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Transcript – Exploring Cultural Governance

by | 30 Jun, 2023 | Collaboratory Podcast, Resources, Transcripts

To ensure accessibility we are committed to providing transcripts of all our podcast episodes, including our short trailer for Season 1 – you can listen to the audio version here.

Episode 14: Exploring Cultural Governance

[00:00:00] Wayne Barker: To make decisions is about living within a social context. Decision making that has cultural relevance, but also economic relevance requires us to be able to interpret that within a cultural context.

[00:00:16] David Lilley: Good governance is malleable or adaptive. I think the governance that works well is the governance that emerges when you are working with people on an initiative. The people who are actively contributing work out how they relate to each other and what sorts of structures and processes will help them to maintain and build their relationships.

[00:00:38] Doyen Radcliffe: Right way governance is understanding the governance that exist in the community and understanding the layers and decision-making process, but it’s also about respecting when we work, work in communities, that underpinning all that is trust. And I always go back to respect and the relationship is all key and part of it.

[00:01:02] Maya Haviland: Hello, I’m Maya Haviland and welcome to Collaboratory – a podcast exploring the dynamics of co-creativity in action.

A few years ago, I was working on an organisational change project, and I got into an argument with one of the consultants about the meaning of the word governance. She was insisting that governance was all about fiscal accountability, and when I suggested that cultural governance was of equal, if not larger significance to the goals of organisational change that we were working towards, she looked at me as if I was from another planet.

We got increasingly frustrated with each other in that way that you do when you’re speaking words, which you don’t have the same meanings for. Coming from a corporate management culture, my colleague used the word governance to talk about the structural responsibilities and authority for decisions about money and resources, who and how there was accountability to organisational policy and to Australian law.

I was also working at the time on a project with the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, and so my use of the word governance was shaped by Kimberley Aboriginal Ideas of responsibility to and for culture. Governance in this cultural sense is about how authority is bestowed and decision making happens within social networks and relationships.

Now, if you look it up in a dictionary, there are multiple definitions of the word governance. It’s often paired with other words like ‘corporate’ or ‘cultural’. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines it as the act or process of governing or overseeing the control and direction of something such as a country or an organisation. The Australian Indigenous Governance Institute definition says governance is the way that people organize themselves to achieve a shared goal.

In this episode, I want to explore some of these different meanings, the shapes and values of cultural governance, and give particular attention to First Nations perspectives that extend beyond ideas of compliance and structural authority so commonly put forward in the corporate usage of the word. As I found in my work with my consultant colleague, cultural governance is a sometimes misunderstood notion, but it’s one that can have great importance to how we support collaboration across difference.

Joining me in this episode are four guests, David Lilley, who works with the organisation Collaboration for Impact, Doyne Radcliffe, and Sharon Babyack from Community First Development and one of my collaborators from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, or KALACC, Mr. Wayne Barker.

[00:03:42] Wayne Barker: My name’s Wayne Jowandi Barker, barranga burrugu. Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, KALACC, it represents the 33 language groups of the Kimberley. It speaks as the cultural authority, so it underpins culture, land, language, law, and tradition. It’s been together now for 35 years. What KALACC’s purpose is, is to maintain the traditional law and customs that was there that people can reach back for centuries, and then use that as a way to plot their way forward into the future. The cultural practitioners that are as membership, so these are the senior men and women that occupy what we call the ‘living library status’ of First Nations out of the Kimberley.

[00:04:31] Maya Haviland: Wayne has worked for more than a decade with the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and is currently their cultural programs director.

[00:04:38] Wayne Barker: Big name, big title. What does it mean? It’s the shovel work. It’s the grunt work. It’s organising the activities on the ground. It’s making sure that the projects interrelate and connect. It’s the people, it’s the network, it’s the alliance, it’s the problem solving. It’s the responding to cultural threats, whether it’s got to do with appropriation of, of cultural designs and images, or whether it’s taking women back out in the country for them to reconnect.

[00:05:07] Maya Haviland: KALACC has a pretty flat organisational structure, but all of its activities and programs operate under a system of Kimberley aboriginal Cultural Governance, which has been recognised by Reconciliation Australia as a model of national best practice.

[00:05:22] Wayne Barker: To make decisions is about living within a social context. Decision making that has both cultural relevance, ritual relevance, but also economic relevance requires us to be able to interpret that within a cultural context.

Cultural governance has never changed in our perspective. Sitting in the core are the senior men and women who are basically our leaders, our elders, our living libraries. They give us not just their life experience, how they’ve lived and what they’ve learnt over the 60, 70 years of their existence on this ground, but also they can reach back and give us in context the cultural framework, like the history of how we’ve emerged to be.

So, our decisions that we make impacts in our social circle, our tribal circle, our alliance circle, but it’s all pinned under certain principles. Those principles are culturally focused and culturally orientated. Environment, land, language, society, emotional, physical, spiritual. These things are all interrelated and all linked together.

So when we make decisions about practical matters of governance, what happens here in this context, whether it’s a expansion of a community or it’s a acceptance of a government program to address suicide or self-harm, or all of those things, what are the cultural solutions that are clearly defined in that, and who frames that agreement?

[00:06:57] Maya Haviland: KALACC is one of multiple First Nations organisations in Australia that promote the importance of cultural governance to culturally appropriate decision making. Another is Community First Development, which is an Australian research and community development organisations that work on First Nations community led initiatives, often matching volunteers to community need. They’ve gathered evidence about how different forms of governance impact on their practices in specific communities.

[00:07:25] Doyen Radcliffe: My name’s Doyen David Radcliffe. I’m a Naaguja Wajarri man for the Midwest of Western Australia. I currently at work as the regional manager at Community First Development. So basically I look after all community development activities in WA.

[00:07:43] Maya Haviland: From 2018 to 2021 Community First Development undertook an action research project to explore some of the concepts and practices of governance in the communities they work in. One of the important concepts they highlight from their research is the idea of right way governance.

[00:08:01] Doyen Radcliffe: Right way governance is doing things in the right way that fits the First Nations communities that we work with and that’s doing our work in a respectful manner. Right way governance is understanding that there’s different structures in the decision-making process within the committee. It may not necessarily fit under the Western governance structures. But that they’re underlying everything, such as the kinship. Sometimes we think that all decisions are made in boardroom, not in communities.

Decision making is sometimes made with community yarning each other. They walk away from meeting the whole over yarn about it within their households. Cause whatever’s happening in their own community is important to ’em. And sometimes decisions, they don’t make decisions straight away, they’ll think about stuff and then come back and decide on things. That’s why you can’t go in and thinking that just because you see all community members nodding their head when they listen to you, they’re not necessarily agreeing with you. They’re taking the information in listening and make a decision later.

[00:09:13] Maya Haviland: In that organisational change project I was involved with, I was adamant about the importance of cultural governance because decisions are not only made in boardrooms in many organisational contexts as well. In a university, where this change project was happening, formal leadership processes may happen in meetings of managers and deans, but things also are shaped by cultures established in research groups or specific teams.

Decisions might get discussed in corridors or at lunch tables under the trees, and those with influence may not be those with structural leadership positions. How people feel authorised to take part in specific processes or to make decisions that impact on others is shaped by cultural norms as much as by official organisational structures and roles. Cultural governance recognises the importance of relationships in supporting different forms of authority within which individuals can then act.

[00:10:08] Wayne Barker: So when you speak, an Aboriginal person, particularly in the Kimberley, and say, “well, can you speak about that”? They say, “you gotta talk to my elder about that”. Why? It’s not because he’s abandoning his responsibility to make a decision or devaluing himself. It’s really in recognition to the cultural governance that exists there.

So he needs a reference or she needs a reference, right? Once that process is there, that he or she has approached their elder, or, elder group and they’ve considered it. Now, it might be a subject matter that they know nothing about, but the very fact that that process has been undertaken gives the younger person the license to proceed.

This empowerment, this license giving this or authorisation that falls, we call it that cultural authority or cultural authority feeds from the top or from the centre out. It radiates like a ripple. Because it carries with it all the licensing, but it also carries with it the authenticity of their society.

[00:11:08] Maya Haviland: Of course, different cultures and groups, including the many First Nations cultures and nations across Australia are differently structured and organised. So, I asked Wayne to describe how cultural governance is structured in the context of the Kimberley and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre in particular.

[00:11:25] Wayne Barker: The centre is the elders. Outside of that are the men and women that are learning all of this stuff from the past and keeping an eye in the future. And then you’ve got the younger descendants that makes the populace of the community

[00:11:38] Maya Haviland: As a cultural practitioner and in a role like Wayne has at KALACC. What does working under this cultural governance mean in practice?

[00:11:46] Wayne Barker: I have a clear line of authority, a clear direct line to my senior bosses. Number one for me directly is the man that put me through law. You know, number one is my senior boss that that sits in KALACC. I have an unbroken line. They don’t need to know what I do. They just need to know that I’m aware of what I’m doing for the benefit of the group and that I’ve alerted them to what I’m trying to achieve.

How I get there is up to me because I’m a man, right? I’m not a boy, so they don’t want to micromanage me. That’s not how culture works. But in respect and recognising their authority over me is something that’s already established because of our relationship through law, through ceremony, through ongoing practice. That’s the cultural governance dream, if you like, as it applies to me, all the way back to senior man like Mr. Brown.

[00:12:39] Maya Haviland: Mr. Brown is one of the senior cultural advisors who play a critical role in cultural governance of KALACC, as well as having a direct cultural line that shapes Wayne’s individual pathway for cultural authority. In different framings of governance, this notion of a authority always recurs, and so understanding the diverse ways in which authority is perceived and conferred is an important part of understanding how governance works in any specific project, organisation, or community.

In practical terms, when establishing collaborative processes or projects, it’s important to uncover where there is commonality and divergence in ideas of authority. Who has it? How do you get it? What processes are used to wield it? And how is it recognized within the social systems that you’re working within? Sharon Babyack works with Doyen Radcliffe at Community First Development and was involved in the action research project they undertook to better understand how governance operates in the communities they work with.

[00:13:40] Sharon Babyack: The First Nations governance structures that were there were harder to understand. They’re quieter, they’re intrinsic. They’re based in relationship, and sometimes just not appropriate for us to know all the details of, and we don’t need to. We need to just be respectful and know that they’re there.

I am the general manager for impact and strategy at Community First Development. So it’s a privilege to work there as a non-indigenous woman. And yeah, it’s my great privilege to learn a heck of a lot every day doing the work that we do. My role really focuses on the effectiveness of the community development program, so the types of impacts that we’re making, ways we could be doing things better, investing where we are doing well, and then working out how to communicate back those things that we find out to our funders and also to communities as required or as is appropriate.

One of the reasons we undertook the project was because there was a huge spike in request for governance related projects from communities. So, we were following the data clue, but those governance activities were what we call Western governance. It was tricky because that dominant form of governance that’s in play in communities was where the yarning kept leading us. We just had this overbearing force that kept coming in and we were there busily trying to understand the community governance structures that were in place from traditional First Nations governance to the different community governance structures, different organisations, how different family groups interact, all of those things. But the big finding was that Western governance is just really dominating the conversations, dominating the way that we work.

[00:15:32] Maya Haviland: The Community First Development research confirmed that in many First Nations communities, there’s often an intersecting space where First Nations governance practices meet with Western governance requirements. They call this third space bridging governance. One of the ways in which First Nations organisations bridge into this third space is through working through delegated authorities – individuals with highly developed skills in brokering partnerships, sourcing, funding, and navigating western governance systems that have been delegated by elders or those with authority in the community to act on their behalf.

[00:16:09] Doyen Radcliffe: Sometimes they’re delegated authorities that work on behalf of the communities, and that’s fine. It’s the way the community wants things to work to achieve their dream. They may delegate someone to act on their behalf because they’re skilled and understanding white governance and government people and that type of things.

[00:16:31] Sharon Babyack: You know, as you are speaking, Doyen, I’m thinking of the little working group. The work that Thomas did there is pretty phenomenal in that it wasn’t our work that brought the consensus, and the most amazing part of that story was the work that Thomas was doing as the spokesperson or delegated authority for that community.

He was busily developing the consensus. And I think more often than not, there is someone in the community or some in the community that are working on that consensus, and our team use their amazing EQs to read the situation and say, “oh, we need to give some space here and this is not our place”.

[00:17:12] Maya Haviland: What Sharon and do are describing resonates with many communities we live and work in. Decision making in groups and collectives can happen at different scales, sometimes they’re more direct and deliberative, and at other times involve the work of representation or delegation.

Identifying what is the right way for governance to work in a specific context is an important aspect of collaborative practice. Here’s David Lilley, a consultant with Collaboration for Impact and a student of public health policy and urban environments.

[00:17:44] David Lilley: Good governance is malleable or adaptive. I think the governance that works well is the governance that emerges when you’re working with people on an initiative. The people who are actively contributing work out how they relate to each other and what sorts of structures and processes will help them to maintain and build their relationships.

I think one of the big problems that we have in these projects is that we often set up the governance structure before the things got going, and then we expect it to be relevant and appropriate and useful all the way through. And to me, I think governance is something that needs to be responsive to where an initiative’s at and to where it wants to go.

Probably the reverse for me was the collective impact project in Mount Druitt that I was part of where there were very clear expectations about a multi-tier governance arrangement, what the priority should be, how success would be measured, the level of geography that should be worked across. All of these things were sort of put in place first.

As we started to run the project or tried to run the project, we found that none of it really worked. So we had to go back to first principles and say, okay, you don’t set up a project with a blueprint. You don’t say, we’re gonna work across these 12 suburbs and we’re gonna do these 14 things in this timeframe. We stepped right back from all of that and said, we’ll start working in one suburb and we’ll start doing that by having community conversations. We’ll talk to local people and understand what’s going on.

The objective of the initiative was really around early childhood, getting kids into preschool and helping them to start school. Well, that didn’t really change, but it went from a blueprint plan to a conversation with community, to identifying local assets and beginning there. So the project’s been running for something like six or seven years now. It’s still working on the same macro issues. The purpose is still the same. But the way that it’s approached is completely flipped, and so it’s about updating your governance, rethinking your governance as you go to make sure you’ve got what you need when you need it.

I think one of the challenges that I had, particularly when I was working on the Hive, the Collective Impact Project in Mount Druitt, was that we had governance essentially imposed by funders. So, they wanted a particular seat at the table and a particular level of influence. And it really didn’t work with the nature of the project. They brought a very traditional way of like governing a project and the work that we were doing was really emergent. So, there was a bit of a mismatch there and it took quite a long time to unravel that and to get through to the governance that we needed. So, I guess the distinctions between something that’s imposed early on and something that’s co-created to meet a sort of mutually agreeing purpose.

[00:20:40] Doyen Radcliffe: Right way governance is understanding the governance that exists in the community and understanding the layers and decision-making process. It’s also about respecting when we work, work in communities, that underpinning all that is trust. And I always go back to respect and the relationship is all key and part of it.

[00:21:01] Maya Haviland: Doyen Radcliffe from Community First again.

Remember my conflict with the organisational change consultant that I mentioned at the start of the show. At its heart that conflict was caused by the way we so often use the same word, such as governance, to mean quite different things. These different primary uses are shaped by the cultural and disciplinary context we each come from.

My colleague wasn’t wrong that the word governance is most often used in the organisational context we were working in to refer to financial accountability and legal compliance. But that didn’t mean that the cultural aspects of lived experience, history and tradition, social and relational norms of how things are done and how status is conferred aren’t equally as important to the task of finding the authority to act within or on behalf of a group or organisation.

My colleague and I got through our differences by acknowledging that for both of us, governance is about how things are organized and decisions are made, but our different perspectives on the most important aspects of governance, my focus on the cultural and relational aspects or hers on the corporate compliance ones, continued to shape the kinds of work we did and how we sought to get things done.

We found commonality eventually in agreeing that in practical terms, governance requires some key actors who are really committed and dedicated to the process, who take the time to regularly check in about what’s working and what isn’t. Ideally these people lend their energy and attention to trying to overcome challenges constructively. Without this practical governance in place, initiatives big and small spin out of control.

Governance processes operate at all the scales that humans operate in, from how we structure and organise collaborations between a few people to how we make decisions and delegate authority at the level of nations. As David Lilley mentioned earlier, good governance comes from working out how we relate to each other and what sorts of structures and processes will help us to maintain and build relationships.

Sometimes these are temporary within a project or emerge from longstanding traditions and processes handed from generation to generation. Sometimes protocols require us to follow particular forms, but as David also stressed, good governance is malleable and adaptive. When working well, good governance supports individuals to act on behalf of collectives because they understand and are supported by an agreed cultural framework established by that governance structure. Here’s Wayne Barker from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre again.

[00:23:48] Wayne Barker: So, when we then go to outsiders and start to talk to people like the Australian National University or the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the first question is, “well, who do you speak for”? Well, I speak for me. I speak for me. “And who are you”? Here’s my line. And yes, the badge, the people that pay for me is KALACC, but I speak for me, Jowandi.

This is why you go through law. This is why you go through ceremony. This is why you go through rituals. It is the bit that establishes your authority, gives you the confidence, gives you the way to speak. Our relationships between men that have gone through law together, is our first relationship. Beyond that is our cohort relationship there. The men that have gone through law at the same time within the region, in a sense, we’re all empowered and authorised at the same time, so therefore there is a brotherhood, inverted commas. And then beyond that, there’s generations above us who have influenced us and shaped our space within the cultural context. So color, language, place does not matter.

What does matter is how you operate and how you speak and function within that space. The challenges in this moment in time is that you’ve got an ancient tradition on one side, and then you’ve got the modern world in which you live and the modern world that’s developing ahead of you, and you’ve got to protect and you’ve gotta serve the society as an individual, as a singular person.

[00:25:22] Maya Haviland: Wayne is speaking really specifically about his experience of navigating cultural governance in the context of being an Aboriginal man in the Kimberley. But his experience points to the broader need to understand the scales at which authority is bestowed and navigated, and also what it takes as an individual to recognise and work within any specific governance structure.

Sharon Babyack has thought quite deeply about what it takes to navigate different governance structures as a practitioner and a facilitator. In the Community First Development action research project, she spent time thinking about the skills and capacities that made some of the members of her team particularly good at navigating governance in practice.

[00:26:03] Sharon Babyack: From observation and listening to the team, I knew that they are just incredible at understanding those governance structures. So, to try and unearth or unpack with the team what they do was really tricky. And where I landed is they all have incredibly high EQs. They’re really great people, deep listeners, they actually, well probably, a lot of them have a really good sense of humor too – can have a laugh. But really sensitive and respectful and they really work to the model that we work to, which is look, listen, learn. So they’re looking a lot and seeing a lot as well. And they’re trustworthy. They’re people that can keep a confidence.

So even in our organisation, when we are yarning and sharing, there are certain things that I know our team just would never share with me. So I’m reading between the lines going, oh, okay, there’s some politics there in that community, and that’s not our business, and that’s okay. We are there to do a particular thing and we steer clear of that. So, they’re also good at avoiding the politics in situations that we don’t need to be in. So, these were all qualities that jumped out that were important for interacting with the different governance models in play. But the big finding was that Western governance is just really dominating the conversations, dominating the way that we work.

[00:27:27] Maya Haviland: That was my big insight working in that organisational change project too. Western models of governance informed by corporate governance for the most part, dominate our understandings and therefore practices often to the detriment of strong collaborative process, which requires more subtle understanding of cultural governance, cultural authority, and the dynamics of relationship that underpin authority as it gets wielded in practice.

I think it’s important that we take every opportunity to think more deeply about ideas of authority and governance and the cultural frames we’re working in and seeking to bridge across. Too often the work of translating across these systems falls to First Nations people and organisations, and yet the insights from lenses such as cultural governance and cultural authority are of value in many different contexts and scales of practice, not just in specifically cross-cultural ones.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about navigating governance in practice in your collaborative work. Please get in touch on social media and share this episode and others in the Collaboratory series with your friends or with colleagues you think might find them useful. Thanks to Wayne, Doyen, David and Sharon for sharing their insights. Thanks also to Bec McNaught whose thinking, research and practice shaped this episode.

This episode of Collaboratory was written and edited, by Maya Haviland and Nicole Deen. Series producer Maya Haviland. Audio engineering by Nick McCorriston. Music made especially for us by Seprock. Additional research and production support by Yichen Li.

Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunawal, Ngambri, and Ngunnawal people. We pay our respects and ongoing gratitude to the custodians past, present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn.

Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-Creativity Project hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship Scheme.