Fellowship of the Ring: Government and civil society

Commitment to social justice can erode in times of austerity, change, and uncertainty. The divergent views of the blue-ribbon panel that opened the 2014 International Research Society for Public Management Conference at Carleton University are a sign of challenging times:

  • People have never been more dependent on government.
  • Deficits in public trust, consultation, and advocacy make it easier to mess up.
  • Industrial-age regulation is failing in the modern digital era.
  • People must make it happen where government obstructs progress.
  • Business has a responsibility to improve society, not just make money.
  • There is a growing marketplace for unmet needs and social good outcomes.

How is government changing in response to cross-sector manifestos like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’? Will problem solving, networking, negotiation, and collaboration remain at the heart of the future state? What are the implications for civil society?

Canadians enjoy quality of life derived largely from the public value added by an activist Third Sector. Volunteerism and contributions per capita are traditionally double those of our more affluent American neighbours. There are over 86,000 charities, making up a $190 billion sector, employing two million people, and accounting for seven percent of GDP. The minefield of law, policy, advocacy, politics, and funding is complex and fraught with perils.

International Development Minister Christian Paradis makes the case for partnering with civil society to strengthen democratic governance and development: “Civil society engages citizens in their countries’ decision-making processes that affect them. Empowered by the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, civil society enables citizens to hold their governments to account, providing legitimacy to the governing institutions, which in turn ensures growth and sustainable development and reduces poverty.”

The Minister recently announced an initiative to develop the capacity of civil society organizations in 50 countries. At the same time, Canada stepped back by suspending £10 million in annual funding to the Commonwealth during Sri Lanka’s two-year term as Chair in Office. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird levied sanctions in protest of Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

Paired with British cuts to public sector development, Commonwealth governments can expect diminished support for technical cooperation. Funding leakage could impair the work of 77 accredited Commonwealth organizations like the Commonwealth Foundation that work with civil society.

Canada is sending mixed messages. It may regret stepping outside the Commonwealth tent where it has influence. It risks relegation to the ranks of those who are not always welcome in developing countries.


John Wilkins
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Associate Director with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca or johnkwilkins@gmail.com).

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