A Victoria University doctoral graduate became a 'fly on the wall' of a major public health service network to explore the way its Board of Directors perceived its role and governed the organisation.
Dr Maree Fitzpatrick said the 18 months she spent observing the network's hospital and clinics was unique in corporate governance research since boards rarely allowed outsiders direct access to this level of confidential decision-making.
Dr Fitzpatrick said there was a dearth of academic research on public sector governance, despite organisational reforms in recent years aimed at making the sector more entrepreneurial, flexible, and less reliant on government funding.
"Often in these times of increasing corporate collapse and widely publicised company failures, the dominant focus is on economic performance and compliance when analysing corporate governance," she said.
"But questions concerning the less obvious human elements involving ethics and decision-making are left largely unaddressed and unresolved."
Her thesis, 'Corporate Governance in the Victorian Public Health Sector', examined all aspects of governance at the health service using a range of techniques, including direct observation, interviews and surveys.
One major observation was that finance discussions dominated the agenda at board meetings, leaving little time for subcommittee reports.
"These reports can provide meaningful insights as to how organisational decision-making is being perceived by staff. While it is important to meet the bottom line, staff ideas and observations can assist in promoting best practice governance."
Her research also looked gender equity. Although public sector boards generally have a good record of female representation due to active government recruitment and commitment, Maree's research showed maintaining that equity was difficult, because there were few women with the necessary skills and experience. Those who qualified were in hot demand.
By interviewing and surveying employees, Dr Fitzpatrick found a gap between the way board members thought staff understood the organisation's mission and values, and the way that staff actually understood them.
"In management theory, mission and vision statements have been regarded as anything between a linchpin and a toothless tiger, but for good governance, it is important that staff are actively engaged in their creation", she said.
Maree said the findings from her research could be extrapolated to other organisations.
Dr Fitzpatrick was awarded a scholarship by VU's Faculty of Business and Law to undertake her research, and received a Doctor of Philosophy for her study last year.
Dr Fitzpatrick is available for interview.
Ann Marie Angebrandt, Marketing & Communications Department, Victoria University
Ph: 03-9919-5487; mobile 0403 556 001