Recent events with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) have illustrated how critical the presence of disability leaders is to good policy and decision making affecting disabled people.
The NDIS continues to have no disabled people in its executive leadership team, and there are no disabled people on the board following a recent retirement. The NDIS is developing policy, and making decisions, about the lives of disabled people without a single disabled person in the room.
As an organisation that is solely focused on disability, they should have a presence of more than 50 percent disability in both the board room and the executive leadership team (to align with international benchmarks); however, nearly a decade after the National Disability Insurance Agency was established there continues to be an absence of disability in its critical decision making spaces.
The outcome of the recent attempt to introduce independent assessments is a powerful reminder of why the presence of disabled people in these decision making spaces is vital. Without the deeper industry and community knowledge, and the wealth of expertise, associated with being a disabled person it is impossible to make a good disability related decisions.
The NDIS has been relying on an advisory body throughout its decade of existence; in other words, they rely on being able to consult disabled people when it suits them. If the expertise of that advisory body is so valuable, why isn’t it in the board room and on the executive team?
In our 2018 global scan the Disability Leadership Institute discovered that advisory groups don’t work. Yet they continue to be a popular mechanism for introducing diverse voices, particularly consumer voices, into board rooms. The key finding of that global scan was that advisory groups are only as effective as the bridge between them and the organisation they are advising. When this breaks down, as it inevitably does, the advisory group becomes marginalised and unheard. It is common for advisory bodies’ advice to be ignored if it is inconvenient or bears a cost burden.
Have advisory groups become a way of avoiding genuine diversity; a way of avoiding the hard work of developing an inclusive culture where diverse voices are present throughout the decision making structure of organisations?
Perhaps advisory groups are a sloppy way of admitting that diversity makes executives and boards uncomfortable? After all, having diversity in the room, particularly disability diversity, remains unusual. It appears the majority of organisations still find it challenging to put the two words disability and leadership into the same sentence. The NDIS certainly seems challenged by disability leadership, given their persistence in avoiding it.
Trusting disability leaders to be competent contributors remains outside scope for many in decision making positions, perhaps because they remain unfamiliar with the enormous benefits that disability diversity brings, including greater levels of innovation and problem solving.
The prevailing assumption persists that there are few board ready disabled people, despite the Disability Leadership Institute having several hundred disability leaders listed on the National Register of Disability Leaders.
Is it only prejudice that is getting in the way of building board diversity?
Perhaps it is also a lack of innovation as organisations continue with their old methods of recruiting board members – methods they have become comfortable and settled in, and which provide a steady pipeline of old fashioned non-diverse talent. After all, most high level boards are still appointed on “merit” from known networks; processes designed to maintain the existing narrowcast non-diverse pool of mainly older, mainly white, mainly male board members they are familiar with.
The NDIS is a microcosm of the broader issue surrounding the lack of disability diversity in board rooms and on executive teams; unfortunately, it has become clear that this lack of diversity is a significant hindrance to it generating good policy and making good decisions, resulting in significant costs to the disability community of time, energy, and funds.
The Disability Leadership Institute calls on all Australian governments to ensure that all future appointments to the board of the NDIS, and its executive leadership team, are disabled people and that this continues until the benchmark of over 50 percent presence of disability is achieved.
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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person