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Effective Indigenous governance
Effective governance means having rules, structures and processes capable of achieving your objectives. We look at AIGI’s principles for effective Indigenous governance, and 3 other models that can be customised to meet your needs.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What are the AIGI principles of ‘effective governance’ in your own words?
- What does ‘cultural legitimacy’ mean?
- Think of an organisation, community or nation you’re involved in. Which principles are they doing well? Which principles are missing, or need some work?
- Which of these models resonate most with you? How would you customise it to make it effective for your organisation, community or nation?
What effective governance means
People from different cultures have their own ways of judging what is ‘good’ or effective governance.
When cultures with different ways of governing interact, problems can arise. One group can impose its idea of what ‘good’ governance is on another group.
Because of this, the Indigenous Community Governance Project suggests that it’s more useful to talk about ‘effective’ and ‘legitimate’ governance.
“[Effective governance has four key characteristics…] First, they give priority to peoples’ pre-existing cultural knowledge, norms, systems of authority, and experiences. Second, they have been designed collectively and in a practical governance context. Third, they can be put to immediate practical use; and fourth, they can continue to be adapted to suit changing governance needs.”
– Diane Smith, Cultures of governance and the governance of culture: transforming and containing Indigenous institutions in West Arnhem Land, 20081Diane Smith, “Cultures of governance and the governance of culture: transforming and containing Indigenous institutions in West Arnhem Land,” in Contested Governance Culture, power and institutions in Indigenous Australia, eds. Janet Hunt, Diane Smith, Stephanie Garling and Will Sanders (Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press, 2008), 103.
Effective governance means having rules, structures and processes capable of achieving your objectives. Effective governance gets things done.
Legitimate governance means your members see your rules, structures and processes as credible and worthy. They match their ideas about how authority should be organised and power exercised. Legitimate governance gets things done ‘properly’.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups face many pressures when developing effective and legitimate governance. Governance is constantly evolving. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or fail. Mistakes will help with your learning process and continual improvement.
AIGI principles of effective governance
AIGI has developed 4 key principles for effective governance.
The principles are based on extensive research on best practice governance and the unique governance environment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.
The principles help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups navigate their responsibilities and expectations in overlapping but different systems – Indigenous systems of governance and the broader non-Indigenous system.
Governance needs to be customised to be effective and legitimate. That means that your governance model is designed for your specific purpose, environment and resources.
To be meaningful, the component parts of governance must reflect your own relationships, networks, values and ways of behaving. It’s not enough to bring unfamiliar governance models into communities and expect those communities to function effectively.
Governance will be most effective when you use your knowledge about your context to design your governance model. To learn more about the elements of governance that need to work together to be effective – including your context – see Defining governance.
“Those communities that do governance well do a lot of deconstructing and reconstructing. We get something from government and have to deconstruct it to match us. Then we reconstruct it back to government. It’s a constant cultural interpretation.”
– Forum participant, Building Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Governance, page 12
Building Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Governance
Cultural legitimacy is one aspect of a group’s overall legitimacy. It’s about ensuring your governance arrangements embody and reinforce the preferred contemporary values and ideas about how decisions are made, authority should be organised, and leadership exercised. Cultural legitimacy in a governance arrangement means having rules, structures and processes that:
- are informed by an understanding of your own cultural traditions, laws, rules, and processes
- embody the values and norms that are important to you and your constituents
- reflect your community’s contemporary ideas about how power and authority should be shared and put into practice
- are generated through your people’s own efforts, and therefore have the support of the people being governed.
In Australia today, the challenge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is to work effectively while holding true to 2 forms of accountability: the culture, laws, rules and forms of accountability of their peoples and those of the wider environment. The tension caused by operating under dual forms of accountability can be difficult.
Achieving effective and legitimate governance means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must work across Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of governing. It means trying to negotiate the demands of both. They need to get things done in ways that are culturally legitimate and credible with external stakeholders. For example, funding bodies or governments that play an important role in their organisation, community or nation.
Finding this balance means building governance that works well ‘two ways’.
This two-way accountability leads to a balancing act that is called two-way governance. It’s about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples working to balance their cultural integrity and self-determination with ensuring their models of governance meet the requirements of the wider environment.
Many organisations, communities and nations are creating innovative governance arrangements to deal with this challenge. Governance arrangements that are robust and realistic – that can encompass and engage with divergent Indigenous and non-Indigenous governance values and practices.
Winners and finalists of the 2022 Indigenous Governance Awards share how they work for their community. They talk about navigating two-way governance and staying accountable to their members, community and wider environments.
Governance is constantly evolving.
Your governance model evolves over time to match changes in your members’ priorities and preferred ways of doing things. Similarly, if something changes in the wider environment, your governance needs to evolve.
Governance is not static in any group. Building governance is a journey. The road ahead and the final destination can change over time.
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (the Harvard Project) supports Indigenous groups to achieve sustained, self-determined political, cultural and economic development.2The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and Harvard University, “About,” The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, accessed 1 Nov 2022, (link). The Harvard Project found the conditions under which this can be achieved are:
When Native nations make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently outperform external decision-makers on matters as diverse as:
- governmental form
- natural resource management
- economic development
- health care
- social service provision.
Successful economies stand on the shoulders of legitimate, culturally grounded institutions of self-government. Indigenous societies are diverse. Each nation must equip itself with a governing structure, economic system, policies and procedures that fit its contemporary culture.
For development to take hold, assertions of sovereignty must be backed by capable institutions of governance. Nations do this as they:
- adopt stable decision rules
- establish fair and independent mechanisms for dispute resolution
- separate politics from day-to-day business
- program management.
Nation building needs leaders who:
- introduce new knowledge and experiences
- challenge assumptions
- propose change.
Such leaders – whether elected, community, or spiritual – convince people that things can be different. They inspire them to take action.
OID determinants of good governance
The Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage (OID) Report Steering Committee identified 6 determinants of good governance.3Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2020 (Canberra: Productivity Commission, 2020), 1360, (link) These determinants are relevant to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, and government.
OID drew on the Harvard Project and the Indigenous Community Governance Project. They consulted broadly with Australian governments, the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations.
The 6 determinants are:
- Governing institutions that inspire confidence and support – this is achieved through the way governance is created and leaders are chosen.
- Leadership that influences group members to attain group or organisational goals.
- Processes in place that ensure self-determination – that is, processes provide group members with the right and ability to determine their own priorities and design their own instruments of governance, within broad governing institutions.
- Capacity requirements are met – that is, having the capabilities (such as knowledge and skills) to get the things that matter done. Often capacity building is necessary.
- A cultural match between the governing structures wanted and communities’ cultures – this means respecting cultural differences within different communities and working towards common ground for setting up mutually-agreed governance structures.
- Resources that are needed are available – that is, the economic, cultural, social and natural resources needed to achieve what matters (for example, information technology) are available.
The determinants are interdependent. None in isolation will lead to good governance – all are necessary for sustained success.
These determinants are referred to in the 2020 OID Report. They first appeared in the 2007 report, and have been updated in each year’s report since then.
The Centre for First Nations Governance: five components of effective Indigenous governance (Canada)
The Centre for First Nations Governance has consulted extensively with First Nations citizens, leaders, Elders, academics and on-the-ground facilitators. The Centre outlines five pillars of effective governance:4Centre for First Nations Governance, “The Five Pillars of Effective Governance,” Centre for First Nations Governance, accessed 1 Nov 2022, (link)
- Shared vision
- Participation in decision making
- Meaningful information sharing
- Authority over the land
- Creating an economy
- Respect for the spirit of the land
Laws and jurisdiction
- Expansion of jurisdiction
- Rule of law
- Transparency and fairness
- Results-based organisations
- Cultural alignment of institutions
- Inter-governmental relations
- Human resource capacity
- Financial management ability
- Performance evaluation
- Accountability and reporting
- Diversity of revenue sources
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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