Blog Post

Curious about First Nations’ governance? Listen deeply- Guest Blog by Sharon Babyack, Doyen Radcliffe and Donna Stephens

by | 7 Jul, 2023 | Blog, Collaborators, Collaboratory Podcast, Resources

In the most recent episode of Collaboratory, “Exploring Cultural Governance”, our guests Wayne Barker, Doyen Radcliffe, Sharon Babyack and David Lilley discussed the different meanings that the word ‘governance’ can take on, especially in cultural and First Nations contexts.

During the episode, Doyen and Sharon explained the governance structure at their organisation, Community First Development, in addition to the concept of ‘right way governance’. Together with their colleague, Donna, Doyen and Sharon have written a blog post which explores these topics further and sheds light on how Western governance dominates conversations and projects, and the impacts this has on local communities.

Community First Development is a First Nations led community development and research organisation

Though the ’Good governance practice leads to good relationships’ three-year Participatory Action Research project, we had the privilege to partner with 11 First Nations’ communities around Australia. (HREC Reference Number: EO70-25012018).

Our research is action-driven, inclusive, and relational, with self-determination at its heart. Central to our approach is the understanding that community and cultural governance practices are unique to each community. The Final Report shares what we have learnt about concepts of governance and how community members view the way we work with First Nations’ communities. It also outlines some practical learnings on research within First Nations’ settings.

The research project was initiated to understand a spike in governance related activities requested by communities, including strategic and business planning, policies and procedures, financial and IT systems and funding bids.

What we unearthed was that this spike was driven by external pressures for the communities, and these activities were undertaken out of necessity. We also learned that community members had acquired expertise in negotiating and navigating these complex governance requirements. On the flipside, there was much work to be done by non-First Nations entities to understand local and cultural governance.

Understanding First Nations’ cultural and community governance has value for all of us, equally there are significant risks to ignoring it. Genuine relationships and learning about the cultures and governance practices of First Peoples is a rich and rewarding journey. Taking the time required to do this in invaluable. It allows for community ownership and sustainable designs. It is necessary for those wanting to interact with or invest in a community.

Western governance takes time and it costs. Administrative systems have been designed to promote good and ethical practice, reduce risk, inform decision making, enable faster and safer growth, provide accountability and transparency and build trust. In practice it may look like “white fella paperwork” – completing forms, reading legislation and meeting compliance requirements. We have dedicated teams of people within organisations to manage it in many cases. When working with First Nations’ communities, we need to dedicate time and invest in understanding First Nations’ governance for all the same reasons.

Guidance on engaging with First Nations’ governance

While there is no set formula of success to engaging with First Nations’ governance, we have provided some insights below that may be useful.

How do you render visible these often invisible aspects of the work that people need to understand?

  • Flexibility, and the ability to go with the flow.
  • Taking a two-way approach and having a willingness to learn, listen and build relationship (personally and professionally).
  • Working at community pace.
  • An ability to embrace differences as well as find common ground.
  • A good intuition on how to stay out of community politics.

Are there questions you’d encourage people to ask to find out more about governance structures in their context?

  • Can you tell me the story of your community?
  • Are there any cultural customs I should know about?
  • How are decisions made in your community?
  • Who do you recommend I talk to?

Are there resources/ guidance you share with volunteers and staff to help them work in different governance systems?

Our team and volunteers find our Community Development Framework helpful. You can check it out here: A First Nations Approach to Community Development: Our Community Development Framework.  

Doyen Radcliffe is a Yamatji Naaguja man and is Community First Development’s Regional Manager – Western Region. He has been instrumental in the design of Community First Development theories of change, M,E&L frameworks and participatory approaches and tools. Doyen is also former Vice-President of the Australian Evaluation Society.

Donna-Maree Stephens is an Iwaidja woman of the Muran clan, northwest Arnhemland with 30 years’ experience in education, research and evaluation in the Northern Territory; focused on community engagement, educational and workforce outcomes for First Nations’ people. Donna is Community First Development’s inaugural First Nations’ Fellow for Research and Evaluation. She is currently Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) Workforce Development and Support Unit Coordinator at the Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance of the NT (AMSANT).

Sharon Babyack is Community First Development’s General Manager Impact and Strategy. Sharon brings 20 years of experience working for government, and not-for-profit organisations. She provides strategic direction and leadership on monitoring, evaluation, and research for Community First Development. She has played a leadership role in the development and roll-out of Community First Development’s M,E&L approach and database.

To hear more from Doyen, Sharon and other featured collaborative practitioners, who share their perspectives on cultural governance, be sure to check out the episode of Collaboratory, “Exploring Cultural Governance”.