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Governing principles

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.20, 29 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”
Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer (1842-1914?), from the Devil’s Dictionary

Governance is constantly being challenged in New Zealand. The series of business failures resulting from unsound governance over the past year, the bizarre events in many prominent sports at the top level seemingly resulting from the failure of Boards, the steady trickle of education institutions that are put under notice or have commissioners suggests that the state of governance in New Zealand is not as sound as it needs to be.

Recent events highlight this and some of the political dimensions of the issues – the Rankin File saga and the hikoi in Auckland last week both have in them messages for those who design governance structures.

The two dominant patterns of selection for governance in New Zealand are the selection on the basis of who you know, the other is selection because of who you represent. The first typifies government appointments and the second reflects many typical community not-for profit groups, school boards and so on. Both are flawed.

It is all very well wanting to get supporters onto boards and into positions where favour can return favour, but it is quite another thing to think that this is a suitable replacement for fitness for purpose. People of great ability and quality might simply be unsuitable for other reasons. This was the case with Rankin – her personal skills, ability and disposition are each irrelevant to many of those reacting to her appointment because other things get in the way. This might or might not be unfair. Effectiveness requires a sound and equal equation that allows a person’s skills and abilities to be applied effectively because of the regard in which they are held or the respect that surrounds them. To reject this in favour of only one half of the governance equation is high risk.

The other key factor that makes so many groups ineffective is the representative model. Many community groups believe that to be effective, the governance group must be made up of one of that group, and one of that group, and one of each of those five groups. But this has two weaknesses embedded in it.

The nominations from the respective groups (or perhaps more often it is a case of those who are prepared to put their names forward) might not address issues related to the skills needed, the mix and balance of competencies required in the group and often does not consider, because this process is incapable of doing so, the ability to work as a team. This situation cannot usually be put right through co-option.

The second issue with the group made up of representatives is the baggage that they bring with them into the new setting. Each organisation represented has its own set of policies, strategic objectives and agendas which place a glass cage around their representative. It doesn’t work. Sometimes that glass is pretty opaque.

But there is another generic weakness in governance in New Zealand. This is evident in the events surrounding the hikoi which was ostensibly about Maori representation on the new Auckland Super City Council. Should, the discussion runs, it be through positions designated as of right and filled through a process acceptable to Maori or do Maori simply take their chances in the ruck and maul of an “at large” election?

The answer to this should in 2009 be self-evident. It should have occurred to those with influence that Maori have as one of the two treaty parties, the other being the crown, an inalienable right to be represented on any governance group established by the crown. This principle starts with parliament and should be reflected in each and every regional and local territorial authority, district health board, SOE Board, and, yes, each council of tertiary institutions and each Board of Trustees of each school.

The local government act allows for such entrenched representation in local councils and the issue is not only that it remains almost exclusively unexploited but that the press and many sections of the community want to rewind this film right back to the beginning. Usually the film, however many times it is rewound, ends up the same.

So, having said that, how is education going from a governance point of view? Not very well. It is time to take another look at the composition of governing bodies and to temper the representative model (i.e. parents elected representatives only or government appointees plus a few other representative appointments) with the ability of Boards to make appointments to fill out the governance skill sets that are required. It is pointless to object to this as a “business” model when education institutions have been required to act as businesses since 1990 or thereabouts.

Would it be a “step too far” (and how many times have we heard that lately!) to suggest that this not only be an option but in fact was mandatory. It would be easy to develop a score card of governance skills and to measure each governance group against it.

Much of the failure of governance in education has been exposed by unsustainable financial performance which is the abscess that reflects greater underlying ills – poor strategy, poor resource allocation, the ignoring of financial indicators that warn of impending trouble, weak HR policies and management of performance, a failure to secure the confidence of a community and suchlike.

But in Bierce’s words – “the strife of interests that masquerade as a contest of principles” quickly could turn such a scenario into rather ugly politics. Is it not just this that has happened with the Super City and Maori representation? Is it not just this that has seen the governance issues in education not addressed since the one-hit reforms of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s?

New Zealand is due for some clear thinking about governance and education would be a good place to start.

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