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10 tips for boards

Alan Hough shares what boards need to know about human rights, quality, and safeguarding.


Updated 15 Apr 202410 Feb 2023

In response to Alan’s presentation to the DSC Quality and Safeguarding Conference, we invited him to share what boards need to know about human rights, quality, and safeguarding.

1. “We,” not “they”

My first point is that some directors need to change their language and thinking. The people we support are not “they” – they are not “other”. Inclusivity starts with “we”.

And speaking of “we”, including people with disabilities on our boards and management teams is a good first step in more inclusive governance and management.

2. Govern for human rights, quality, and safeguarding

In my experience, directors join boards of disability service providers because they want to make a positive difference in the lives of the people their organisation supports. As a director, you can’t do that without governing for human rights, quality, and safeguarding. There are seven steps you need to take:

  • Understand rights and responsibilities
  • Know about the people you support and the people supporting them
  • Know the risks
  • Assure that the basics are right: that staff have the right attitude, and that practice is person-centred
  • Assure that the risks are addressed
  • Understand when things are going right and wrong
  • Embed learning and action

Circular flowchart called Right on Board. 1. Understand rights and responsibilities. 2. Know about the people supported and the people supporting them. 3. Know the risks. 4. Assure that the basics are right. 5. Assure that the risks are addressed. 6. Understand when things are going right and wrong.. 7. Embed learning and action.

3. Understand our individual and organisational legal liability for harm

You should govern for human rights, quality, and safeguarding for moral and ethical reasons. However, you should also understand that, in some circumstances, there can be organisational or personal legal liability under the NDIS legislation concerning incidents of harm to people supported, along with health and safety legislation covering harm to both staff and people supported.

For example, in all states and territories other than Victoria, directors and executives have “due diligence” responsibilities. Directors have a legal obligation to be proactive. Try this quick quiz (and don’t be tempted to fudge your answers!).

  • I have up-to-date knowledge of work health and safety.
  • I understand the nature of the organisation’s work and associated hazards and risks.
  • I ensure that we have appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks.
  • I ensure that we have appropriate processes to receive and consider information about incidents, hazards, and risks and that we respond in a timely manner.
  • I ensure that the organisation has and implements processes for complying with work health and safety duties.
  • I verify that the relevant resources and processes are provided and used.

If you did not answer yes to every statement, you are in breach of your legal duty of due diligence.

4. Have a working knowledge of critical concepts

Directors need to understand key concepts such as the human rights approach, person-centredness, and risk management.

  • The human rights approach is based on the social model of disability, which is different from both the “medical model” and the traditional “charity model” of supporting “the sick and maimed”.
  • Person-centredness means that we are genuinely focused on the needs and goals of each person our organisation supports.
  • Risk management involves more than financial and reputational risks. Your risk register should have risks to people at the top of the register – both the people you support and workers.

5. Understand what “good” looks like

Do you know what good support looks like for the people your organisation supports in terms of their strengths and challenges?

  • For people with intellectual disabilities, does your organisation implement person-centred active support and engage workers in practice leadership?
  • For people with psychosocial disabilities, to what extent does your organisation apply recovery-oriented practice and trauma-informed care?
  • For children with disabilities receiving early intervention support, to what extent does your organisation apply family-centred practices?

6. “Hear” the “voices” of the people supported and of staff

The Disability Royal Commission has appropriately raised the issue of whether directors are taking time outside the boardroom to meet the people their organisation supports, their families (where appropriate), and the staff supporting them. Does your board have an annual rotation for site visits, with one or two directors at a time meeting with clients and staff?

7. Draw on multiple sources of information

Related to the previous point, if you are not already receiving it, you should be asking for information about rights, quality, and safeguarding not only from the CEO but also from others. You need to know the views of the people supported and of the workforce about these issues. You also need to know what internal audits are revealing about the quality and safety of the support being provided. You need to understand the data about complaints, incidents, any use of restrictive practices, and the overall story that the data is telling.

8. Yes, it is partly about culture, but how will you influence it?

Whenever I work with directors on promoting human rights, quality, and safeguarding, the first response is that the answer lies in organisational culture. To some extent, this is true. But what do you and your colleagues actually mean by culture? What are the board’s strategies for understanding and promoting an organisational culture focused on human rights, quality, and safeguarding? When things go wrong, does your organisation resort to the classic “blame and train” approach? Consider not only what the worker involved in an incident might learn but also the learning and action needed by the team and the organisation.

9. Understand that achieving quality and safety is not always straightforward

Some people have a simple understanding of quality and safety. However, there are numerous examples of serious harm resulting from the combination of many small failures: preventing these incidents is much more challenging than avoiding simple failures. Does your organisation use case studies in team meetings to examine when things have gone wrong because of multiple “small” failures to promote learning and action?

10. Get training in human rights, quality, and safeguarding

If your board and management team have not undertaken relevant training in the issues discussed in this article, consider doing so. Any new directors and executives appointed should also have appropriate training to ensure that everyone is on the same page. At this time, options include “Right on Board: Governing for Human Rights, Quality and Safeguarding” and “Governing to Protect Vulnerable People”, which was developed by the Australian Institute of Company Directors.


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