The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW (AH&MRC) received funding in 2010 from the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH) NSW for a short term project reviewing corporate governance arrangements in NSW Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHSs).
The objectives of the project were
- to build on the corporate governance capacities of the participating ACCHSs;
- to enable the AH&MRC to further engage in the area of corporate governance support as part of its broader member services support role; and
- to encourage the exploration of opportunities to further develop the corporate governance models for the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector in NSW.
The project had three stages:
- reviewing the literature on Aboriginal Corporate Governance;
- establishing a Reference Group and identifying five ACCHSs willing to participate in the project; and
- consulting the participating ACCHSs and other stakeholders to identify how best the AH&MRC and ACCHSs could support corporate governance capacity by (i) identifying the issues impacting on corporate governance effectiveness and (ii) making recommendations for future actions.
The findings from the project confirmed that there are many examples of good governance practice in NSW ACCHSs. The findings also revealed that 'good practice' is consistent with the literature on Aboriginal Corporate Governance. While no one size fits all, there are principles of good practice that can be observed in the services that have the most effective governance arrangements. The principles include the appointment of boards that are demographically representative of their communities and have diversity in board membership and an appropriate skills mix; that have strong links back to their communities and mechanisms to engage with the communities; that understand the roles and responsibilities of board members; that have strong CEOs who are effective communicators; that have mechanisms in place to monitor performance and to ensure internal accountability; that have long term visions for their services which are shared by management and the community; that are engaged in strategic planning and monitoring activities linked to board meeting processes and planning cycles; and that have two or three year staggered board terms to facilitate a balance between continuity and board renewal.
There are many challenges facing ACCHS board directors and CEOs, not least of which is how to best run an organisation that must compete for funds in a rapidly changing political landscape and in a climate of increasing funding contestability. As well, inherent tensions may exist between Aboriginal culture and values and mainstream concepts of corporate governance and funding compliance requirements. Aboriginal values may include obligations based on kinship relationships and putting family needs before business goals. ACCHSs board directors have the challenging role of balancing cultural and community expectations with their legal and fiscal obligations. Board members may see the imposition of 'white' governance values and compliance requirements as foreign and unwanted and older members may feel the need to abandon their own values and beliefs about leadership and traditional governance in order to comply with funding agreements. The services that work best are those that manage the potential conflicts between the two 'belief systems' and those that have boards that are not too involved in the day to day activities of their services and yet at the same time are well equipped to effectively monitor their organisations.
The report makes a number of recommendations, which if funded, will see the AH&MRC becoming more active in supporting good governance practice across the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health (ACCH) sector in NSW.
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