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In this topic, we cover ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups make decisions. We look at how to make informed decisions, share decision-making and record decisions.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- How do the organisations, communities or nations you’re involved in make decisions? Do they use either of the common decision-making methods discussed in this topic?
- Do you share decision-making across your organisation, community or nation? Could you improve how you do this?
- What cultural considerations do you include as part of your decision-making processes?
Clear and effective decision-making is critical to effective governance. Effective decision-making can improve productivity and performance. Decisions may be about long-term policy or strategic planning, or about everyday matters, short-term projects or events.
There’s a lot to consider when developing decision-making processes. This includes:
- who’s responsible and accountable in decision-making
- who needs to be consulted or informed about decisions being made.1Graham Oakes, “Governance: Nine Steps to Good Decision Making.” Econsultancy. August 2011, [link]
Different people or groups of people in an organisation, community or nation have the power to make decisions on behalf of that group. The staff in an organisation may make some smaller, day-to-day decisions.
In some situations you will need to follow Commonwealth and state law. The Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act), comes under Commonwealth law. Find out more about making decisions under the CATSI Act on the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporation (ORIC) website.
You will need to follow your own constitution or rule book to determine who makes the decision, how and when. This includes when the board, CEO or staff will be the decision-maker, and when to involve members.
The guide contains practical information on:
- TLaWC’s decision-making processes – including who can make decisions on what
- conflicts of interest
- resolving disputes.
Use this guide to help you develop decision-making structures, processes and models for your organisation, community or nation.
Ways to make decisions
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and nations use a mix of methods and approaches to make decisions. Two common ones are ‘consensus decision-making’ and ‘majority vote’.
Decisions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and nations are usually made through extensive collective discussion and consultation. These decisions are often open to ongoing negotiation.
Consensus decision-making involves members of a group coming to agree on a given course of action. If unable to do so, they agree to disagree to support a consensus decision. Consensus decision-making can mean spending a lot of time hearing opinions for and against an issue. It also involves resolving issues through collective discussion. Consensus comes through slow agreement and may change over time.
Applications to the Indigenous Governance Awards indicate a preference for consensus decision-making approaches. Consensus decision-making is seen as an important way to maintain relationships, and build legitimacy for decisions and actions.
“We work towards consensus by ensuring everyone has a right to speak and to be heard, no one member has more authority than others do. Everyone is respected equally.”
– Council for Aboriginal Alcohol Program Services, 2016.2Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton).
Consensus decision-making in a board setting
To gain wider legitimacy, the board should consult widely before and after making its decisions. If the board cannot reach a decision, they may ask for more information from the CEO or staff. As long as the decision is recorded, the consensus approach doesn’t need a formal counted vote.
The chairperson shouldn’t be the one making the final decision. They should take the role of facilitator, negotiator or mediator. A minimum number of directors (quorum) must be present during the entire decision-making process. In other words, the decision should not rest on the opinion of one or two people.
Allocate enough time to make the decision. Consensus decision-making is not a quick or rushed process. Allow time for discussion and reflection.
“The MPRA makes its decisions by consensus. Votes will be taken if required but it is preferred to discuss and debate an issue and come to a consensus. Assembly meetings follow good meeting rules with motions put, speakers addressing comments through the chair, and speakers heard with respect. That’s not to say that debates don’t flare up into arguments sometimes, but Assembly members recognise and realise the passion and emotion that often accompanies any discussion of issues of import to their community and the chairperson plays an important role in managing the discussion and debate so that all can be heard with safety and respect, following the practices of the democratic process.”
– Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, Category B Winner, 2016.3Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 69.
Most applicants to the Indigenous Governance Awards indicate that they prefer to use consensus approaches to decision-making. However, where they cannot reach an agreement, many organisations then turn to western democratic processes such as voting.
‘Majority rule’ is a common voting process used to make decisions in meetings. Each individual has the right to have their say and advocate (talk on behalf of) their position or views. Once a majority of the members or attendees of the meeting pass a decision, it’s binding on all of them.
“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.”– Diane Smith, Yarnteen Corporation Board member, Yarnteen Board Self-Evaluation Report, 2006.
The Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) governance structure is based on a decision-making process decided by Quandamooka Elders for all Quandamooka People. This is underpinned by kinship and family centred decision-making.
The Board has one director from each of the 12 families descended from the 12 apical ancestors. A Council of Elders supports the Board. The Council comprises one female Elder and one male Elder from each of the 12 families.
These Elders and directors consult with their families before and after meetings so that each family can put their views forward. This allows each family under the native title determination to plan and make decisions for their land and sea Country.
Although participation at meetings is not mandatory for all members, there’s strong engagement from most families. They appreciate the opportunity to have their values and priorities represented at a governance level. Decision-making processes are also embedded in the QYAC rule book. For example, how disputes are resolved. If an issue cannot be resolved informally at an individual family meeting or by the Board of Directors as outlined in the constitution, the Council of Elders have the authority to make the final decision. This gives the organisation a cultural strength and validity, which has resulted in QYAC’s large membership of over 800 Quandamooka People.
- Embed traditional decision-making processes in the organisational structure and rule book
- Establish a Council of Elders to review issues and provide a final decision
- Allow time for representatives to speak with the people they represent before meetings and decision-making occurs
Use this resource to consider different decision-making processes. You can then think about what you may do in different situations in your organisation, community or nation. (doc, 873KB).
This resource is intended for self-directed assessment. It can be used by leaders, board directors, or group members who want to evaluate the governance and leadership of their organisation, community or nation. You can do it on your own or as a group and then compare results.
Making informed decisions
An informed decision is:
- Transparent – People can follow the process and the reasons behind it.
- Well considered – Based on sound information and inclusive consultation. The governing body has clarified risks and assumptions.
- Consistent – Consistent with a set of agreed values, rules or principles.
- Lawful – People should record their dissent if a decision is illegal or may lead to insolvency (when an organisation cannot pay their debts).
- Actioned – The decision is implemented and followed through.
- Capacity building – Made with increasing confidence through practice, experience and increased skills.
To make an informed decision, you need to have (and understand) relevant information. This may be presented as a ‘background paper.’ Background papers may include documents such as records and statements. They may contain:
- background information
- the issues, timeframe, options, benefits and costs of each option
- how to get more information or data to help with the decision
- who’s been consulted
- the risks
- the criteria to be used in deciding
- if the plan is budgeted for
- any social/cultural benefits or risks
- how and who will communicate decisions
- how success will be measured/reviewed.4Patrick Moriarty, “Questions your board should be asking about the finances,” (presentation, Not-for-profit Finance Week, 7 September 2022, virtual).
Make sure you ask plenty of questions to clarify the information in the background papers.
Be sure to talk to your members and gather all relevant information before making a decision.
Review the different types of decision-making discussed earlier and consider what would work best for your group.
Use this template to help you ask the right questions to come to an informed decision.
Share the decision-making
In many organisations, the board and management make all the decisions. But there are benefits to sharing decision-making with staff and (where appropriate) members and the community.
How much the board shares decision-making depends on the issue. There are some decisions that may have little to no input from staff. These are usually decisions relating to the board, internal discipline or disputes.
Sometimes CEOs seek staff input, which they consider as part of their decision. The CEO makes the final decision themselves, as they’re the one accountable to the board.
In some cases, management may hand over the decision-making about a matter to the staff closest to implementing the decision. This is the ‘subsidiarity principle’.
Subsidiarity is about reserving decision-making power for the people most affected by a decision. This may be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, future leaders, family or language groups, First Nations women and youth, Elders or traditional owners. It may be people with specific skills and experience.
In this way, subsidiarity:
- informs the representation of different interest groups in the decision-making process
- ensures decision-making processes align with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural values
- supports the authority and legitimacy of decisions made.
In all cases:
- a policy framework should inform shared or delegated decisions
- actions should be routinely reported back to the board.
Consider developing a guide outlining who has the authority to make what decisions. (See page 26 in the TLAWC example above.)
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are exploring ways to draw on their staff knowledge, experience and ideas to make informed, credible decisions.
When seeking input, consider:
Make consultation with staff, community and members the standard rather than the exception. Engage relevant people or groups in consensus building, particularly when:
- it’s a complex issue
- their knowledge and expertise have the potential to boost the quality of the decision.
Involve staff, community and members in discussions at an early stage, rather than when a decision is all but made. Engage them in:
- defining the problem
- brainstorming possible solutions
- assessing the risks
- making the best decision.
From the beginning, clarify whether the input:
- is for consideration in the decision-making,
- or will directly determine the decision.
- Be clear where staff input fits with input from the wider community.
Allow staff, community and members to raise concerns. Show a desire to learn and discuss issues. Be ready to make changes based on sound decisions.
Make sure to hear not only from the ‘talkers’ (those who often dominate discussions) and the ‘biased’ (those who always express a personal position’). Hear from the ‘thinkers’ (quiet and insightful individuals whose knowledge and ideas are often ignored).
There are times to consult and there are times to get on with it. Wanting to accommodate every view and hear everyone is commendable. But an effective manager knows when to stop talking and start doing.
Integrate informed staff, community and member input into your decision-making.
If you decide not to implement the group’s consensus or parts of it, let them know why. Show appreciation for their input. This is essential for team-building, morale and accountability.
It’s important to record decisions made. This is usually done in the minutes of the meeting.
ORIC recommends that the minutes include:
- the words of the resolution
- declarations about a personal interest or other conflict of interest, and how the matter was handled. For example, whether the person left the meeting while the matter was discussed and whether the person voted on the matter
- who presented/proposed the resolution
- who seconded it
- whether it was a special resolution
- main points of any discussion – this helps explain why a decision was made
the result of the vote – remember that ordinary resolutions need a majority of votes and special resolutions need 75 per cent. For example:
- any follow-up action required and who is responsible.5“Making Decisions,” Australian Government Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Organisations (ORIC), August 2017, https://www.oric.gov.au/publications/newsletters/2017/making-decisions.
The resolution was passed by a majority on a vote by show of hands.
A poll was taken and the special resolution was passed (81 per cent in favour and 19 per cent against).
Some organisations may have specific requirements for recording decisions. Check your constitution or rule book.
Implement your decisions
Decisions your organisation, community or nation makes will have no effect unless they’re implemented.
It’s typically the job of management and administration to implement decisions. The board is responsible for monitoring the implementation of decisions.
It’s good practice to develop procedures for implementing decisions in your organisation. For example:
- Use meeting minutes to record action items.
- Assign people to action items according to your organisation’s roles and responsibilities.
- Make sure there’s a separation of power between the board directors, the CEO, senior management and staff:
- Board directors are responsible for implementing strategic decisions.
- Management and staff are most often responsible for implementing operational decisions.
- Get the CEO and staff to provide updates at every meeting.
Your organisation may choose to engage consultants to complete certain tasks or projects. This may be beneficial if:
- the expertise needed is unavailable within the organisation
- the task could benefit from an independent perspective.
“KARI has always maintained a clear separation of strategic and operational decision-making responsibilities. Strategic and financial decision making is the responsibility of board members and they then delegate decisions about budgets and strategic objectives to the CEO and senior managers through our executive committee. These objectives and budgets are then managed and executed by managers and staff through job descriptions and action plans.”
– KARI Aboriginal Resources Incorporated, Category A Shortlisted Applicant, 2016.6Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton).
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
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