5.2 Accountability: what is it, to whom and how?
5.2.1 Accountability: what is it and to whom?
The two-way accountability of Indigenous organisations and governing bodies
This is ‘two-way’ governance—for example, where the governance of an Indigenous organisation has to work both internally and externally. Sometimes it can be hard to balance Indigenous cultural expectations, with the requirements set out by government or funding bodies. Finding that balance and meeting Indigenous and non-Indigenous requirements means building governance that works well ‘two-ways’.
People sitting on a governing body claim their authority to govern by being nominated or elected to do so. Once this happens they become a representative.
Definition: A representative is a person who is chosen (nominated) by a group of people through cultural processes, or elected by democratic voting to stand up for or speak on behalf of those people. A representative stands as an example for others and serves on their behalf, and as such is accountable to them.
Definition: To be accountable means:
- to answer for your actions and take responsibility for your mistakes
- to be responsible to another
- to be able to explain what happened.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders sitting on governing bodies are accountable, in many different ways, to their:
- families, communities or nation, kin-based networks and laws
- elders, senior men or women
- managers, staff and members
- funding bodies and business partners.
Many challenges arise in trying to be accountable. It is difficult to step out of a family and govern for your whole nation or community. But as representatives, the governing body (individually and collectively) must be able to speak on behalf of, protect the rights and interests of, and be accountable to all members. Those who make up the governing body are not there to speak for themselves, or on behalf of just a few people.
To be accountable in an organisational context means you not only have to meet the standards of behaviour, financial transparency, reporting and decision making required under your legal constitution and rules; you must also show proper respect to your members and elders through your decisions and how you behave.
Ngnowar Aerwah on representation and accountability
Ngnowar Aerwah Aboriginal Corporation (NAAC) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here Board members Philomena Hunter and Janet Gallagher discuss prioritising accountability to their members and funders, and some challenges around this that arise from operating in a small community.
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5.2.2 Accountability and legitimacy go hand in hand
An organisation’s legitimacy comes from the authority it has amongst its members or community, and showing that it is accountable to them.
So legitimacy and accountability go hand in hand.
If an organisation and its governing body aren’t seen as being legitimate by its members, they won’t support it or have confidence in its decisions.
Community members may show their lack of trust by disengaging, not attending meetings and not asking for information about what the organisation is doing.
Or they might show it by actively engaging in confrontational behaviour—at annual general meetings (AGM) or other forums.
Legitimacy and accountability have to work well across both sides of an organisation’s internal and external environment.
For example, once it loses internal legitimacy and support, an organisation can quickly start to lose credibility with government and other stakeholders.
And even with strong cultural legitimacy, if the governing body is careless in its financial accountability to funding bodies, its external partners can withdraw vital resources and funding.
Because the meaning of accountability differs so much between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous people, the governing bodies of organisations have to carefully balance their own modes of accountability and values with those of funding bodies and other stakeholders.
Different kinds of accountability
Indigenous ideas about what accountability means can be very different to those of mainstream governments.
|Indigenous accountability||Government accountability|
How to achieve accountability
Accountability must contain these elements to be effective: Legitimacy, Transparency, Redress and Disclosure.
|Legitimacy||people agree on cultural values, representation process and rules|
|Transparency||decisions and planning are open|
|Redress||people can access mediation of disputes and complaints easily|
|Disclosure||people can get hold on information easily|
5.2.3 Building stronger accountability
“Individuals who represent a geographic region or a certain constituency on a board often face this dilemma: which hat should I be wearing? … Is my primary responsibility to act in my local interests, or should I be acting in the interests of the organisation as a whole? This dilemma is especially daunting when local interests compete or conflict with [the member’s and organisation’s] interests. A fundamental principle of shared decision making is that collective interests should supersede personal interests.”
(Eli Mina, 101 Boardroom Problems and how to solve them, 2009)
IUIH on the power of data to create accountability
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Adrian Carson talks about the power of data to create accountability. Data creates a clear picture, which allows IUIH to respond to the health needs of their communities and to report back to their communities. This underpins a sense of community control.
Accountability can be strengthened by using a series of checks and balances that encourage good conduct and discourage ‘selfish-determination’ and corrupt behaviour. The basics include having:
- governance policies and procedures
- planning and performance reporting processes
- clearly identified roles, responsibilities and delegations
- ways of making and implementing decisions that members regard as legitimate.
An AGM is an important forum for the accountability of the governing body. An AGM allows governing bodies to:
- formally report to its members on the activities over the preceding year
- present a set of financial accounts
- appoint an auditor for the coming year
- give members the opportunity to participate and answer any questions
- select or elect members as required.
Some organisations are being innovative in the way they do their AGMs—holding them as ‘community cabinets’ along with a meeting of the governing body so members get to see them in action, or holding the AGM in different locations.
A formal written annual report including an audited financial statement is an important form of accountability. It is usually presented to members at the AGM, and informs the wider public and your stakeholders about how the organisation is managing its money.
Organisations are increasingly using web-based technology and creative visuals to ensure their reports are widely accessible to their members and the public.
NPY Women’s Council’s bush meetings
Andrea Mason, NPY Women’s Council Co-ordinatior, explains how NPY Women's Council organise and run their bush meetings every year.
Accountable governing bodies are those that pay attention to addressing the cultural context of their legal duties, crafting workable governing practices that manage expectations on both sides of the cultural interface.
Accountable organisations have their governance models rooted in culture and so have strong cultural legitimacy, at the same time as being entirely contemporary in their accountability, practical effectiveness and innovation.
Check-up: Are your processes accountable?
This check-up will help you analyse whether your organisation's processes are properly accountable.
What can we do? Good practices for governing bodies
Do the members of your governing body know all that they need to about governance? Here are some questions and examples of what others have tried.
5.2.4 Your code of conduct and ethics
Members of a governing body should understand and be committed to high standards of conduct and ethics, both as individuals and collectively.
To do this, governing bodies create their own policies or rules for a code of ethics and conduct, which they are then expected to comply with.
These codes are usually written down and encourage a commitment to:
- collective decision making
- agreed high standards of behaviour
- competence and quality of service
- maintaining confidentiality when appropriate
- working in an objective, fair and lawful way
- freedom from discrimination and harassment
- a shared future vision and objectives
- respect for the governing body’s decisions.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander codes of conduct commonly contain statements about commitments to cultural standards of behaviour and values, which the governing body has identified as being central to how they go about doing their job for the organisation.
Codes work better when the governing body makes its own code of conduct as a group, rather than having rules imposed from the outside, or produced by management.
This can take some time and effort but it means the code is more likely to be realistic, to fit with cultural values, and to be more widely accepted.
Importantly, it also means that the governing body will be more committed to enforcing rules it has designed internally.