Stories for Good Governance - BREAK consulting
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Stories for Good Governance

There’s plenty of principles, policies and procedures for good governance, both for commercial organisations (e.g. ASX Corporate Governance Council) or not-for-profits (e.g. AICD). Whether its clearly demarcated roles and responsibilities; a diverse Board composition; strategy, risk and performance review; or transparent and timely reporting, these principles help the board to set the tone for ethical and responsible decision-making throughout the organisation. As the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, the tone and practices for ethical and responsible decision-making throughout the organisation were demonstrably lacking. We are hearing horror stories of abuse of power, fraud and unconscionable behaviour. So too from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. These stories have the power to shake the confidence and trust of people in these institutions. As Justice Neville Owen said in the Royal Commission into the collapse of HIH Insurance in 2003, and repeated this year as the chair of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council coordinating the Catholic Church response to Child Sexual Abuse, “Did anyone stand back and ask themselves the simple question – is this right?”

Stories also have the power to shape the confidence and trust of people in institutions. The recent Indigenous Governance Awards and comparative study Strong governance supporting organisational success acknowledged the examples of effective Indigenous governance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander socio-economic and community development. The good news stories are being shared as part of better practice for successful self-determination and two-way governance in action, and they serve to enhance the confidence and trust in these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisations and projects. Key to many of these success stories is the foundational link to indigenous culture and how this sets the tone for ethical and responsible decision-making throughout the organisation. Embedding this culture was recognised as a challenge, but building a sense of common shared identity and belonging was seen to enhance accountability and agreeing how best to communicate with each other and stakeholders lead to increased transparency.

One of the keys to building identity, belonging and communications was in the act of sharing stories. For example, Djirra (formerly the Victorian Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service) is “informed by the belief that every woman has a story to tell and, by listening to these stories, Djirra can identify systematic barriers and find the solutions to create change.”[1] Good stories have power to communicate, inspire and educate – to identify barriers and opportunities. To paraphrase Mary Catherine Bateson, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories” not through principles, policies and procedures. Hence part of the Board’s role is to gather and share stories which define the organisation, its purpose and its unique culture. To weave stories of good behaviours and bad, successes and failures, past and future into the fabric of the organisation so that people can relate to the stories and to the storyteller. Often the purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon, so again this is the role of the Board (in line with outcome-focused, rather than prescriptive, regulation. Questions like: “is this right?”

Let’s look to good governance principles and guidelines, but let’s be informed by the belief that we can also learn through stories.

[1] Reconciliation News “When sisters get together, they find answers” Issue 40 Nov 2018 p.11

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