Carolyn Bennett May 26th, 2015

By

A civil society needs to hold government to account

Carolyn_Bennett_column

Last month in St. Paul’s we held a truly important conversation about the appropriate response to the Supreme Court ruling on assisted dying. This month we will come together to discuss the crisis in finding housing that is affordable in Toronto.

At all of our Town Hall and Roundtable events in St. Paul’s we benefit from hearing from the knowledgeable people who work in organizations in our community dedicated to identifying the real needs of our citizens and our global responsibilities, and to finding real solutions. From Dying with Dignity, to Community Living, the Cancer Society and SPRINT, these organizations contribute to finding better policies, and deliver real supports and services.

There is also a crescendo of concerned voices across Canada warning us we are going to have to totally rebuild civil society in Canada.

But what does that mean?

Civil society is generally defined by a “community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity.” All our community-based organizations — voluntary, non-profit and social enterprise — together with the non-governmental organizations working across Canada and around the world every day, are contributing their ideas and their hard work.

Canada has always benefitted from the advocacy and efficacy of a strong civil society, in both getting better public policy and delivering the programs necessary to improve our quality of life. Governments have always known it was in civil society that they would find solutions to the challenges facing this huge, diverse country. They recognized that solutions forged “bottom-up” would be infinitely easier to implement “top-down” prescriptions forced on a skeptical community.

In French, there is the wonderful verb, “s’adapter”, which many Quebeckers believe beautifully describes how Canada has always worked. By listening to civil society, Canadian policy makers have been able to anticipate and respond to changing demographics, and to economic, social and environmental challenges.

At its best, government listens to stakeholders, then makes a decision, implements the relevant policy/program in partnership with civil society, measures the results, asks what would work better, listens, adapts, and then makes a better decision. The results are once again measured and the virtuous cycle continues.

Government should in effect function as a complex-adaptive system. Imperative to this process is the rigorous collection of data for which Statistics Canada gained world renown. Also essential is empowering organizations to speak truth to power; governments need to be prepared to listen and learn. Politicians have to be attitudinally correct — i.e., welcome all points of view and treat those with the expertise and the lived-experience with respect.

We are not the only ones to think that this “Canadian way” is getting lost. Last week at Winnipeg: A Public Forum on our Democracy, Maude Barlow said that the current Canadian government “calls people like us enemies of Canada.” She listed many of the institutions that were put in place to give voice and efficacy to civil society that are now gone: the Court Challenges Program; Health Council of Canada; The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy; Canadian Conference of the Arts; National Council on Welfare, Law Reform Commission; Aboriginal Healing Foundation. She listed many other organizations whose funding has been so seriously cut that they are unable to do their jobs. Many have had to close their doors.

Holding government to account is not an easy task. They have way more money and more people. There is a definite power differential. There is even a huge power differential between parliament and government, making it difficult for parliament to scrutinize government properly.

In this increasingly cynical world, it is also impossible to leave the job of holding government to account to opposition parties alone. By definition, political parties are partisan, so opposition parties are sadly tempted to reflexively oppose. Trusted voices from experts and civil society organizations are essential to pushing governments to do better. In order for civil society organizations to be effective, they need two things: stable, adequate core funding; and the ability to speak truth to power without the risk of retaliation.

Fifteen years ago, Minister Lucienne Robillard announced a five-year program called the Voluntary Sector Initiative, which aimed to do three things:
1. Improve the relationship between the government and the voluntary sector;
2. Enhance the capacity of the voluntary sector to serve Canadians; and
3. Improve the legislative and regulatory environment in which the voluntary sector operates.

The issue of core funding was controversial even then. The government had decided that funding individual projects made accountability easier to track.

I think it’s time to press reset on this too. I believe that civil society organizations are perfectly capable of designing accountability measures that would be based on their mission statements that would permit core funding to return. It’s also time for government to encourage, not punish, advocacy. It’s about civic efficacy. It’s about better public policy and designing and delivering programs that are relevant and responsive to the changing needs of Canadians.

I can’t wait!