Building a Collaborative Advantage – Canadian Government Executive

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October 30, 2017

Building a Collaborative Advantage

Three years before his death in 2011, Jack Layton released a revised and updated edition of his 2000 book, retitled Homelessness: How to End the National Crisis, a signal that the issue that defined his tenure as a Toronto city councillor remained central to him in his pursuit of the office of prime minister.

To him and many others in the homelessness policy community, few actions short of a dramatic policy change from the federal government, including substantial affordable housing and homelessness investments, would turn the tide on this seemingly intractable policy problem. And this remains fundamentally true today.

The reality is that some major cities – in particular, the homelessness governance networks in them (which involve joint policy planning among government and civil society) – have produced varying degrees of policy innovation and system coordination over the past twenty years. Indeed, when reflecting on his time in politics and his advocacy for policy change, Jack Layton also claimed that one of the most important lessons he learned “is that energy and ideas spring from the community … not from mandarins in Ottawa.”

This view is not at all controversial within the homelessness policy community or in the normative social science literature, especially among deliberative democracy, network governance, and critical policy studies scholars. Thus, a high premium is placed on the community as an agent of change and policy ideas and as a force that should be brought into the policy process to challenge technocrats and elected officials “to help raise awareness and to suggest creative strategies and solutions.”

Institutionalized inclusion, via governance networks, of the voices of those most affected by policy is consistent with the plurality of conceptions of legitimate political authority in Canada and elsewhere, which includes state-centred, expert, private (market), and popular authority. The question considered in this book is whether civil society actors – in this case, homelessness service providers, affordable housing providers and advocates, mental health professionals, and charitable organizations – bring something special (and positive) to the policy process, something that cannot be obtained via traditional hierarchical bureaucracies.

While each of the eight governance networks under investigation is different, the clear answer that emerges is yes – provided they can be designed and managed effectively by state metagovernors to extract the dynamism from their activity and to facilitate productive deliberations and relations with structures and rules without stifling that activity.

In my study of homelessness policy development in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary during the period from 1995 to 2015, specifically investigating the claim that the properties and dynamics of the governance networks that exist in each city explain why the policies and programs in Vancouver and Calgary are generally more innovative and coordinated than those in Toronto. While there are examples of innovative policies and programs in Toronto, a comprehensive look at the policy landscape over time reveals a relationship between network governance patterns and policy outputs.

In 1995, prior to the creation of any of the eight governance networks, the policy contexts in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary shared many similarities: no formal homelessness plans, a concentration of services in the downtown core, an emergency bias to policy, a lack of coordination of services, and little to no data of the homeless population that could be used to engage in long-term planning.

Yet by 2015, while all three cities have much more sophisticated plans and strategies to address homelessness, Vancouver and Calgary differ from Toronto in important ways in terms of policy innovation and system coordination – two key features of policy that are related to an effective policy response to homelessness. I’ve discovered that the more institutionalized and inclusive homelessness governance networks in Vancouver and Calgary help to explain this variation. The analysis of analogous governance networks across the three cities, which exhibit variation in terms of institutionalization and inclusiveness, demonstrates that the structure and dynamics of governance networks are largely responsible for the presence (and absence) of policy innovations and system coordination in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary.

The federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), which created some of the local homelessness governance networks across Canada, is not an affordable housing program; local investments typically include homelessness services such as drop-in centres, addictions programs, and other supportive measures. In fact, metagovernance rules by the Government of Canada dictate that cities are not permitted to use HPS funds towards the construction of affordable housing, which the federal government (going back to Chrétien) maintains is the primary responsibility of the provincial governments; HPS funds must not be used by cities to make up for inadequate provincial government spending on affordable housing.

In 2014, the HPS was renewed by the Harper government until 2019, though at a further reduced annual investment of $119 million (from $135 million). This has since been enhanced by the Trudeau government, but remains chronically under-funded.

While it is possible to find significant examples of policy innovation and system coordination in Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto over the past twenty years, the truth remains that these gains remain partially undermined by a federal government that refuses to acknowledge a meaningful role in the provision of affordable housing. In addition, in 2014, the Harper government introduced dramatic changes to the metagovernance context of the networks studied, thus threatening many of positive policy developments identified in this book.

In this broader context, it is important to reflect on recent changes emanating from the Government of Canada, the ultimate metagovernor for most of the homelessness governance networks. These changes further reinforce the claims derived from integrated governance network theory that the metagovernance of networks powerfully shape their performance. Until 2014, the Government of Canada had considerable flexibility, from a governance and policy perspective, built into the HPS program – first created as the NHI in 1999. Even the “requirements” were flexible.

For example, the federal government did not dictate who within the community, civil society, or local government needed to be involved in the governance network, and it accepted the unique policy priorities for funding identified in each community plan. Apart from a restriction on funding affordable housing, the local governance network had wide latitude to produce a policy and program package that it felt was most appropriate to its circumstances and needs.

This changed quite dramatically in 2014, when the Harper government made major changes to the HPS program, including regulating more strictly the acceptable activities of the governance networks and, for the first time in the history of the program, making explicit demands on how the local governance networks invested their homelessness funds. The federal government now mandates that 65 per cent of all funding be applied to Housing First programs.

While this approach has considerable merit, it tends to privilege those who are chronically homeless, which constitutes a small portion of the homeless population (even if these individuals consume a disproportionate share of services). The critique of Housing First from the policy community is not that it is a wrong-headed policy per se, but that it is one model that is being advanced as a cure-all for homelessness in Canada.

Homelessness policy development in Canada and on informing and refining integrated governance network theory, it is more fundamentally a narrative about the direction in which modern public administration and governance is evolving – that is, towards a governance framework that draws in civil society actors more than has been previously acknowledged in Canadian public administration studies. There is also a new role for the public service that increasingly involves managing relationships and facilitating deliberative problem solving rather than formulating expertise and analysis within the confines of bureaucratic hallways.

Despite all of the international literature detailing the changing nature of the state and the increasing role of civil society actors in the policy process, particularly from European scholars, there have been minimal empirical and theoretical contributions with respect to network governance and its impact on public policy in the Canadian context.

Network governance asks us to rethink the roles of public servants, civil society actors, and, indeed, elected masters in the policy process, just as new public management once asked us to revisit the privileged role of the bureaucracy in the implementation of policy. Whereas new public managment was never able to answer the call to solve complex policy problems – instead, zealously focusing on finding efficiencies – network governance offers a pathway to satisfy emerging expectations of a more open and problem-solving-oriented policy process; it does this without threatening the foundations of liberal democracy in terms of the supremacy of elected officials and their ultimate accountability to citizens.

Evidence is being accumulated from around the world that civil society and bureaucratic actors in institutionalized governance networks can bring diverse knowledge and perspectives to a policy issue and that deliberations can be a genuine site of persuasion and transformation among actors, resulting in more innovative and coordinated – and indeed, more effective – policies and programs that address some of the most important issues that government confronts.

This all hinges on the state, as a metagovernor of network governance, rethinking how it facilitates and manages such modern governance patterns: the lessons of homelessness policy suggest that a metagovernor can either channel the dynamism of state and civil society actors to make inroads on some of our most egregious problems or stifle that dynamism, preserving the status quo. Sometimes, the more difficult option is the only one that will work.

 

Excerpted and adapted (with permission) from Building a Collaborative Advantage: Network Governance and Homelessness Policy-Making in Canada, by Carey Doberstein, 2016 UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

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