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Board evaluation: North East Catchment Management Authority (NECMA)

Building stronger boards through communication and safe discussions

“It’s critical that a board have safe discussions, particularly during challenging periods,” said the North East Catchment Management Authority (NECMA) board chair, Christine (Chris) Cunningham FAICD.

When NECMA’s board booked an external board evaluation in August 2023, it had experienced two years of stability, regular communication and skills-building under the guidance of an accomplished chair with more than 20 years of boardroom experience.

Some issues raised by internal board assessments in 2021 and 2022 – such as all-day meetings – had been addressed by the time the external review was underway in 2023. This allowed the 2023 review to go deeper.

“Helga did a great job – I’m happy with how she did it,” Chris said. “Her report was very practical and very confirming as a board chair. We’ll re-use the questions for the internal review next year.”

Chris expects that the 2024 review results will be very different. “The board will change, so the issues will change. Communication will be important. A priority for me will be capability building.”

Board evaluation needs

  • Board survey
  • One-on-one interviews with the CEO, chair and six board directors
  • A report to the board that included ‘thought starters’ for areas of focus identified by survey and discussions
  • The presentation of the report to the board and a discussion on some actions to undertake

Key outcomes

  • Confirmation that the board is on the right track
  • Feedback was broadly positive and strong
  • Areas of focus identified, including board engagement, stakeholder engagement and strategic focus
  • Continued fine-tuning in the lead up to the search for three new directors (they have now been appointed)

In highly agenda-driven meetings, there’s not a lot of opportunity to pause and have a chat – to stop, regroup and think. A scheduled facilitated discussion helps boards to explore ideas and make sure that everyone is in sync and to put on the table anything that needs to be improved.”


Board evaluation, 2023


NECMA is one of 10 catchment management authorities established by the Victorian Government in July 1997. It works with the community, government and funding organisations to protect and enhance land, water and biodiversity resources.

AICD principle 4

One of the AICD principles of good governance is that the board’s performance, as well as the performance of the chair and other directors, is periodically evaluated.

Leading the board’s approach

“There’s a ministerial requirement that there is an annual assessment of the board,” Chris said, who was appointed NECMA’s chair in 2021. “It’s up to each CMA (catchment management authority) board itself to decide on the format. The chair leads this, to get agreement on the board’s approach and with an external review recommended every three years.”

Chris has led or participated in numerous board assessments. She was deputy chair of the Royal Children’s Hospital board from 2014 to 2023 (appointed deputy chair in 2017) and chair of the Northeast Health Wangaratta hospital from 2005 to 2014 (appointed chair in 2009). In addition to NECMA, she is also chair of Merriwa , an all-abilities employer.

“I began my career as a nurse then worked in the Department of Health and various hospitals in policy and executive roles,” she said, explaining from the ‘snug’ on her King River property how she was encouraged to apply for the Northeast Health Wangaratta board role due to her medical experience. She found that she loved boards.

She chose to take the NECMA’s board down the “tried and true path” of internal surveys in 2022. The 2022 assessment was used to benchmark the 2023 findings. For Chris, “the first two years were about learning about the organisation and building relationships.” By 2023, they were ready to engage an external reviewer.

The outcome of safe conversations

The CEO, chair and six board members completed the tailored board performance survey in July 2023. Everyone then had the chance to engage in a safe one-on-one conversation with Helga in August 2023.

The one-on-ones included topics guided by the survey results, as well as some more general ‘tried and true’ questions such as:

  • What is working well?
  • How would you describe the board’s ‘value add’ to the organisation?
  • If there was one thing you could change, what would it be?

The NECMA board’s stable position was reflected in the feedback. “Chris has been great at governance and processes, so we then have more time for strategy,” one board member said. “I really enjoy being on the board,” another said.

Some of the identified areas for improvement included:

  • Having an agreed, transparent ‘tracker’ for the board’s involvement in stakeholder events.
  • Continuing to have a mix of face-to-face and hybrid board meetings, whilst also encouraging face-to-face attendance.
  • Using the NECMA cultural competency framework to guide the board’s First Nations engagement.
  • Better board member induction.
  • Encouraging the CEO to do self-care.

“The big issues were already addressed after the first internal assessment,” Chris said regarding why the external board evaluation feedback was so positive and strong.

“For me, it was confirming that we’re on the right track. Part of the reason why the external assessment wasn’t ground-breaking is because we’re a tidy board.”

Chris attributes the “tidy board” state to ongoing “good conversations”. “No matter if you’re going well or badly, it’s important to have an external review every few years, to have a safe space for discussions. There’s always room to do better.”

Different results expected for 2024

“We’re bringing on three new board members, so next year’s board review will probably have different results,” Chris said.

At the time of the 2023 external review, NECMA’s board had expected one, maybe two, but not three board members to leave and be replaced in the new year.

In addition to helping three new directors “get their heads around a government board”, NECMA is facing a “changing landscape” where funding availability is changing with increased “government uncertainty”.

Chris said that she and the board are in a stable place to manage the challenges, supported by “an incredibly competent CEO”. Capacity-building will be prioritised too, preparing the promising deputy chair for the potential chair role.