The way we govern ourselves has changed fundamentally in the past 20 years, and we’ve barely noticed. The changes raise critical questions, which we have developed a habit of answering on a case-by-case basis, without considering the context and without being guided by principles. We need to do better than that.
In the 1980s, most government programs were run by government departments and agencies. They reported, directly or indirectly, to the government, and if citizens had a complaint about any of them, they went to their MPs, MLAs or City Councillors. It was a far from perfect world, but in general we knew who was in charge of government programs, what purposes they pursued, and who was paying the bills.
All that has changed. Today, there’s a very good chance that the government, instead of running a program, will negotiate an arrangement with a company, a community organization or a religious organization whereby the government doles out some money and the company or other organization runs the program. Such arrangements between governments and civil society or business organizations are one of the reasons why the word “governance” is increasingly being substituted for “government”. More than ever in the past, government is not a single entity, but a mosaic of many different arrangements for getting government work done – governance.
There is some good news in these changes, especially when the organizations running the government programs are community-based. Given favourable circumstances, organizations tied closely to a local community may be better-placed than any government bureaucracy to determine how best to realize, in each local context, the good intentions of government programs. However, the delegation of part of the work of government to other organizations also raises troubling questions of accountability.
To be sure, the government does not give out blank cheques, but the means by which accountability is maintained, and its credibility, varies from case to case. An organization may be given a specific sum of money to carry out a specified project. In such a case, the organization’s accountability may be much the same as that of a government department, so that, in essence, the names have changed, but the process remains largely the same.
But if a contract is negotiated with a company, the terms of the contract may be treated as commercial information, subject to trade secrecy, and neither voters nor most of their representatives may know exactly what money is being spent and for what. Or the government may simply invest in a project that is run by a company or other organization. In that case, the organization will make commitments in return for receiving government funding, but may after that be largely free to run the program as it sees fit.
Some of these arrangements may well be a good idea. Others should ring alarm bells, but we lack an alarm system. In a political system heavy with procedural rules and principles of action, we are short of principles to help us distinguish between good governance arrangements and bad ones. My attention was directed to this issue when the City of Winnipeg agreed last February to invest $3.4 million over 15 years to help an organization called Youth For Christ, build an $11.7 million youth centre on a vacant lot in an area of the city that has been struggling, with significant investment from the aboriginal community, and with partial success, to overcome its long-standing skid-row reputation. The federal government contributed $3.2 million in infrastructure funding.
Artist’s conception of the centre
As I tried to work out a way to think about this issue, I remembered that there are at least two other religious organizations active in inner city neighbourhood issues in Winnipeg: The Westminster Housing Society, which receives an annual grant from the Westminster United Church Foundation, and New Life Ministries, an evangelical inner-city church. These organizations have drawn on government funding to carry out home renovation projects, which have helped improve the security and liveability of both neighbourhoods without turning either one into an upper-income enclave.
The projects of both organizations have been flying under the radar for years, but the Youth For Christ centre raised a storm of controversy, all of which had to do with the merits of that particular project. Is it a good idea to fund a Christian mission to an aboriginal community that has barely begun to come to terms with the legacy of Christian residential schools? What else is there to fill that empty lot? Who else will reach out to inner-city youth? Will the centre serve the inner city or will its state-of-the art facilities make it a commuter facility? Or – this from an evangelical Christian – how does a religious organization justify taking government money?
The debate was chaotic and inconclusive, until the city ended it by handing out the money. One of the things that made it confusing is that it was not guided by principles that would turn our thoughts beyond the particular case to the bigger question of how we are evolving the way we govern ourselves. Let me suggest three questions which, if asked of all such initiatives in governance, might provide a starting-point toward the development of some principles:
•Is the organization in question being funded to carry out a specific, defined project, or is the government investing in facilities that will operate on the organization’s own terms and may evolve in a way not originally intended?
•Is the organization likely to be responsive to the community it’s being funded to work in?
•What other agendas does the organization pursue, and how do these fit or clash with the character of the community in question?
For my money, Westminster Housing Society gets a thumbs-up, because it does socially useful work that seems largely uninfluenced by its religious foundations. New Life Ministries earns my praise for a lot of good work in its neighbourhood, together with some suspicion about how that work is influenced by its mission to the neighbourhood – on balance, a somewhat hesitant assent to funding. Youth For Christ gets thumbs-down, not only because it seems questionable to me how genuinely it will serve its new neighbourhood, but also because, as citizens, we are investing money in a permanent facility over which we will have little or no long-term control.
It’s not important what I think. What matters is that we all wake up to the implications of the new age of governance and start thinking seriously about the principles that should underlie it.
For more on community-based governance, look up:
Leo, C. (2006). Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique, 39 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0008423906060240
Neil Bradford, Place-based public policy: Towards a new urban and community agenda for Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2005.