In recent years, my research of multi-level governance in Canada has encompassed 13 case studies, dealing with six policy areas in three Canadian cities. Taken together, those studies provide a considerable body of evidence that the quality of national policies could be improved if local communities, or their authentic representatives, had a bigger role in policy formulation and implementation. They show with equal clarity that, while the federal government pays lip service to the importance of community input into policy-making, federal politicians and public servants are reluctant to match their words with action. A quick look at some of the studies my research assistants and I conducted provides a glimpse of these findings.
In two of the policy areas we studied, the federal government devolved a great of the responsibility for policy-making and implementation to the provincial or local levels with the explicit objective of ensuring the appropriateness of policy outcomes to the distinct circumstances of different communities. The policies in question were the National Homelessness Initiative (NHI) and federal-provincial agreements regarding immigration and settlement.
My research assistants and I looked at how each of those programs were being implemented in three Canadian cities – Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saint John, New Brunswick. Two policy areas in each of three cities added up to six case studies in all, and we had the opportunity, through interviews and documentary evidence, to look closely at the capacity of local stake-holders to participate in policy formulation and implementation in all six cases.
In all but one of the cases, we found stakeholders that not only had the expected intimate understanding of the situation in their community, but were also well versed in the literature, knowledgeable regarding experiences in other communities relevant to their area of interest, and entirely capable of organizing themselves to study options, formulate priorities, and implement them. The one exception was the immigration and settlement stake-holder community in Saint John, and the reason for its unfitness to contribute constructively to policy-making and implementation was not any lack of ability or knowledge. The problem, rather, was a long-standing feud within the community that stood in the way of co-operation among those concerned with immigration and settlement issues.
Despite the apparent willingness and ability of five of the six sets of stake-holders to contribute to policy-making, in only one of the six cases did senior government officials listen and respond genuinely to community representations. In the three National Homelessness Initiative case studies, the reason was straightforward: the Canadian federal government was determined to maintain an earlier decision to retreat from the provision of affordable housing. When the problem of homelessness in Toronto became too conspicuous to ignore, the NHI was created, with the bizarre proviso that none of the funds contributed by the federal government could be used for the provision of housing.
Anxious to be responsive to community concerns about homelessness, but unwilling to pick up the hot potato of affordable housing, federal officials descended into a spin doctor’s nether-world of pretense unmatched by action. Federal officials turned a deaf ear when they were informed by stake-holders that, actually, affordable housing had an important role to play in addressing the problem of homelessness. During the first three years of the program covered by our studies, homelessness advocates and service providers found that, in order to qualify for federal funding, they had to put in proposals for such things as emergency shelters, services to street people and homelessness research. Any money for affordable housing became dependent on the much slenderer resources of the provincial and municipal governments.
Our study of immigration and settlement in Winnipeg, by contrast, offered an example of what can be accomplished when a senior government is able to muster the necessary flexibility to develop productive working relations with community organizations. Winnipeg and a number of other Manitoba communities were anxious to promote immigration in order to address a variety of labour shortages that were bottle-necking economic development. When the province was finally able to conclude an agreement with the federal government that allowed it to nominate immigrants to fill the jobs that were going begging, it hit the ground running.
As Martine August and I show in a draft study, the provincial government looked to community organizations to play an active role in both selection of immigrants and their integration into Canadian life. The declining Jewish community, for example, was looking for new members, the Société franco-manitobaine wanted to encourage the immigration of French speakers, and in the flourishing Filipino community there was a demand to bring in family and friends. Provincial officials worked closely with organizations representing the communities, in some instances devolving some of the implementation to them, and took care to ensure that terms governing the program, and methods of implementation, were adjusted from time to time to address difficulties that arose.
Despite difficulties, the program has been widely recognized as a big success, and it is being emulated elsewhere. The achievement is all the more impressive in light of its rarity. It is not easy for officials to display openness toward community involvement that will almost inevitably include criticism, especially when many of them are working within governments for whom the flavour of the month is a generalized disbelief in the efficacy of government.
But Manitoba’s example demonstrates that showing receptiveness to community involvement is not only the right thing to do, in the sense that it may open up important avenues for democratic participation, it can also be the smart thing. Community members are invariably in possession of local knowledge that can play a crucial role in intelligent policy formulation and implementation. If they can muster the necessary flexibility, and a thick skin for criticism, governments can avoid many an expensive mistake, and recruit important assistance in getting their jobs done, by inviting community leaders, and in some cases, the broader community, to participate.
In recent years, the federal government has not had much success in finding the necessary flexibility. One of the ways it has tried to avoid the onus of that failure has been to claim that its programs build “community capacity” and “enhance community leadership.” Such claims were made for the National Homelessness Initiative, and they were also made in another program my assistants and I studied, the Urban Aboriginal Strategy. In a study we did for a Major Collaborative Research Initiative, under the leadership of Robert Young of the University of Western Ontario – neither of whom bear responsibility for our findings – we concluded that Winnipeg’s aboriginal community, like the city’s community of service providers to homeless people, do not require the assistance of federal public servants to build their leadership skills.
Winnipeg’s aboriginal community has strong leaders in provincial or local organizations involved in aboriginal governance. At the provincial level there are the Aboriginal Council of Manitoba, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Manitoba Métis Federation and Mother of Red Nations. Three of these provincial organizations have a signficant presence in Winnipeg, including the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, the Manitoba Métis Federation (Winnipeg Region) and Mother of Red Nations (East Region). There is plenty of competent aboriginal leadership, both within these organizations and elsewhere in the community.
The Winnipeg aboriginal community, and other aboriginal communities across Canada, face serious difficulties, and governments have important roles to play in addressing them, but the best help government can offer is not to make decisions for them, or to tell them how to act or what to think. It is to to draw on their knowledge, learn from it, and put it to work in programming.
The findings summarized in this blog entry are carefully documented in draft studies, dealing with immigration and settlement in Winnipeg
and Saint John and in the following published studies:
Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.
Christopher Leo and Martine August, “National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15 (1) (supplement) 2006, pp. 1-21.
The statements regarding the Urban Aboriginal Strategy are drawn from a draft that is not yet quite ready for posting on the internet. It will be added to this entry as soon as it is.
Here are some other published works from my series on multi-level governance.
Christopher Leo and Todd Andres, “Unbundling Sovereignty in Winnipeg: Federalism through Local Initiative.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 2008, forthcoming.
Christopher Leo and Mike Pyl, “Multi-level Governance: Getting the Job Done and Respecting Community Difference.” Canadian Political Science Review, 1 (2) 2007 September. Available at the CPSR web site.