What is good governance?

Martha James, Co-chair of the Green Party Regional Council (GPRC), considers how the Party can strike a balance between accountability, transparency, and confidentiality.

GPRC co-chairs
Martha James

As we are going through internal elections for the Green Party Executive (GPEx), I have attended the hustings to hear what the candidates have to say. 

What I have heard reflects many of the conversations the Green Party Regional Council (GPRC) have heard as part of the work on the Constitution. Members generally want to know more about the day-to-day decision-making in the party – not just what, but why – and feel that this will lead to better accountability from the representatives that they elect. 

They want members elected to GPEx and GPRC to represent their views and demonstrate to the wider membership how they have listened and reflected before acting. In short, members tell us they want good governance. But what does good governance actually look like?

While working on improvements to the Constitution, I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about this question. Good governance is a term you hear a lot, but the answer to the question "what is good governance?" feels quite nebulous at times.

The United Nations has six principles for good governance – participation, decency, transparency, accountability, fairness and efficiency. I note that confidentiality is not included in that list, but there has to be a balance between transparency and confidentiality at times. There must be transparent information available if the members of our governance bodies are to be held to account. On the other hand, everybody has the right to some privacy.  

There are some committees where confidentiality is required at all times during the decision-making process, such as the appeals and disciplinary committee. This means it is difficult to be transparent to members about any complaints while these matters are being investigated.

So, how can we demonstrate that the complaints system is based on all six of the UN's good governance principles? In the Party, we are currently undertaking a review of the complaints system – striking the right balance between transparency and confidentiality is one of the things we are looking at.

We need good governance in all of our committees, whether most of the work they undertake is confidential or not. That way, trust within the Party and its governance bodies will grow as members will be confident that they will do the right thing.

Recognising that there is a need to balance accountability and transparency, against confidentiality – how do we decide what the balance point is? The disciplinary process has a clearer set of criteria for confidentiality, especially when the complaint is still within the system. For GPRC and GPEx decision-making it is less clear, meaning that we decide on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t help foster trust across the Party, though, when five out of six items in a meeting are confidential and members are excluded.

On both GPEx and GPRC, we have to really challenge each other about the need for confidentiality. It shouldn't be put in place if the only worry is that members of the bodies are concerned they might upset someone – there must be a genuine reason for the need for confidentiality. 

We have to carefully consider what the actual risk is if the discussion wasn't confidential. Could it give a political advantage to other parties? Or put someone at risk? Both GPEx and GPRC have to recognise that confidentiality can erode trust in the governance bodies and the wider party, and that is why we have to be very careful about making something confidential.   

What is also not good governance is when a confidential matter is leaked. The scale and speed that information is leaked at is sometimes quite shocking. Leaking also creates another huge challenge to trust. Often, the person who leaks the information thinks they have a justifiable reason – acting like a rescuer of the Party. This is rarely the case.

We have processes in place for members of governance bodies to speak to others, rather than leak information. If any member is concerned about the reason for confidentiality, they should speak to the chair of the committee, their region, or their regional council representative for advice.

Any person who leaks confidential information should remember that we have a collective responsibility to abide by committee decisions, so when they leak information, it erodes trust within the committee they are part of, critically damaging its ability to function properly. They may also harm party members unintentionally by their actions. Our Party's code of conduct is very clear about confidentiality – when it has been agreed, it is not to be breached.  

To me, good governance is related to the concept of checks and balances, where the committee holds certain values and principles that are detailed in standing orders, our constitution, or the code of conduct. We have a duty to challenge each other about the need for confidentiality if we want to be more accountable to our membership and deliver good governance.