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Rebuilding Cohesion and Trust: Why Government Needs Civil Society

Recommendations to improve the way in which governments at all levels work with civil society to strengthen dialogue and debate. 

In democracies like Canada’s, civil society and governments have a long history of constructive engagement.

The relationship has evolved over time, often in response to changes in the social and political environment. Today, huge new trends – including the emergence of social media, the rise of populism, the disruption of mainstream media, the ongoing digital revolution, and accelerating globalization – are transforming our society.  

Changes on this scale are usually disruptive, and these are no exception. Sharp declines in both social cohesion and trust in public institutions are deeply worrying consequences. These two factors are vital to a healthy democracy, and the pressure on governments to respond is growing. 

Social cohesion arises from shared goals and values. It can be rebuilt by rallying Canadians around solutions to the emerging issues of our day. Solution-focused leadership will also rebuild trust. Though the task is clear, the political challenge is formidable: Can leaders unite Canadians around a set of solutions? This kind of leadership gets harder as the issues get more complex and social cohesion and trust decline.   

IOG launched this project in early 2019 to address two different but related sets of issues – first, to explore ways to strengthen the relationship between governments and civil society, and second, to address concerns over the loss of social cohesion and over falling levels of public trust in public institutions, especially government. These issues were explored through a two-pronged approach: 

A series of four half-day dialogues was held between March and June 2019. Each dialogue attracted 30 to 40 representatives from the two sectors (i.e., government and civil society); they met, listened to experts speak on different aspects of the relationship, and discussed what they had heard without pressure to arrive at a decision or consensus.  

The first dialogue session focused on social cohesion, public trust, and the state of public discourse between civil society and government. The second and third dialogues examined two principal means by which civil society and government interact – advocacy and service delivery, respectively – and discussed how these relationships have evolved in recent decades. The fourth dialogue focused on diversity, empathy, and ways to rebuild social cohesion and public trust.   

A small working group of nine people from government and civil society attended the dialogues; they met a week after each dialogue to discuss ideas that arose from or were related to the topics explored in the dialogue.  

IOG research demonstrates that declining levels of public trust are eroding the capacity for productive public dialogue and debate within democracies like Canada’s. The research also suggests that a primary obstacle to rebuilding social cohesion and repairing public trust is neither the population nor the issues, but the process. While people can be united through effective public engagement processes, poor or non-existent public engagement creates divisions among citizens and may even polarize or paralyze public discourse. A second obstacle is often the disposition and skills of those in government and civil society who are tasked to work together.  

This paper offers three recommendations to improve the way in which governments at all levels work with civil society to strengthen dialogue and debate. Collectively, these recommendations provide the foundation for a new type of engagement process that governments could use to begin rallying citizens and communities around shared goals.  

Real progress will require new tools and new skills – ones better suited to the changing environment – and civil society has much to contribute here. Civil society’s role brings it into close contact with communities and citizens, who look to these organizations to help articulate public needs and concerns, and to provide many of the programs and services that citizens need. 

Governments would benefit significantly from the kind of “partnership” we propose in this paper, but there is a cost: they must be willing to experiment with new and more effective processes for engaging civil society on policy, service delivery, data collection, and more.  

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