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


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Learning from Experience, Respecting Differences

The Compact of England

The first compact to be developed, that of England, was the result of a primarily sector-led process, although the sector had strong support from the very beginning from the Prime Minister and the Labour party. The National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO,) England's largest and most encompassing national umbrella group, took responsibility for a Government Relations Working Group that was charged with the task of drafting and negotiating a compact. The Group was comprised of representatives of other national umbrella organizations and chaired independently by Sir Kenneth Stowe, a former senior public servant. In understanding the NCVO's role in the compact, it is important to keep in mind that the organization is much better resourced than most of Canada's national umbrellas, with an annual budget equivalent to more than $8.4 million Cdn and a staff of over 20. The lead of the NCVO gave the process instant credibility, but it was also essential to involve other national organizations. Because certain parts of the sector question the legitimacy of NCVO to act as the national voice for the sector, the real legitimacy of the process had to come from the engagement of the broad span of the sector. Consequently, the largest consultation that the sector has ever seen was held on a draft of the compact. A reference of 67 members representing diverse parts of the sector was also established to serve as a sounding board and provide ongoing advice to the Working Group. This engagement process allowed the voluntary and community sector to be very clear about what it wanted in the relationship and for community groups to ensure that this was communicated to the Working Group.

Consultation was not limited to engaging the voluntary and community sector, however. The government also consulted internally with a range of departments and agencies on the draft in order to understand existing differences in practice, coordinate responses and build commitment for a compact.

"Negotiations" took the form of meetings between the sector's Working Group and an Inter-Ministerial Working Group (representing 13 departments, chaired by the Home Office) with the two parties jointly drafting the final product which was presented to Parliament in November 1998. Once the breakthrough was made that there was, indeed, a shared vision between government and the sector, it became relatively easy to define principles and an agenda for action. The Working Group took an additional step in getting agreement from the opposition Conservative party so that the Compact is truly a bipartisan policy, not merely an agreement with the Labour Government.8

It also became apparent that, because a Compact is only a framework and has to be understood by a diversity of organizations and applicable to a variety of government departments, it could not encompass extensive and highly specific detail. Thus, the process was broken into two stages: the initial agreement on the Compact and the subsequent development of a series of codes of good practice. So far, five such codes had been developed by subgroups of the Working Group, each with government members as observers (sometimes more active) who reserved the right not to accept them. Drawing on the experience of both parties, these codes address practices related to: funding; consultation; volunteering; black and minority ethnic groups; and community action.9 In addition, the national compact has directly stimulated and guided the development of separate compacts between the community sector and local governments.

A key aspect of the implementation phase has focussed on making the sector aware of the compact and training them to use and comply with it effectively. To this end, NCVO has disseminated the codes widely, provided training seminars, and hired a full-time Compact Development Officer to work with community organizations in ensuring that they know what to expect.

Monitoring and reporting have been vitally important to making this non-legal document durable and transparent, although some of these processes are still unfolding. Monitoring is built around an annual report to Parliament which is preceded by an annual meeting involving members of the sector Working Group and key ministers (additional meetings with officials are held as required). The meeting is neither merely ceremonial nor a time for "naming and shaming." Its goal is to produce an action plan with concrete steps to be taken by each side. Consequently, the process is taken seriously and attended by the important Ministers and senior officials. In preparation for this meeting, surveys are conducted of both the sector and government departments to see how well the relationship is working and what impact the compact is having. All of this takes support by both the NCVO which serves as secretariat to the Working Group and the Active Communities Unit in the Home Office which supports the government's participation. Because the emphasis in England has been on dispute avoidance, no specific dispute resolution mechanism is stipulated in the compact, although a more institutionalized process may unfold.

Notes

8. Sir Kenneth Stowe, Presentation to the Annual Conference of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. Toronto, April 1999. Transcript provided by Bowden's Media Monitoring Ltd., p. 11.

9. These codes lay out quite detailed guidelines for practice. For instance, the Code of Good Practice for funding states that in order to promote fair access to funding, the government should among other things, "aim to publish an annual guide to Government grant programmes;" and "consult relevant voluntary and community organisations on the development of new funding programmes." See Funding: A Code of Good Practice (London: Home Office and Working Group on Government Relations, NCVO, 2000).


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