A number of studies of Canadian federal and provincial government policy workers have shown the importance of well-established networks outside of government. However, these studies also concluded that government policy workers interacted infrequently outside the comfort of their own department. This stands in contrast to the widespread conviction that non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including nonprofit groups, should, and do, play an important role in shaping public policy.
Our research probed where NGO–government interaction takes place. In 2012, we invited 1,763 policy analysts working in the NGO sector and in provincial government public services in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia to respond to our on-line survey of thirty-eight questions. They were selected from four policy fields: environment, health, immigration, and labour. These provinces and policy sectors were chosen because they represented heterogeneous cases in terms of politics, history, and economic and demographic scale. 603 individuals (a response rate of 34.4 percent) responded.
If the question is, “Do non-government actors play a significant role in the policy process?” then the answer, according to our data, would be, “Sometimes yes and sometimes no: it depends at what stage of the policy process.”
A stark revelation was that nearly a third of respondents indicated that they had never been invited to participate in any policy discussion with their provincial government. This trend is troubling and certainly provides reason to question the actual extent of engagement. However, an equal number of our respondents reported fairly frequent (monthly or quarterly) engagement with their provincial government, which is indicative of robust multi-actor policy processes of some type.
We need to learn more about why NGOs are either significantly or insignificantly engaged. Several researchers have identified the constrained policy capacity of non-governmental organizations as the key reason for modest or even non-participation in the policy process. Yet just over half of the respondents to our survey considered the policy capacity of their organization to be “somewhat high” or “very high.” At the same time, our survey data indicated that non-governmental actors have relatively serious concerns about the on-going policy training of staff, as well as the recruitment of sufficient numbers of staff with policy expertise.
Non-governmental actors understand that their success depends to a great degree on what information they can bring to the table. What is less clear is whether it is true that this turn to policy-centred work is replacing other, more traditionally “political” forms of representation. Effective policy advocacy often requires a broad coalition of actors working in a coordinated manner. Our data analysis demonstrates that more frequent co-ordination between NGOs is associated with more frequent interaction with government. The obvious interpretation is that the co-ordination of NGOs within a policy field maybe a requisite step for deliberation with government.
Paradoxically, despite the importance of policy work, our study did not support the hypothesis that the creation of more research positions would increase interactions with government officials. From this finding, future research should examine how NGO policy networks and coalitions leverage a variety of resources, both policy-related and political, that would facilitate government responsiveness. The success of networked NGOs may also lie in their ability to produce the evidence that governments demand.
Original, policy relevant research becomes the means to gain a hearing at the government policy table. A critical consideration that tests the integrity of new governance understandings of the policy process is the stage at which non-governmental actors are invited to participate. For public servants, developing a policy proposal from the initial problem-framing (the identification of a collective problem) to implementation (establishing a functioning program on the ground) requires the government to determine how that program will be delivered and by whom.
In the Canadian context this often means that the NGO becomes the program delivery agent. We assumed that the ideal point of engagement would begin at the earliest stages of the policy making process, when policy is still being formulated and before any concrete directions or details are decided. Engagement at this early stage would indicate a genuine sharing of decision-making on critical aspects of policy. Our data indicate a nearly even split between those invited to participate at the early stages of policy development (or all stages) and those who were invited to participate only in the post-formulation or implementation stages.
We observed a significant degree of engagement during the early stages of the process, as well as a significant degree of engagement at the operational end. The fact that the process is not characterized by frequent interaction throughout the process raises questions about the robustness of the policy relationship.
Are these encounters merely perfunctory, allowing government to “check the box” on consultation? We cannot conclude, based on our data, that the idea of a close relationship between the public service and NGO is wholly inapplicable to our three Canadian cases. Still, but we might characterize them as “shallow” at least by the measure of a much more pluralized and open policy process.
If governments are serious about opening the policy process up to non-governmental actors, then a greater institutionalization of the process is necessary. As it stands, governments may or may not engage other policy actors, and if they do so, the effect may vary widely, from inconsequential to substantial. Creating new, formal mechanisms for sustained policy engagement would remedy the perfunctory aspects of the existing model. These could take the form of advisory councils composed of both government and non-government policy actors operating in a specific policy domain and mandated to engage in questions of policy design and implementation.
Constructing such new councils would serve several substantive purposes. First, if sufficiently resourced, they might address NGOs’ uneven capacity to engage in research and policy advocacy. Second, the very existence of such councils might require government to engage with non-state actors in a routine way. And third, non-governmental policy actors might give greater priority to cross-organizational co-ordination and strategizing in preparation for advisory council meetings.
Bryan Evans is Associate Professor in Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. Adam Wellstead is Associate Professor in Social Sciences at Michigan Tech.