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

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An Accord: The Big Picture

Why is the federal government so keenly interested in developing a framework agreement with the voluntary sector? Why is an accord equally important for the voluntary sector at this time? Interest in a Canadian accord is not a casually borrowed idea, but grows out of a significant change in how government works. Not only did governments get leaner in the 1990s, but they came to realize that they could not govern and deliver services on their own in a traditional unilateral, uniform manner. As the Prime Minister said at an international conference of volunteer managers in Edmonton in August 1998: "After decades of thinking otherwise, we have had to come to terms - squarely and honestly - with the truth. That governments don't have the wisdom or the resources to do everything."3 In many cases, not only can voluntary organizations deliver services more efficiently, but they can do so more effectively as well.

In addition, the federal government has realized that it, like many others, has lost visibility and credibility with citizens. The provinces overwhelming get credit for the services that most directly touch people's lives, and transfers and tax credits have rendered the federal government's indirect funding role in these virtually invisible. Trust in government can be rebuilt, it is assumed, by creating more social capital, that is, by building bonds of trust among citizens through participation in voluntary associations, which in turn should have a positive spin-off in increasing trust in government.4 The construction of social capital cannot be done by governments alone, but is a distinctive contribution of the voluntary sector. Therefore, governments need the voluntary sector more than ever, both as a partner in service delivery and in encouraging citizens to be more actively engaged in civic life. The process of governing thus needs to build stronger, more collaborative relationships with the sector and to provide the requisite policy tools that will enable the sector to fulfil its unique role in Canadian society.

During the course of the 1990s, the voluntary sector in Canada, as elsewhere, began a major transformation of its own from a model based on charity - that is, of the advantaged helping the less fortunate - to one based on civil society.5 The measure of a vibrant civil society is not just better services, but stronger communities and more active citizens. Although helping the disadvantaged through the provision of services remains a central part of what the sector does, there is a growing interest in helping communities help themselves, engaging in public policy dialogue, and encouraging participation by citizens. In recent years, the sector has come to recognize its distinctive strengths, act more cohesively as a sector, and begun to demand to be treated as an equal partner by governments.

The convergence of these two trends within government and within the sector has created an opportunity to establish in a more formal way the parameters of a better relationship, backed up by guides for everyday conduct that will enable the desired relationship to be achieved. The significance and potential value of an accord in shaping new relationships as these fundamental changes continue to unfold should not be under estimated. Nor should it be over valued. An accord alone will not produce change, nor is it necessarily the primary mechanism for renewing the relationship. In many respects, an accord reflects a consolidation of the considerable change that is already underway at the departmental and governmental level in working more constructively with the sector. Without the broader infrastructure - such as stable and fair funding policies, an enabling regulatory environment, appropriate institutions to support the relationship, and opportunities for real dialogue on policy issues - an accord would be worthless.


3. Quoted in Patrick Johnston, 'Strengthening Voluntary Sector/Government Relations in Canada', Paper presented to the Independent Sector 2000 Annual Conference Pre-Session, Washington DC, October 2000, p. 9.

4. See Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

5. Civil society is defined by Walzer as naming "the space of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks - formed for the sake of family, faith, interest and ideology - that fill this space." See Michael Walzer, "The Civil Society Argument," in Gersohn Shafir, ed., The Citizenship Debates: A Reader. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 291-2. For a discussion of the transition within the sector, see Susan D. Phillips, "Voluntary Sector - Government Relationships in Transition: Learning from International Experience for the Canadian Context," in Kathy Brock and Keith G. Banting, eds., The Nonprofit Sector in Canada. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, forthcoming).

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