For effective public policy, government and community need to work together
Published on 28/09/2017
To make good public policy decisions and design good programs, we need to have the input of the community. While this seems uncontroversial, why is it that we are so ineffective in achieving it?
Community perspectives are important throughout the policy development process – in understanding the problems we need to solve, in developing solutions that will meet the needs of communities, and in understanding how well those solutions are working on the ground. With deep subject matter expertise and close ties to residents’ realities on the ground, community sector organizations can often act as an early warning system for problems that require public policy responses and sources of ideas about how to address those challenges. They have this expertise because of their roles in service delivery, their place in the community, and also because they represent organizations of people with knowledge and skills who care about an issue.
Community sector organizations often lack the skills, capacity, and willingness to effectively engage in the public policy process. With pressing operational needs and razor-thin operating margins, community organizations find it difficult to make engaging in public policy a priority, even when it is clearly important for their missions. To ensure that the perspectives of the community are reflected in policy development and design, we need to invest in that capacity.
At Maytree, we are aiming to help build this capacity in the community sector in a few ways. We have just launched the application process for the Maytree Policy School which will assist 20 to 25 organizations to be leaders in engaging in public policy as a way of fulfilling their missions. Because non-profits play an essential role in helping engage residents in the policymaking process – especially those who might otherwise face greater barriers to participate – we also launched an initiative called CivicsXchange which helps local community and issue-based organizations engage local residents in government decision-making. We also aim as a funder to invest in organizational capacity to engage in public policy and do related work in research and community engagement.
On their own, investments such as ours only have limited reach. We need to find more ways for community organizations to build the capacity to not just react to but actively engage to help shape better public policy as it is being developed and implemented. At the same time, we need to work on changing the way governments operate.
In many ways, it will take a culture change on the part of government to be truly receptive to advice from community organizations. Over the last decade, governments at all levels in Canada have been making a push towards “open government.” This movement is meant to reflect changing expectations about how people access information, interact with businesses, with each other, and with government. While this has produced some promising efforts particularly around open data and digital service delivery, such efforts unfortunately remain the exception rather than the rule when it comes to how governments engage with the community.
The typical government consultation process still treats community engagement as an afterthought, for example, posting technical documents on a regulatory registry for the legal minimum amount of time with only the most minimal communication. Consultations with more active communication typically happen either so early in a policy process that communities have no meaningful information to react to, or so late that there is no real window to influence direction.
To get better outcomes, we need to change the way we look at these opportunities. The measure of a successful consultation should not be how many residents are engaged, but what government and residents learned from the process. A consultation with broad participation that produced no change to the proposed policy should be seen as a failure rather than a success. It is most likely a sign of a missed opportunity to ask the right questions and provide useful information.
Open government is supposed to be a two-way street – not just about treating people as consumers but also as contributors to better decisions and design of public policy. As we recognize that governments have no monopoly on good policy ideas, we have an opportunity for better and more democratic outcomes. Achieving that reality will take a change in culture and capacity at both sides of the table – governments ready to take the input of outside voices seriously in the policymaking process, and a civil society ready and willing to invest the time and effort to be a valuable contributor to those conversations.
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