Civil Society & Government - Re-thinking the Relationship in a Time of Significant Change - Institute on Governance

Civil Society & Government – Re-thinking the Relationship in a Time of Significant Change

3 minute read

Author: Laura Edgar, Vice President Board and Organizational Governance

Civil society’s impact on governance is being felt in Canada and around the world. The rise of populism, a declining trust in governments, the changing role of (and trust in) media as a neutral, fact-based intermediary, and the impact of technologies on both organizational form and engagement, all suggest that the role of civil society in governance in Canada has, and will continue, to evolve.

Civil society works to meet identified needs within communities – whether social or geographic. In many cases it also plays an important intermediary role in identifying and communicating the concerns and needs of citizens to governments. In addition, some components of civil society – notably the not for profit sector – are increasingly being utilized by governments to support the delivery of services to citizens. The continued health of civil society, and of the government – civil society relationship, is therefore essential. But is Canadian civil society healthy?

Canadian civil society is large and complex, which can make defining the sector and its overall health difficult. Civil society is facing a range of challenges, including how to fund its work, and how to govern and manage its efforts in ways that support effective decision-making, efficient service delivery, and being an effective voice for those it represents. Civil society is becoming increasingly sophisticated and media savvy, and is driven to innovate to support sustainability and deliver on mandate. New organizational forms, including shared service organizations, social enterprises and more, are taking root and driving both consolidation and change in the sector.

Civil society is also facing challenges with its interface with governments, including understanding how to best advocate, inform policy development, and partner with governments to provide public services. While many equate civil society with the not for profit sector there is in reality also wide range of unincorporated civil society groups and movements – large and small – that are trying to make their voices heard. Add to this the complexity and diversity of Canadian civil society – urban and rural, francophone, anglophone and allophone, Indigenous peoples, ethnocultural diversity, LBGTQI2S etc. – and the vast range of issues, perspectives and demands – often competing – that strive for attention, and the complexity of civil society, and those that wish to engage with them, become clear.

So why is this all important? Civil society is a reflection, and voice, of society’s wants, needs, priority issues and concerns. Civil society has the ability to both disrupt and bring together. For governments, effectively anticipating and responding to the diversity and complexity of civil society in Canada, and the changes that are occurring in the sector, will be critical to understanding the issues important to Canadians and developing policies and programs to address them. Governments are increasingly recognizing the importance of moving beyond ‘consultation’ to more effectively engaging with civil society on aspects of policy, service delivery, data gathering and more. To make this transition to a more effective, engaged and collaborative approach, governments need to gain insight into the different interests, capacities, forms and drivers that make up Canadian civil society. In the longer term, improved understanding of civil society and the consistent implementation of more collaborative approaches of engagement should lead to more trust, and support greater social cohesion.

The IOG will be exploring these and other issues as part of its upcoming “Civil Society and Governance in Canada – Rebuilding Trust and Supporting Collaboration.” The 4-session dialogue series, which begins on March 27, 2019 has two goals. First, the IOG, in dialogue with civil society and government representatives, wants explore what is happening within the civil society ecosystem, as well as its relationship with governments. We want the dialogue series itself to support an improved understanding of civil society and start the rebuilding of that critical piece in any relationship – trust. Second, as a result of the dialogue series, we are going to prepare a discussion paper that will inform a broader audience of the challenges and opportunities facing civil society and government, and some ideas for making this critical relationship work better. Click here to learn more.

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