Is good governance an ethical issue?

Is good governance an ethical issue? It certainly can be. When governance of an organization is flawed, this can and often does create conflicts of interest and interference with the ability of an organization to carry out its mission and mandate. As a result, unethical decisions and behaviours can, and do, arise.

A case in point would be the current governance model of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The decision to create and resource WADA was a bold and necessary act of leadership on the part of international sport and public authorities around the globe. Today, the mission of WADA is to create a harmonized set of rules governing sport in all countries and across all sports (the World Anti-Doping Code), and to monitor and ensure implementation and compliance with the Code by all signatories to the Code.

An essential characteristic of WADA was to be its independence. If WADA was expected to facilitate the development of a harmonized set of anti-doping rules (the Code) and ensure that signatories were implementing the Code in a compliant way, then WADA needed to be free from any influence and interference by stakeholders in the carrying out of this work.

Perhaps inadvertently, WADA’s governance structure was established more along the lines of a member-based association rather than an independent, expert-based organization. In a member-based association, the purpose of the association is to advance the interests of its members. It makes sense then that members would form the governance structure of the association. With an independent, expert-based organization on the other hand (with a purpose which ideally aligns with sport and government objectives), it may at times appear to be in conflict with the interests of its stakeholders. Therefore, the last thing you want is for the stakeholders to be forming the governance of the organization. Unfortunately, WADA’s governance is based more on an association governance model and the inherent conflicts of interest that arise from such a governance model have dogged the agency since its inception. These conflicts of interest and governance interference in WADA operations were underlined in the wake of the recent IAAF and Russian doping scandals.

Amidst these doping scandals – with the world watching – WADA was moved to reform its governance. A Governance Working Group was established. While membership on the Working Group was originally representational, the limitations to this approach were quickly realized and experts in “governance” were added to the Working Group.

The challenge for WADA in creating the appropriate governance structure for their mandate is that their funding comes in equal parts from international sport and the public authorities. This, understandably, creates a desire by the funders to hold WADA accountable for how it spends their money. This is a very reasonable accountability expectation, but it does not have to lead to the governance model WADA was built on. There are appropriate ways to ensure accountability to funders without abdicating operational responsibility (and in turn operational independence) to those same funders. To be effective, WADA needs to always be making decisions on what is in the best interest of doping-free sport and clean athletes, and not what is in the best interest of any sport organization or government.

The early indications from the Governance Working Group have been promising. There was a recognition that there is duplication of mandate and function between the WADA Foundation Board and WADA Executive Committee, and that their membership structure (representational) created perceived and real conflicts of interest which could affect WADA’s operations and independence as the global regulator ensuring compliance with the Code.

At a very high level, the following principles would appear to be necessary to improve the governance structure of WADA and ensure its operational independence:

  • There needs to be an appropriate separation of WADA operations from WADA governance. Let WADA staff do their job and have WADA governance focus on strategic, policy and fiduciary oversight.
  • The duplication of roles and responsibilities among the Executive Board and WADA Management must be eliminated.
  • WADA governance should reflect an expert-based and not representational -based approach from the funding bodies (international sport and public authorities).
  • The Chair and Vice-Chair of WADA Foundation Board and Executive Committee should be free from any conflicts arising from positions or relationships they may have with sport bodies or public authorities.
  • WADA governance should reflect the diversity of all of its stakeholders (e.g., athletes, NADOs, accredited laboratories).
  • Term limits on WADA governance members/directors must be established to ensure healthy turnover of perspectives and knowledge.

The real challenge lies ahead. Will the Governance Working Group have the courage of its convictions and point the organization toward an expert-based governance model or will it revert to the more familiar territory of representation by vested interest?