A Plan to Revive Civil Society in Canada

By: , and on December 29, 2015 |

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The Christmas season marks the height of annual charitable giving in Canada. About a third of yearly donations occur in December alone. This expression of charity and generosity is powerful evidence of Canadians’ commitment to civil society and civic engagement.

Yet the role of civil society is too often taken for granted or ignored in public policy circles.  As a study published by Cardus has put it: “… the capacity and contribution of charitable organizations are not as understood or as utilized as they could be.” One reason is the inclination of government to “crowd out” civil society. The hyper-individualist ethos of modern life is another. Either way, the result is that Canadian public policy is frequently crafted without considering how it affects civil society or whether civil society ought to be part of any solution.

The state grew dramatically during second half of the twentieth century, largely at the expense of civil society. In recent decades there is some evidence the pendulum has begun to swing back. We believe this is a positive trend that will likely produce better outcomes than state intervention and ultimately create the conditions for stronger and more dynamic communities. Our argument in this essay is that the state has a role to play in rebuilding Canada’s civil society.

An overreliance on government intervention over community-based responses often produces sub-optimal results. Consider, for instance, the recent focus on refugee resettlement. The new Liberal government has been criticized for relying upon privately-sponsored refugees to meet its target of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees. The head of the Canadian Council for Refugees has stated: “… the 25,000 must be government-assisted refugees” (italics added). Yet an insistence on government-assisted refugees over privately-sponsored ones flies in the face of evidence. It reflects an ideological bias towards the state and its trappings such as unionized bureaucracy.

A 2012 report by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration found that privately-sponsored refugees tend to integrate better, more quickly, and ultimately more successfully than government-assisted ones. One example: privately-sponsored refugees – over a 15-year period – were generally earning about 40 percent more. This makes intuitive sense.  Privately-sponsored refugees have an immediate support system and social connectivity. They have people and communities invested in their integration and ultimate success. A bureaucrat in Ottawa is not going to help a refugee figure out the public transit system in Regina but a private sponsor will. And so it begs the question: why is the public policy debate preoccupied with government-assisted refugees and not focused on enabling more privately-sponsored refugees?

Not only does the state too often tend to disregard civil society, there is evidence that it actually can erode it. American historian David Beito has documented how the emergence of the welfare state in the mid-twentieth century came to replace a communitarian system of mutual aid based on the principle of reciprocity. Many of the programs and services formerly provided by civil society groups (think immigration settlement or social insurance) collapsed under the weight of welfare state bureaucracy and soon the organizations themselves began to atrophy and, in some cases, disappear altogether. The result has gradually led to a totalizing relationship between the individual and the state that leaves little room for civil society and often produces poor results. As Beito writes: “instead of mutual aid, the dominant social welfare arrangements of Americans have increasingly become characterized by impersonal bureaucracies controlled by outsiders.” One of the outcomes – besides the often poor policy results (such as the U.S. government’s “War on Poverty”, which shows no sign of abating after more than 50 years) – has been a shrinking of civil society itself.

The decline of civil society

What do we mean when we talk about civil society? Sometimes it is defined broadly to refer to the whole range of groups and institutions that stand between the individual and the state. This definition would incorporate any bodies or institutions apart from the individual or government and would thus include the full gamut of special interest (advocacy) groups and rent seekers. Sometimes, however, it is more narrowly defined to designate intermediary or mediating institutions that assume a highly personal character and operate according to a different logic than that which informs the marketplace. As U.S. political scientist Kenneth Grasso has written: “[these are] groups whose ties are solidaristic rather than instrumental or contractarian.” He lists among them the family and the neighbourhood, as well as religious, cultural, social, and fraternal associations. It is this latter definition that we use for the purposes of this essay. These organizations formed the backbone of the system of reciprocal aid that predates the modern welfare state, and it is their demise we bemoan.

The decay of civic engagement in general and the institutions of traditional civil society we are concerned with in this essay in particular are well-documented in the United States.  Harvard University sociologist Robert Putnam has written of the decline of civil society in his path-breaking book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s work provides empirical evidence of the phenomenon described by Beito – namely, the disintegration of communitarian social engagement (he cites, for instance, the decline of memberships in voluntary organizations) and a precipitous drop in what Putnam dubbed “social capital”.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to the United States. There is plenty of evidence of a similar decline in Canada. Falling memberships in service organizations such as the Royal Canadian Legion and the Knights of Columbus have been a challenge in communities across the country where these organizations play a critical role in the social fabric. The result is that we are relying on an ever-smaller number of aging (and often religious) Canadians to carry a disproportionate share of charitable giving and volunteering. Indeed, there is now a growing body of research indicating  that Canada’s “civic core” – a concept conceived by Carleton University professor Paul Reed to describe the small percentage of the population responsible for much of the charitable giving, voluntarism, and civic participation – is shrinking. Reed’s research finds that only about six percent of the adult population is now responsible for between 35 and 42 percent of all civic engagement when one combines these three activities together. Researchers at Cardus have rightly argued that if this trend is not reversed, there will be serious consequences for civil society in the future. They contend Canada has a “civic deficit” and it is a problem that requires a public policy solution.

Why does this matter? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

It is important because, as described above, civil society can play a critical role in addressing key societal challenges ranging from poverty to education to employment training. Civil society, unlike the state, is decentralized and localized and thus much more capable of on-the-ground experimentation and direct support to those in need. It is for these reasons that civil society is often more effective than government bureaucracy, which is inherently centralized and thus tends towards one-size-fits-all solutions. The better outcomes of privately-sponsored refugees are a good example of these differences in practice but there are countless others. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks’s recent book, The Conservative Heart, for instance, brings attention to successful community-based efforts to help rehabilitate criminal offenders and provide dignity and job opportunities to the poor and unemployed.

Still it is even more fundamental than that. The decline of the mediating institutions between the individual and the state has deeper cultural and spiritual effects. These institutions – such as family, the church, and civil society – are what U.S. scholar Yuval Levin has called “the essential pillars of our moral life”. Their decline leaves a void the state is unequipped to fill. The result can be a disconnected and unrooted society. Sociologist Charles Murray has concluded that our “common civic culture has unraveled” and shown its negative consequences for individuals, families, and communities. Even scholars from the libertarian Cato Institute have argued that the “growth of government has politicized life and weakened the nation’s moral fabric”. The bottom line is that the breakdown of civil society is expressed in more than an arithmetic cost-benefit analysis. It is a symbolic expression of atomization and social disconnection. Something is missing from modern life.

A plan to restore civil society

Conservatives have long believed that the space between the individual and the state – broadly known as civil society – must be protected, nurtured, and strengthened. As discussed, voluntary organizations and local groups used to be responsible for providing important services and building social capital in their communities. But the state’s expansion in the second half of the twentieth century crowded out civil society and caused much of it to atrophy. The solutions for reversing a shrinking civil society are complex.

It was popular to talk about its restoration in the late 1990s. And the state/civil society pendulum did swing towards civil society for a couple decades, in part as governments (especially in Canada) brought their fiscal houses in order. But it subsequently fell victim to its complexity.  As Gertrude Himmelfarb lamented in the Weekly Standard: “Civil society itself has turned out to be a more complicated and ambiguous entity than might be supposed.”

The result is a tendency to diminish civil society in our political discourse. One scholar who has documented its breakdown has actually become a critic of the declinist critique. Alan Wolfe’s point is not to contest its decline but rather to argue that there is limited utility in comparing contemporary circumstances to what he calls “some mythic past” and instead argues for a debate focused on “the world we have as best we can.”

This is a mistake. The continued restoration of civil society is too important to concede defeat. It may look different than it has in the past and it may participate in different aspects of national life than private social service organizations did in the nineteenth century. But the importance of civil society for building social connections and a sense of community, and for establishing a productive space between the individual and the state, is a critical objective even if it is complex.

Conservatives should thus consider practical solutions to begin to redevelop civil society capacity and to leverage charities and non-profit organizations in service delivery and social welfare. Replacing top-down, centralized government with a robust, dynamic civil society capacity will not only produce better economic and social outcomes; it is also good for the national soul.  And therefore it should be done not just to balance the budget. Yes, of course, government should do less. But conservatives should not just assume a renewed civil society will spring up to fill the space or produce significant fiscal savings in the short term. It has diminished under the weight of big government, and we need to rebuild civil society’s capacity. And we need to be open to the idea that, gasp, it may require a nudge from government to do so. As British Prime Minister David Cameron said in his 2010 “Big Society” speech to describe his vision of a revived civil society:

“The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.”

Using government to strengthen civil society may strike some branches of the conservative movement (particularly libertarians) as a dubious undertaking. If big government undermined civil society by crowding it out, is it not the case that using the government to cultivate civil society will turn these organizations for all intents and purposes into wards of the state? And if so, will that not cause them to gradually lose their positive attributes such as their tendency towards localized trial and error and community attachment? These concerns are legitimate. Any intervention to help bolster civil society will need to be carefully designed so as to avoid “picking winners and losers” (as conservatives frequently lament in other policy areas) and undermining the central goals of rebuilding a sustainable civil society capacity altogether.

Canda’s former Conservative government under Stephen Harper, to its credit, exhibited at times an understanding of this challenge and the need to find smart ways to address it. The 2010 Speech from the Throne stated:

“Just as we know that parents are in the best position to make decisions for their families, the best solutions to the diverse challenges confronting Canada’s communities are often found locally. Every day, the power of innovation is seen at work in communities across this country, as citizens, businesses and charitable groups join forces to tackle local problems.

Too often, however, grassroots efforts are hobbled by red tape. Too often, local solutions are denied access to government assistance because they do not fit the bureaucratic definition of the problem. Too often, the efforts of communities falter not on account of a lack of effort or heart, but because of a lack of expertise to turn good ideas into reality.

Our Government will take steps to support communities in their efforts to tackle local challenges. It will look to innovative charities and forward-thinking private-sector companies to partner on new approaches to many social challenges.”

As a conservative, Harper was instinctively predisposed to localism and non-state solutions. As he said in a more recent speech: “We [conservatives] believe there is more to our communities and country than government.” It is part of the reason, for instance, that he used the so-called “bully pulpit” to establish the Prime Minister’s Volunteer Awards. These recognized Canadians who contributed to their communities through voluntary contributions and “innovative ideas and approaches to address social challenges.” While it was a small gesture, tying the awards to the Prime Minister himself and his personal participation in the awarding ceremony sent a big message.

The Harper government also experimented with the tax system to “nudge” citizens in the direction of greater civic engagement. Early on it expanded eligible donations under the Charitable Donations Tax Credit to include publicly-listed equities. In the 2015 Budget the government expanded eligible donations to include land assets and shares in private (non-listed) businesses. This built on a 2013 experiment with a temporary “super credit” for first-time donors to see if an enhanced benefit would work to nudge young Canadians into charitable giving. The Conservative Party’s 2015 election platform followed with a promise to treat service clubs such as Rotary Clubs and the Kinsmen as eligible donees under the Charitable Donations Tax Credit. It was a small move (as Harper acknowledged) but the goal was a further signaling effect towards civil society.  As columnist Colby Cosh wrote of the proposal: “A service club is, in the conservative view, another little platoon, binding small communities to the world in a great network of philanthropy” and thus there was an intellectual basis to grant them preferential tax treatment. It is premature to judge the outcomes of these tax-based incentives but they comprised key parts of the Harper government’s effort to bolster civil society.

Another of the former government’s key tools for encouraging civil society capacity was the concept of providing matching funding to charities and non-profit organizations.  Matching funds initiatives impose a level of market discipline in that political and bureaucratic decision-making is responding to the preferences of individual donors and volunteers in allocating public resources. If organizations are unable to persuade individual donors of the utility of their mandates and their effectiveness in achieving it, then public funding would not flow. Examples such as Grand Challenges Canada, a market-based humanitarian assistance organization, and the Canada Brain Research Fund, in conjunction with Brain Canada, a non-profit organization, appear to have produced positive results.

The one downside with matching funds, though, is that it tends to be biased towards large, well-established organizations and may be a less effective means of encouraging new, entrepreneurial start-ups that tend to be more localized and disruptive. It is important to fund organizations we do not know about rather than just recycle public monies to the same organizations year in and year out.

The use of competitions (or “challenges”) to address social issues – such as literacy or poverty – can be a way to target support to new, innovative civil society organizations. The Department of Health recently ran such a competition called “The Play Exchange” to learn about and test new civil society efforts to encourage healthier lifestyles. It received several proposals and funded some of the most promising ones to see if they can be scaled-up into regional or even national initiatives. Such a competition can be designed to limit entrants to new or localized groups rather than large, well-funded, national ones. Winning proposals receive seed feeding to develop new approaches or obtain mentorship from successful civil society leaders to expand their operations. The virtue of the “challenge” model is that it is not prescriptive of what type of proposals are submitted but rather sets out an objective – such as “improving adult literacy” – and then sees what ideas come forward. This focus on outcomes rather than inputs creates the potential to unearth new and exciting ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed and underutilized.

Another model the Harper government tested was the downloading of responsibilities from the state onto civil society. The goal was to galvanize civil society by shifting the direct provision of service. It was tested sparingly but appears to have potential. The government’s partnership with Pathways to Education, for instance, was a good example of the state supporting the scaling up of a successful local charity by redirecting funding from ineffective state-run literacy programs to successful civil society solutions. Likewise its financial support for Indspire, an Aboriginal-based organization that provides merit-based post-secondary grants to Aboriginal students, also produced much better outcomes than the ineffectual government-run post-secondary programming from which the resources were drawn.

The Devolution to Civil Society Act

This type of reorientation from the state to civil society has potential, in our opinion, not just to reduce the size and scope of the government, but to create the conditions for greater experimentation and long-term capacity at the local level. One way to expand this approach is something we have conceived as the Devolution to Civil Society Act. The legislation would require the federal government to devolve a minimum number of programs and services to civil society each year. The funding associated with the program or service would flow to civil society groups for five years. At the conclusion of the five-year period, renewed funding would be targeted to the most effective groups. Eventually the goal would be to reduce and/or withdraw the funding as these groups showed results and developed their own capacity to raise capital.

Refugee resettlement could be an early target. The government could aim to shift a significant share of the Resettlement Assistance Program to help private sponsors assume more responsibility for Canada’s resettlement target. The Harper government created a “blended” category in 2013 whereby a small percentage of private sponsors received funding from government to cover half of the costs. This resettlement stream could easily be expanded as part of a purposeful reorientation. The goal would be to gradually shift service delivery to civil society for the purpose of achieving better outcomes but also to rebuild its capacity.

Before any major devolution, however, charities and non-profit organizations would need to have the capacity to do the work. This is an area where government could be a useful partner – that is, in equipping charities and non-profit organizations with the expertise and money to become service delivery leaders. The government’s current practice of doling out mostly one-time grants forces recipients to spend already-lean budgets on proposal writing and reporting. Ironically the resources poured into drawing up endless grant applications are often at the expense of actually helping people. A good start would be for government to create a fund to assist charities and non-profit organizations in becoming self-sufficient – and not simply perpetuating reliance on state hand-outs. The government’s endowment support programs for arts and culture might be a good model to consider.

This long-term, incremental plan would aim to rebuild Canada’s civil society capacity and create the conditions for a new generation of Canadian donors and volunteers. The plan would see service delivery and solutions executed at the local or regional level. The purpose would be to hard-wire a devolution agenda into federal statute and start to create a cultural change in Ottawa.

Conclusion 

Federalism is at the centre of Canada’s system of government. It has been a critical part of our success as a country. As Laurier famously said:

“For my own part, I believe that the federal system is the best of all systems which can be devised to govern this large territory….it would be impossible to govern these large territories extending from one ocean to the other, by a single government, unless indeed, that government were despotic, in which case there would be rupture. But our system obviates all these difficulties; our municipal and provincial divisions, our Federal system, all these wheels within wheels constitute a mechanism, which is at once elastic and strong.” 

Laurier’s inspiring rhetoric about Canadian federalism has an application for localism and the importance of civil society. It speaks to more than just a narrow conception of the legal relationship between different levels of government. It reflects a deeper understanding of a decentralized vision of Canadian society apart from the state that makes the country stronger. That vision has weakened as a result of the growth of the state and socio-cultural factors, but it has not fully disappeared and may have begun to re-emerge. There is the potential and a need to continue this reawakening but it is going to require big thinking. Big government is the major source of civil society’s atrophy and its restoration is not going to be a short-term project. The Devolution to Civil Society Act and smart, targeted state assistance to make civil society a robust service delivery partner can be part of the long-term solution.

Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer are former senior advisors to the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper. James Wielgosz served in a number of key ministerial roles in the Harper government and is now managing director for Career Skills Incubator, a non-profit that empowers people to obtain skills and experience for employment. 


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About Ken Boessenkool

Ken Boessenkool is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper.

About James Wielgosz

James Wielgosz served in a number of key ministerial roles in the Harper government and is now managing director for Career Skills Incubator, a non-profit that empowers people to obtain skills and experience for employment.

About Sean Speer

Sean Speer is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper.