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

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In the midst of a complex process, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of how significant a change in direction the federal government's participation in the VSI represents for the voluntary sector. After all, it was only a few years ago that the federal government was slashing funding and dismissing voluntary organizations as "special interests." The current interest in the sector is not likely to pass quickly because it is one manifestation of a shift in the nature of governance from governing mainly through programming, centred in traditional departmental hierarchies, to governing through collaboration that necessitates relationship building with partners and coordination across departments. The development of an accord is an important element in relationship building that can be enormously positive for the sector by recognizing its autonomy, building mutual trust and shared expectations, and putting in place better and more consistent practices for how the relationship is lived on a daily basis.

An accord is also an opportunity - indeed, it will demand - relationship building by the national level of the sector with the diversity of the community level. For the accord to produce the best possible results for the sector as a whole, three things need to be considered up front. The first is the content of the accord: What are the key aspects of the relationships that the sector at all levels would like to change and how can these be encoded? What kinds of monitoring, reporting and compliance mechanisms would give the accord continued relevance and influence in shaping how government departments and voluntary organizations actually behave? How can the accord be made a living document not one encumbered by the period it was developed?

Engagement of the sector in the process is the second key element. The legitimacy of the process and the credibility of the leadership at the JAT rests largely on how truly engaged the rest of the sector feels. Indeed, considerable damage could be done to the sector's leadership and its efforts over the past five years to create a stronger, more cohesive sector if the grassroots feel that the accord is just an Ottawa exercise. Thus, the interests of the voluntary sector members of the JAT in the engagement phase are not the same as those of their government counterparts, and the process needs to be sensitive to making it constructive for relationship building within the sector.

Finally, the accord means that the sector, over the longer term, will need to begin to develop the capacity to fulfil its role as an equal partner in the relationship. An accord implies stronger measures of accountability and self-regulation within the sector, appropriate means of evaluation, inclusive and democratic practices, better cross-sectoral communication, stronger policy analytical capacity, and enhanced training and skills development. This may require some structural and procedural changes, but more than anything rests on strong leadership, particularly collaboration and cooperation among national organizations. The sector is already moving in the direction of thinking and acting more like a sector. An accord need not impose unnecessary burdens, but could provide an additional impetus for developing as a strong, cohesive sector better able to serve more complex community needs and promote more active citizenship.


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