A Federal Government - Voluntary Sector Accord: Implications for Canada's Voluntary Sector


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Making the Most of the Accord for the Voluntary Sector

Phase I: Development, Engagement and Sign-off

An accord is both a document and a process. One of the primary lessons from other jurisdictions is that process matters. Although the nature of the process may vary, engagement of the broader sector is a critically important aspect. The Joint Table model for developing the accord is a distinctly Canadian variation and, given the positive history in working as a true partnership in getting to the Working Together report in 1999, is well suited to the task.

Attention to several procedural matters, as already noted during the full meeting of the Tables in late November, may facilitate its work:

The responsibility for addressing these operational issues common to all Tables falls mainly to the Joint Coordinating Committee (JCC), but early clarification of them can create a positive working environment at the JAT.

The actual drafting process is not a particularly contentious issue as the staff of the Task Force or the Voluntary Sector secretariat can hold the pen on drafts, under the immediate supervision of the JAT Co-chairs. What is important is that the JAT members carefully review and discuss each draft, considering both general issues and particular language until appropriate compromises and consensus are reached.

Developing the Content of an Accord

There seems to be general agreement on the format of an accord, consisting of a statement of shared vision, principles to guide the relationship, mutual undertakings articulated in a general way for both sides, and provisions for a secondary phase of implementing more specialized codes of conduct. The existing agreements and the mock accords developed for the VSTF provide strong guidance on content so that it should be relatively easy to develop a shared vision and set of principles. Where things may become more tricky is around three potential commitments that relate to sensitive matters for the sector as a whole. The first is advocacy since this is a hot button for most of the sector and Cabinet was not willing to allow the VSI to grapple with it directly in a joint manner. Will the draft explicitly recognize the legitimacy of public policy advocacy by voluntary organizations? The existing accord-like documents vary considerably on this, with those of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Quebec giving specific attention to advocacy and campaigning as a distinctive characteristic of the voluntary sector.

A second issue is funding, for the same reasons as advocacy. Although a supplemental code developed in the implementation phase in Year 2 may spell out specific commitments, will a general statement of the approach to funding be articulated in the accord itself? Again, the existing models vary from quite detailed discussion in England's compact and in the Quebec government's commitments to minimal mention in some of the others.

The third area that may be contentious is a provision for evaluation. Statements regarding expectations around evaluation, performance management and report-back mechanisms are contained in several of the existing accords/frameworks (see those of Quebec and Scotland). Evaluation is a difficult issue for many voluntary organizations given the pressures they are under from governments and other funders to produce performance evaluation reports as a requisite part of contract or project funding, often without adequate resources to do so. Although the sector supports evaluation in a general way, if and how it is dealt with in an accord may raise concerns about increased administrative burden and whether "evaluation" is a code word for outcome measurement.

Finally, a key issue is the monitoring, reporting and complaints processes that make the agreement durable and evergreen. A very effective reporting and monitoring process has been developed in England and Scotland that is worth emulating. In these compacts, however there was no agreement or attempt respectively to spell out a dispute resolution mechanism. As a result, the section on resolution of disagreements is quite vague, putting off the development of mechanisms to strengthen the complaints and redress processes to future consideration. Even if the JAT consciously choses to take an incremental approach to determining how complaints will be addressed, the sector will probably need some clarification of the various ways in which a complaint about conduct by a government department could be made.

Creation of a reference group, currently being put together from the nominees to the Tables who were not selected, should help to provide ongoing feedback to the voluntary sector members during the drafting and engagement stages about how various elements would play in the broader sector. The reference group should be charged with the responsibility, and given resources if necessary, to consult with their broader networks and constituencies, so that wider opinion is canvassed and broader circles of the sector are gradually introduced into the process.

Engaging the Sector and the Federal Government

The stakes and needs of the voluntary sector members of the JAT in the engagement process are different from those of the government members. The engagement process is not just about collecting information on what the broader sector would like to see in an accord, but it is about relationship building, in particular, about the relationship of the sector leadership with the rest of the sector, and about developing a sense of the sector's ownership of the accord process. Although government JAT members need to participate whole heartedly in the engagement process, the sector members have a responsibility to demonstrate their credibility with the diversity of the sector that government members will not experience in the same way. They need to be able to address the questions: Why are you at the Table? Who do you represent? Why should we support you in this process? Such relationship building is not done by workbooks or questionnaires alone. Rather, it demands an engagement process involving opportunities for real two-way dialogue and feedback from the JAT members that the differences within the sector are appreciated.

The operational questions for the engagement process are: At what stage to engage the sector? Whom to consult? By what means? Experience from the Broadent Panel and from other jurisdictions that have developed framework agreements suggests the wisdom of engaging the sector on a draft of an accord. Although it has to be clear that the draft is still amenable to change, people respond well to something concrete, particularly in this case as many would have difficulty imagining the specifics of an accord in the abstract.

On the question of who to engage, it must be remembered that an accord has implications for the sector as a whole, even for organizations that do not have a direct relationship with the federal government, because it will affect how the sector self-regulates and communicates. Thus, the focus of the engagement process should be as broad a diversity of the sector as can possibly be engaged. It might start with, but should not be limited to national organizations.

Real engagement does not happen by flying in and out for a single meeting. Ideas often need to percolate before a truly productive discussion can be had. With this in mind, the process might begin with a series of regional gatherings that are organized by the VSR without the presence of JAT members. The intent would be to begin thinking about the nature of an accord, its implications and the agenda(s) that local and regional organizations would like to set for relationship building. This would pave the way for regional meetings in which JAT members, both government and voluntary sector, are able to undertake a dialogue. The Broadbent model of asking a local host organization to invite a diverse cross-section of representatives of the sector to a meeting works well not only in getting people to attend the event, but in developing local momentum and promoting continuing contact.

National organizations can also be helpful in working in a more vertical manner through their own networks, facilitating their own discussions and providing feedback. Because the national offices of these organizations generally have more policy capacity (limited as it may be) than other organizations in the sector, direct consultations with them can provide valuable information.

Regional meetings and consultations with national organizations can be supplemented by various other means that allow people to provide input, as suggested in the draft consultation frameworks already developed for the VSTF. The key point is that the engagement process cannot be perceived to be just another big government "road show;" rather, it must be a genuine attempt by the national leadership and the JAT to have a dialogue about the relationship and how it is expressed in an accord.

Several questions are likely to arise consistently, particularly from community based organizations, in this process:

Unlike the engagement process in England, the sector leadership cannot advise grassroots organizations to wait for a second round that will produce agreements with local governments which may be more directly relevant to them. It is possible, however, that a successful national accord could stimulate provinces and municipalities to emulate the process. In spite of whether the JAT members can be helpful in prompting local action, the reality of federalism means that they will need to be prepared to answer directly, the question of "what's in it for my organization?"

The engagement process cannot focus solely on the voluntary sector, however. The experience with relationships and practices is in many respects as varied across government departments as it is across the sector. The implementation of the compacts in the UK reveals that one of the biggest potential hurdles is that departments lack knowledge about the agreement and are reluctant or see no reason to change existing practices to comply. To avoid this scenario, a simultaneous process will need to engage senior and front line government officials in a wide range of departments in a dialogue with JAT members about how the draft can be modified and implemented to best meet their needs. This proved to be an important step in the process in England where it was led by government. In the Canadian context, it might be useful to have some discussions that involve only government JAT members and others that include the voluntary sector members as well so that any concerns from the government side are fully understood by the entire Table.

The practical problem will be how to make the engagement process manageable for the members of the JAT since dialogue with the sector and government departments necessarily involves them directly. There is no easy way around this: time will need to be committed, supported by supervisors, and the commitments met so that each of the JAT members attends probably five or six sessions in total.

Signing Off

Because an accord is often assimilated to a contract, considerable attention has focussed on who should sign off on the final agreement on behalf of the sector. But, an accord is not a contract, nor is it the equivalent of a collective bargaining situation in which the union leaders need to seek ratification by the membership. If the engagement process has succeeded in creating a genuine dialogue in which the process is regarded by most of the sector as legitimate and the voluntary sector JAT members as credible representatives, then who signs should not be a particularly controversial point. It would be natural that all the members of the JAT sign, with the government's consent officially sanctioned by Ministers and Parliament. An equivalent endorsement might be considered for the sector. The boards of voluntary organizations could submit their endorsement to the JAT in writing or electronically.20 This would not be a vote with a required threshold to pass, but more in the nature of symbolic support. This approach was rejected in both England and Scotland, largely due to the relatively uncontested authority of NCVO and SCVO respectively to sign on behalf of the sector. Given the more diffuse structure of the sector in Canada, however, such an endorsement could be a useful step in reconnecting the voluntary sector members at the JAT to the sector as a whole and of reinforcing the important notion of the autonomy of the sector. An official signing ceremony could mark the achievement and permit the historic event to be shared outside the Ottawa circle.

Notes

20. In keeping with the principle of respecting the self governing autonomy of the sector, such endorsement should be made by the boards of voluntary organizations.


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