If you’ve had anything to do with the team here at The Governance Coach™, you’ll know that we are big fans of the Policy Governance® system first developed by John Carver back in the 1970s. And for good reason: over a period of 25 years, we’ve helped more than 500 boards work with the system, and time and time again we’ve seen the transformational impact it can have on organisational performance.
I’ve been working with the system here in New Zealand for about 20 years, initially in a school setting and then, as I developed my own consulting practice, with Māori (i.e., indigenous) organisations. I’ve had the privilege of working with around 100 such organisations, and have seen the system working perfectly well for them.
From time to time, though, I encounter a specific criticism of Policy Governance which appears on the surface to have some validity but which, with deeper analysis, proves unfounded. In order to understand the criticism, we need first to take a look at the broad sweep of world history and, in particular, the phenomenon of colonisation.
Colonisation—the act of one nation expanding its authority or influence over another nation, typically without consent—has been with us for a long time: the earliest examples date back almost 4,000 years. The colonisation which affected New Zealand from the late 1700s onwards happened towards the end of the expansion of the British Empire into most corners of the world. It’s a divisive and contentious topic (some would argue that the process of colonisation continues to this day), but I think it’s fair to say that there is widespread agreement that the impact of colonisation on Māori—the indigenous people of New Zealand—has been profoundly negative.
Fast forward to the present day. I’m running a workshop for a Māori audience on the Policy Governance system. A participant interrupts the presentation and says, I don’t like this system you’re describing. It’s based on Western values, and we need to fight to ensure that the governance of our organisations continues to be based on indigenous values. To me, it feels like just one more attempt to colonise our thinking.
The first time I encountered this criticism, I was taken aback by it, and wondered in my heart if it wasn’t actually true. However, I’ve thought it through carefully, and I disagree with it.
Policy Governance is a system. In that respect, it’s no different to the Windows operating system in your computer, or the Android system in your smartphone. The fact that the Windows system was developed by a software company based in Redmond, Washington, doesn’t mean that it can’t be used for indigenous purposes—to write indigenous poetry, for example, or to research indigenous history, or to manage an indigenous organisation. The fact that the Android system emerged from Silicon Valley, California, doesn’t mean that the board of an indigenous organisation can’t use it to hold a virtual board meeting by phone, discussing matters that are central to their indigeneity.
Policy Governance is a values-neutral system. In fact, one of the strengths of Policy Governance is that boards can—indeed, must—populate the system with their own values, which, in accordance with the model, will be the values of their owners.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending the Policy Governance AcademySM taught by John and Miriam Carver. John told us that his original intention was to call the system ‘Values Governance’ rather than ‘Policy Governance.’ That’s because it’s a values-based system. The values aren’t inherent in the system itself; rather, the system needs to be infused with the values of those using it. That’s one of the real strengths of the system.
Since first being challenged about the potentially-colonising nature of Policy Governance, I’ve paid particular attention to the interplay between the system itself and the values of the group using it, and I can say with confidence that there is no inherent conflict between the two. On the contrary, Policy Governance is an excellent tool to embed indigenous values into the governance of an organisation. I know my colleagues at The Governance Coach have had the same experience with indigenous groups in North America.
I encourage you to explore Policy Governance. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the system can be used to put into practice the things that are of most value to you.