The age of governance: Some proposed principles of deep federalism

In my most recent blog entry, I pointed out that the way we govern ourselves has changed fundamentally in the last 20 years or so, and yet we’ve given little thought to the principles by which we should pursue governance – the new name for what we used to call government.

The governance revolution that swept over us while we slept has taken a growing number of government programs away from the direct control of government departments and, through such measures as privatization, contracting out, downloading, or provision of funding, has delegated them to companies, community or religious organizations, and non-profit or for-profit agencies.

I suggested in my previous discussion that this is not necessarily all bad. For example, the delegation of government responsibilities to a community-based organization might place a share of decision-making in the hands of people who are better-placed than any government bureaucracy to determine how best to realize, in each local context, the good intentions of government programs. Accomplishing this is what I have called deep federalism. But governance may also raise troubling questions about the private agendas of organizations acting on behalf of government, their accountability, and their responsiveness to community concerns.

These are very real concerns, that, in an age of governance, affect us all, but we not only have not established principles, we haven’t really worked out a coherent way of thinking about the problems. As it happens, I have been able, courtesy of the University of Winnipeg, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to devote a significant amount of my time in the last few years to thinking about these problems.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. I suggest we consider the following principles as possible guides for decision-making about governance. I put them forward for discussion, knowing that neither I nor anyone else has all the answers.

By preference, fund community coalitions rather than individual organizations. This proposal responds to a concern that was drawn sharply to my attention in a study of the federal government’s aboriginal policies in Winnipeg. One of my findings was that the way the federal government funded aboriginal governance amounted, intentionally or otherwise, to a divide-and-conquer strategy, much, I concluded, to the detriment of the aboriginal community. (For a copy of the article, click here.)

But this is not just about aboriginal policy. The residents of any community include many whose interests are at odds. If a single organization, presumably representing a particular approach to the community’s problems, gets funding to implement its policies, these may well do a disservice to others.

From the viewpoint of good governance, it makes sense to minimize community in-fighting, and provide incentives for getting different groups to work together to achieve objectives that have a broader base of community support. Making funding conditional upon program proposals that represent as broad a base of support as possible would move governance in that direction.

Set broad objectives and use a performance rather than a prescriptive approach to setting program conditions. If federal government programs are conditional upon the achievement of very specific objectives, the result is likely to force communities to dance to the government’s tune. It is the exact opposite of deep federalism: Instead of programs being adapted to community circumstances, communities are forced to adapt to opinions in Ottawa.

In one of my studies, I suggested, as a remedy, the application of a performance, rather than a prescriptive, approach to the formulation of program conditions. What this spiky bit of jargon means can be easily explained with an example.

The federal government decided in the late 1990s that urban homelessness was getting out of hand, and committed itself to a program to address the problem. Responding to conditions in Toronto, the feds offered funding to community groups for such initiatives as homeless shelters and services to street people.

Those program conditions may have been defensible in Toronto, but, for reasons I discuss elsewhere, they were exactly the wrong approach for Winnipeg, where the crying need was for renovation and development of housing in older neighbourhoods. However the prescriptive conditions of the National Homelessness Initiative did not allow such programs to be funded.

The proposal I arrived at in my study of the homelessness initiative in Winnipeg was this: If the objective is to address homelessness, why not set that (performance) standard as the condition for funding and let service providers for homeless people in each community make a case for their best approach to dealing with it? The government chose instead to make detailed rules (set prescriptive standards) with the result that service providers in Winnipeg scrambled to invent programs that met government standards, instead of applying resources where they would do the most good.

(The spectacle of a homelessness program that forbids the funding of housing raises the question: What were they thinking? For an answer check out the article on Winnipeg listed at the end of this entry.)

By preference, fund programs for at least five years, conditional upon satisfactory reporting annually, and don’t impose heavy administrative burdens. One of the curses of community-based organizations in the age of governance is paperwork. This became particularly evident in a study of immigration and settlement in Vancouver (see article listed below), where organizations delivering settlement services to new Canadians faced masses of paperwork in applying for funding, and near-punitive reporting requirements.

If government is serious about devolving some of its functions to community-based organizations, it must respect the fact that some of the best of these organizations rely heavily on volunteers and operate on a shoestring. If they are subject to conditions that can only be met by corporations or other large organizations, the most likely outcome is not community-based governance, but the demise of smaller community-based organizations.

Fund facilities, as opposed to programs, only when the facilities are publicly owned and controlled for the life of the facility. Here my best example is one I cited in my previous blog entry: the case of the Youth For Christ (YFC) community centre in Winnipeg. Substantial government funding is being given to this organization to develop a community centre to serve the inner city. The facility will be government-funded, but owned and operated by YFC.

Even if we take the charitable view and assume that the YFC centre will truly serve the inner city, and that the people in charge of it today have no intention of using the delivery of community services as a lever for proselytization, who is to say how that organization will behave in a decade, or two or three, when it will still be operating a community centre partly funded by taxpayers, but controlled only by its own constituency?


For a discussion of the National Homelessness Initiative in Winnipeg, see:

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.

For more on settlement services in Vancouver, see:

Christopher Leo and Jeremy Enns, “Multi-level governance and ideological rigidity: The failure of deep federalism. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 42 (1), 2009, 93-116.

For a discussion of deep federalism, see:

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

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