Changing the world with good governance

15 August 2023

Principal consultant Aidan Rave suggests that real, lasting change depends on solid governance supported by regular third-party reviews.

Traveler, there is no path! You make the path by walking. By walking, you make the path”.

I’ve been thinking about that line from Antonio Machado’s poem recently, partly because I’m working on a few exercises for clients that involve focusing on personal journeys and how they shape the professionals that make up top teams. I guess in doing so, it’s made me think about my own – which I still instinctively think of as nascent, even if the inconvenient truth is that it has already edged past a quarter of a century. Tempus fugit, eh?

Way back at the turn of the millennium, I had just embarked on an exciting new adventure in local politics. I became aware of injustice as a kid growing up in the 80s, partly because my dad was an avid watcher of news and current affairs and I suppose it kind of rubbed off. At the time there was plenty to worry about. I grew up in a pit village, so the evisceration of entire communities was one, along with Northern Ireland, Apartheid and of course, the ever-present threat of annihilation from nuclear war. At some point – and I don’t know exactly when – a lightbulb suddenly switched on and it dawned on me that rather than just worrying about it all, maybe I could and should do something instead.

So, when I was elected to Doncaster Council in the May of 1999 I had big plans for changing the world – well, Doncaster first, but then definitely the rest of the world. I suspect like many young people with a quixotic fascination for politics, I assumed that I could enrapture people with the sheer force of my soaring oratory, that there would be mass mobilisations of committed citizens looking to improve the prospects of their local communities and that even the doubters would eventually be swept up and become adherents to the exciting prospects of civic renewal! I know, I know… don’t worry, reality made its presence felt without much delay.

Mind you, all these years later, I still cling to US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead’s renowned aphorism: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."

It’s not that citizens can’t change the world, it’s just that they can’t change it with big ideas, sound policies and inspirational speeches alone, important though all these ingredients may be. There’s a tendency to see societal improvements as transformational when for the most part they are incremental. At the heart of the most seemingly monumental decision is an often prosaic, almost boring process of debate and decision-making.

Put simply, if you really want to change the world then above all else, you need organisation in the form of sound governance, a proficient bureaucracy and effective scrutiny and assurance. You also need leadership that’s willing and able to evolve, seasoned by observations, new ideas and, of course, mistakes.

These principles apply to any organisation, regardless of sector. Whatever else they might be good at, effective and sustainable organisations will always have effective governance at their heart. Conversely, when things go systemically wrong, governance will invariably be a critical factor.

Many organisations take the importance of good governance extremely seriously; they explicitly focus on governance from its basic mechanics to its profile and standing in the organisation. However, I would argue that too many still overlook the significance of effective governance even though the implications of its absence, from bullying to bankruptcy, are there for all to see.

That’s precisely why at GGI, we think of our governance reviews as a critical contribution to the organisations we work with. In the same way a car requires an annual check of its critical components through the MOT to ensure its safety and effective operation, we believe it is prudent for organisations to subject themselves to a periodic review of the critical components that enable it to function. Whether by commission or by omission, failing to check the effectiveness of governance is a not only a critical risk for an organisation, it will also undermine its effectiveness and ability to take decisions of significance.

Our governance reviews are conducted by professionals who are familiar with the organisational territory because they have been there themselves. They are objective and dispassionate and, while always constructive and developmental, they will always present their findings without fear or favour.

As a contextual note, it’s worth reflecting that the Doncaster Council I was elected to in May 1999 was in the midst of a huge corporate governance failure. Consequently, I and the rest of the new cohort of councillors elected that year were subjected to intensive and ongoing governance training and reviews, as were new councillors elected in subsequent years. It is no coincidence that from being at the brink of the abyss, by 2003 the council was being widely talked about as the ‘fastest improving council in the country’, with service improvements backed by customer satisfaction surveys and a regeneration portfolio that was the envy of many.

Maybe a bit of that was due to soaring rhetoric, but most of it was down to getting the basics of good governance right.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

Enquire about this article

Here to help