How can the charitable sector and government make better policy together? Hilary Pearson, outgoing co-chair of the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector, suggests four structural elements that shape the effectiveness of these processes – but notes we already have the roadmap we need for deeper policy dialogue.
It’s been almost five years since then minister Bill Morneau announced in November 2018 that Canada’s federal government intended to create a permanent Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector (ACCS) to “provide advice to the Government on important issues facing charities on an ongoing basis.” While the ACCS was announced by the minister of finance, it was in fact the minister of national revenue, Diane Lebouthillier, and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) who would assume the responsibility for managing and taking advice from this new committee. Funding for the committee’s operations was committed through to 2023/2024.
Bruce Macdonald of Imagine Canada and I were appointed by Lebouthillier as sector co-chairs in March 2019, sharing the leadership with Assistant Commissioner Geoff Trueman of the CRA. The committee itself got rolling in the fall of 2019, with the appointment of 12 more sector members, along with two more government members from the CRA and the Department of Finance.
Bruce and I have now stepped off the ACCS. Two new sector co-chairs, Sheherazade Hirji and Kevin McCort, are ably leading a second group of sector appointees who came on board in 2022 to continue the work.
How do I assess the value of this advisory body, as I reflect on my experience after four years?
I think it’s too soon to measure value according to the decisions taken by the federal government after the committee gave its advice. Government does not move quickly. But I would also say that there has been a lot of listening.
Over four years and two rounds of sector appointments, the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector has made several significant recommendations.
We could measure value by activity, of which there has been a great deal. Over four years and two rounds of sector appointments, the ACCS has made several significant recommendations. It has dug into many aspects of the relationship between charities, the CRA, and the Department of Finance. The minister of revenue, her policy staff, and the Charities Directorate of CRA have been attentive. (Marie-Claude Bibeau took office in July; Lebouthillier is now the minister of fisheries.) There is reason to think that our advice on CRA-specific issues is taken seriously.
But, given that it does take a long time for policy to evolve, I hope that the federal government commits to the ACCS beyond the initial five-year mandate. It couldn’t be more important for government to keep talking to the sector for information, advice, and constructively critical feedback on charities policy. And it is valuable for the sector to have an ongoing forum for discussion of charity policy and regulation.
It couldn’t be more important for government to keep talking to the sector for information, advice, and constructively critical feedback on charities policy.
I have some broader reflections about the lessons learned from advisory and consultative efforts since 2016 by the federal government with the social purpose sector. These efforts include the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities, which did its work over six months from September 2016 to March 2017, and the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group, which met from June 2017 to the summer of 2018.
These two initiatives had a specific purpose and were time-limited, unlike the ACCS. Nevertheless, all three efforts share the similarity of recruiting sector leaders and advisors to help the government think through policy issues that have a direct impact on the sector.
Four structural elements particularly shaped the experience and effectiveness of these advice-giving processes. I can say that there is no “best” recipe for combining these elements. It really depends on the object of the exercise. But both the sector and the government could get better results by considering how to combine them to serve the interests of both.
Four structural elements particularly shaped the experience and effectiveness of these advice-giving processes.
Mandate: In each of the three cases, the mandate was defined by the federal government. It is not surprising that the more specific the mandate, the more efficient the group could be in focusing its advice. The consultation panel looked at the narrow question of the regulation of the political activities of charities. The steering group had a broader but still specific and time-limited task of advising on a strategy for the development of social finance and social innovation. The ACCS has the broadest mandate, described as a forum to engage in meaningful dialogue with the charitable sector, to advance emerging issues relating to charities, and to ensure that the regulatory environment supports the important work that charities do. Such a broad mandate certainly allows room for giving advice on a wide range of regulatory issues. But it imposes a challenge to work-planning and priority-setting that can eat up time. It also means that direction-setting leadership becomes more important.
Leadership: In a short-term, narrow-mandate exercise such as the consultation panel, which had five sector members, focused leadership was not as important as alignment and shared expertise among the panel members. With larger groups such as the steering group and the ACCS (both with 12 or more members), leadership is important to set priorities, manage intra-group communication and conflict, and keep the group on track. The fact that both the steering group and the ACCS have had co-chairs (with one chair coming from government and other chairs from the sector) has added complexity and put the onus on the co-chairs to work harder to maintain cohesion among themselves. Clarity on the role, and clarity on the authority of the government co-leader, is essential.
Funding: The importance of this element is always that it permits (or not) the sector advisors to do their work effectively and allows the government members the leeway to obtain and listen to the advice. In all these consultative efforts, of course, the sector participants have saved the government money by serving as unpaid volunteers. But at least the funding available has permitted consultations with the wider sector, and secretariat support for the analysis and preparation of recommendations. If advisory efforts are underfunded, they are not going to be as valuable as they could be. Without basic and continued funding, there is no good advice.
Composition and role: The composition and recruitment of members in each case has been controlled by the federal government, which has made unilateral decisions about numbers and terms. The mix between subject-matter experts and people with operational roles or experience in the sector has at times made it difficult for the groups to understand their roles. Subject-matter experts such as lawyers are very valuable in framing the issues for discussion and developing options for policy advice. People with operational experience may have less expertise on specific laws or regulations but add valuable input from direct experience of working with these regulations, and can also bring a sense of emerging issues to the table. However, the different areas of expertise create imbalance in the discussions, which again puts the onus on skilful and diplomatic leaders to correct or rebalance.
The sector members in each of these cases have not relied only on the expertise around the table but have checked in with others in the sector. The five-person consultation panel was probably the most successful at getting to work quickly and producing a succinct set of actionable recommendations while drawing from a wide range of opinion in the sector. The steering group also managed a broad consultation with many interested participants to help it deliver its recommended strategy. Yet these were one-way efforts. In neither case, as far as I know, was there much frank, back-and-forth policy dialogue with the relevant government departments (CRA and Finance for the consultation panel, and Employment and Social Development for the steering group). This makes for a rather lopsided process in which the input flows in from the sector, but information does not flow out regularly from the government. The Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy group was named the Co-Creation Steering Group, but the co-creation seemed to happen mostly within the sector, not between the sector and government.
Can we get farther than simply consultation and advice? Can we hope for open and continuing two-way dialogue at all stages of the policy process?
This has also been the experience of the ACCS. Sector members have had a longer opportunity to build deeper relationships with the government policy designers, which has been mutually beneficial. But it is clear that they are not co–policy designers. Informal exchanges of information among sector and government participants do of course occur. The ACCS has been able to engage in an ongoing conversation with the senior policy people in the CRA Charities Directorate, who have demonstrated willingness to share information on the stages of their internal policy design and thinking. But can we get farther than simply consultation and advice? Can we hope for open and continuing two-way dialogue at all stages of the policy process, from surfacing the issues and setting the agenda through design, implementation, and feedback?
Yes, we can. No need to reinvent this wheel. We had a roadmap for deeper policy dialogue with the government 20 years ago. The Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue is an excellent set of guidelines developed and agreed to in 2002 by the sector and the federal government working together. The code spelled out specific commitments from the government and the sector to shape real dialogue. In the optimistic collaborative spirit of that code, and with close attention to the four elements cited above, particularly the quality of joint leadership, the charitable sector and government could certainly make even better policy together.