6.1 What are governance rules?
“… groups need rules—both formal and informal—that regulate the behaviour and authority of individuals and groups … These rules cannot simply stay inside people’s heads.
They must be plainly set out and hard to change, so that strong individuals cannot undermine them for their own personal or political interests.”
(Mick Dodson and Diane Smith, ‘Governance for sustainable development: Strategic issues and principles for Indigenous Australian communities’, CAEPR Discussion Paper, 250/2003)
Definition: Rules are the authoritative statements or guides for conduct and action that tell us what to do or not do in a specific situation. They tell us, for example, how people should behave towards each other, work together, communicate and make decisions, and what to do when things go wrong.
Governance rules set out the framework and ‘ground rules’ for:
- who has the authority to make decisions, and about what
- how decisions should be made
- who can talk on behalf of others
- how people are to be accountable
- what obligations there are between leaders and their members.
The rules of governance can be either formal or informal.
Formal governance rules include such things as:
- business codes, charters, or constitutions
- dispute resolution processes
- formally adopted governing procedures and manuals
- performance appraisal criteria
- policies and regulations
- strategic plans
- written codes and laws.
Informal governance rules include such things as:
- the shared cultural understandings within a group about how authority should be organised and used
- people’s shared values, beliefs and customs
- behavioural standards and taboos
- gender norms
- moral stories, kinship rules and ceremonial rules.
6.1.1 Why are governance rules important?
No social group can simply rely on the goodwill of its leaders or citizens to do the right thing.
To achieve their collective goals, people need rules that are credible, understood and enforced.
“When we talk about governance we’re talking about people deciding how to work together to do the things they need to get done. How do we make decisions? Who has the authority to act for us?
How do we resolve disputes among us? How do we get community business done?
Good governance means having good rules for those sorts of things, rules that are effective and that have the support of the people.”
(Stephen Cornell, ‘Starting and sustaining strong Indigenous governance’, Presentation at the Building Effective Indigenous Governance Conference, Jabiru, Northern Territory, November 5, 2003)
Some leaders continue to direct and manage complex organisations without knowing the rules of those organisations.
At the other extreme, an obsessive focus on by-the-book procedurally correct rules for running meetings and making decisions can intimidate, confuse and frustrate the members of a governing body.
There are many reasons for this. The rules often come from non-Indigenous laws which don’t reflect Indigenous ideas and values about how rules should be made and enforced, and who has authority to do that.
Some governing-body members find it hard to understand and make rules for their organisations because of low levels of English literacy and lack of relevant governance training.
The technical and financial requirements placed on governing bodies, and the related rules, can be very difficult to understand.
It may also be hard to keep up with rapidly changing government rules and regulations.
Weak rules and strong rules – What happens to your governance?
|What happens when rules are weak and poorly enforced?||What happens when rules are strong and enforced|
|Governance is less effective and legitimate.||Decision making is more transparent, winning support from members and staff.|
|Conflict increases and relationships are under stress.||Cooperative relationships and collaboration are increased.|
|Members’ rights and interests are overridden or marginalised.||Members’ rights and interests are protected and strengthened.|
|Leaders might be encouraged to be greedy and self-interested.||Everyone wants to invest their time, effort and resources.|
|Private and public agencies won’t want to invest in economic growth.||Economic growth is more sustainable and partnerships stronger.|
|Staff and members are confused and have low morale.||There is high morale amongst staff and members.|
|Nations and communities are less able to exercise practical self-determination.||Nations and communities are more able to exercise practical self-determination.|
When rules are weak or not followed, an organisation can become ineffective or even corrupt. Social groups may become unstable, violent or overwhelmed by apathy, and young people may be disenchanted with their leaders.
If leaders and governing bodies do not know the rules that both limit and support their authority and behaviour, communities and organisations are vulnerable to political opportunism, internal conflicts and financial instability.
“Self-determination should not mean ‘selfish’ determination. Such behaviour causes conflict and can destroy a community or regional governing body’s capacity for generating sustained development.”
(Mick Dodson and Diane Smith, Governance for sustainable development:
Strategic issues and principles for Indigenous Australian Communities
CAEPR Discussion Paper, 250/2003)
When rules are strong and everyone follows them, organisations are seen as more reliable, legitimate and effective.
Importantly, when governance rules are strong, nations and communities are better able to practically exercise their self-determination.
6.1.2 Effective governance means enforcing rules
Once formally adopted, the rules of an organisation are binding on governing members, managers and staff. But there’s no point having binding rules or policies if they are not actually enforced.
It is the governing body and top manager’s job to ensure the organisation’s rules are widely understood internally and beyond, and that they are fairly enforced.
At meetings of the governing body, it is specifically the chair’s role—not that of the top manager—to enforce their meeting and code of conduct rules.
Importantly, rules need to be plainly set out so that they cannot be misinterpreted or used for the wrong reasons.
Enforcing rules is not an easy thing to do; it takes skill, confidence and authority.
This is an area where governance training can really help to build confidence, especially if it focuses on working with the members of the governing body to explore ways of putting rules into practice, in the real-life and cultural contexts within which they operate.