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


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Best Case Scenarios

An accord is not a cure-all for the chronic under-funding of voluntary organizations, the increased demand for services or the pressures of volunteer recruitment and management that many face. It does have strong potential, however, to improve the situation of voluntary organizations in three respects: If the accord is successful in influencing everyday practice, it should encourage both "better" practices within government departments and greater consistency in practices across departments. "Better" in this context refers to practices that meet the needs and the capacities of the sector, that permit it to fulfil its potential and that are transparent and understandable. The most likely areas to see improvement are in practices related to: funding; consultation and information sharing; evaluation; and accountability and reporting requirements. The reason is that these practices are most readily codified. These areas are also the ones in which government has the most impact on the day-to-day operations of voluntary organizations.

Because the interest in an accord is part of a broader change in governance, it is also likely in a best case scenario to positively influence government's attitudes toward the sector. The joint processes of developing and of ongoing monitoring of an accord should enhance the federal government's understanding of the sector, its divisions and politics, potential and limitations, and thereby increase mutual trust as well. In the best case, an accord should serve to enhance the autonomy of the sector relative to government and position it as being seen by government as autonomous. Indeed, several of the existing accords officially recognize the sector's independence up front. Central aspects of the sector's autonomy are the ability and capacity of voluntary organizations to engage in public policy advocacy as a basic responsibility and to undertake strategic, long term planning. Therefore, an accord will necessarily place longer term pressures on the federal government to address issues of the regulation of advocacy and stability of funding regimes. As the process of governing by relationship building unfolds, however, the federal government may become less resistant to addressing these issues, so by the time an accord is fully implemented, they may cease to be hot issues at all. By taking on explicit responsibilities and being seen as a autonomous party, the legitimacy, stature and visibility of the sector with the Canadian public might subsequently be enhanced.

The best case scenario would also see greater cohesion within the sector in the form of increased trust and understanding between the national leadership and the diversity of community based organizations. Development of an accord requires the sector to think and act like a sector, with leadership that appreciates and responds to its various layers of differing needs, interests and capacities. Through the process of engaging the grassroots in the development of an accord, the national leadership will need to demonstrate an understanding of local issues and differences, communicate this effectively to government and back to the grassroots. Over the longer term, the need to develop appropriate means for monitoring and reporting on the sector's own behaviour that is entailed in an accord should also promote the development of stronger structures for leadership at the national level and ongoing means of communication across the sector. Such monitoring will require not only informal processes of communication, but machinery of some sort. The increased self-regulation inherent in this has the potential to improve accountability practices at the sectoral level and encourage boards to provide more effective oversight and direction at the organizational level. The development of greater capacity for accountability within the sector is likely to have a positive impact on the public's already high degree of trust in the sector.

Finally, a national accord may have a positive effect on relations with provincial and municipal governments, particularly if those not already engaged in a process of building more constructive relationships choose to emulate the national accord. For many local organizations, it is at the municipal and provincial levels that the real impact of a better relationship will be felt. A national accord can serve to create expectations about the mutual benefits that can be realized through such an agreement in a way that prompts action by local communities and other governments.

Is there any evidence from the countries which have developed accord-like instruments that the impact is, in fact, positive? Although it is still too early to truly assess the effects of the original compacts in the UK, the evidence from the 2000 joint annual meeting to review England's compact (the first report following the development of Codes of Practice) provides some indication of a positive effect on how departments deal with the sector. A survey of government departments showed that 75 percent said they had seen a positive improvement in their relationships with voluntary organizations over the past year; one-third indicated that the compact had been helpful in guiding this relationship and 58 percent said it was too early to tell what effects the compact has had.6 Although government has improved its funding practices for the sector, the annual review indicated that there is still considerable work to be done in the area of consultation where variation across departments remains significant. In addition, the national accord has spun off the establishment of local compacts with the result that by the end of 2000, one-third of local governments in England are covered by such agreements.

Interviews with voluntary sector leaders in Scotland indicate a somewhat greater degree of skepticism about whether the compact will actually improve practices over the long run. However, Scotland is still in the midst of a broader devolution of political institutions and is experiencing a significant shift in power from the administrative to the political level that makes it more difficult to assess short or longer term impacts. What is evident from both cases, is that it takes longer than a year or two for real effects - positive or negative - to be felt.

Notes

6. Working Group on Government Relations, "Annual Meeting to Review the Compact on Relations between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector in England: Action Plan for Implementing the Compact in 2000/01" (London: NCVO, April 2000).


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