means making informed decisions.
That requires developing workable decision-making procedures in your organisation.
What can we do? Decision making processes
Look at the different types of decision making and discuss what would work best for your organisation or community.
Template: Decision making
This resource provides some tips on procedures and questions to ask before making decisions and a template for recording decisions made at meetings.
5.3.4 Majority rules?
A common decision-making procedure used in meetings is ‘majority rules’.
This means that each individual on the governing body has the right to have their say and advocate (talk on behalf of) a particular position. But once a decision has been passed by a majority of the members, it is binding on all of them.
Majority decisions can be achieved as a result of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consensus process and do not necessarily need to have formal motions with a counted vote, so long as the consensus decision is recorded.
The important thing is that once such a decision has been reached, any person who was in the minority and voted against the resolution or abstained should respect and abide by the collective decision.
This can be problematic for some governing bodies when individual members believe that they can continue to voice their dissent outside of the meeting. That kind of behaviour undermines the authority of the governing body and can exacerbate conflict and rumours in the wider community.
5.3.5 Implementing your decisions
Good decisions that are not acted on are not good decisions.
Once decisions have been made, it is typically the job of your management and administration to implement them. This process should include feedback on the decision to community members and key stakeholders.
As the governing body, it is critical that you stay on top of monitoring the implementation of your decisions. You should expect your organisation to have processes to support doing this, and to receive regular ‘action updates’ at every meeting from your CEO and staff.