“Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” Learning the Game of Governance in an Australian Mental Health Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)
This thesis explores my participation as a new board director (trustee) in the everyday work of an NGO involved in mental health research in Australia. I have employed collaborative narrative auto-ethnography, which has allowed me to pay attention to the granularity of my experience. This includes joining the board, raising funds from donors, hiring and firing, and doing strategy to develop some reflections on the constraints and possibilities in the role and responsibilities of governing. In doing so I have come to emphasize the importance of ethics and recognition, particularly the recognition of beneficiaries which the NGO is set up to serve, as generalisable insights on governance. Having influence, and being accepted, have required me to learn to play the game of organisational life. This has involved my becoming more fluent with power, politics and recognition. I have been caught in the paradox of recognising and being recognised. To illuminate these processes better, I have drawn in particular on Axel Honneth to understand recognition, and on Bourdieu to understand the power involved in reciprocity of the gift exchange which links his work with the Chinese concepts of face. Drawing on Hannah Arendt and Foucault has helped me better understand power, politics and ethics, particularly in relation to the mentally unwell. The experience of becoming a new trustee has called out particular resonance for me as a settled immigrant to Australia, but it is also an experience which is generalisable for any person trying to join a new group. I have noticed certain organising themes of being together as a group of trustees in this particular organisation. The organization privileges conformity, convergence and positivity because of the way it is governed and managed. Conflict appears predominantly as a disturbance: people feel misrecognized, subordinated or misrepresented as ineffectual. The foundation board considers its principal role be that of raising funds, approving the budgets, agreeing with the vision and mission while keeping everything steady. This leads me to explore and evaluate other, more developmental, governance models which may be more fitting with the organization’s moral mission. My research suggests a pattern which I am experiencing in the mental health sector particularly: high emotions and conflict displayed in public appear very much as psychological disturbance or as maladaptation of the individual. My research focus is on the dissonance between the mission of the NGO, which is to improve the quality of life for the mentally unwell, and the way we treat dissenting voices in the organisation. If we cannot manage disturbance within the organisation, I am prompted to wonder whether we can do full justice to the stakeholders we are supposed to serve. These are the very people who feel misrecognized or unrecognized and who are deemed mentally unwell precisely because they have refused to be ’managed’ to conform and who sometimes act out. This has led me to think about Arendt’s notion of action which can only happen in the public realm by speaking out and by taking risks on the board so as to become visible to others, and to encourage others to do the same. I have tried to open conversations about what we are doing and why we are doing it, what we value as important, to try and introduce difference. Although my thesis focuses on the governance and management of an NGO undertaking mental health research, my contributions to practice and theory are resonant for the way in which any organization takes up the issues of politics and power.
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