Apolitical Op-Ed on WCMT Fellowship

This piece was originally published by Apolitical on the 07/06/2018 at https://apolitical.co/solution_article/government-and-civil-society-dont-have-to-be-enemies/ 

Many people think that civil society has a political crusade against the government and just wants to get its agenda across. However, this is not always the case. While there are some whose ideological mission is to fight government, there are many who wish to use their expertise and lived experience to be able to inform debate more constructively.

Following a recent Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship visit to the USA and Canada — which involved meeting with key stakeholders across government, civil society and international organisations — I realised that there are some best practice learnings which can be applied to civil servants in any department in order to create better policy. The shared practice learning identified a number of key issues and ideas for civil servants which can be used in local, regional, national or international governance settings.

With every job there is an essential element for learning and development to build stronger individuals who are able to address many of the issues each department faces. So one example of best practice and a recommendation made is to allow civil servants to engage with programs which support the development of future policymakers.

In Canada, the government’s connection with Forum for Young Canadians has developed this relationship. You can read an account of a Canadian public servant here.

To have a greater effect, civil society must be able to truly engage with decision makers. The engagement and decision-making mechanisms used need to be truly open so that these organisations can learn to engage. This will stop situations where organisations are continuously trying to find a way in and decision makers end up viewing them negatively.

These relationships need to be built with a range of organisations to share working practices so that everyone cooperates better. But not every view has the possibility to engage with policymakers. There are times when policymakers need to reach out to targeted groups, who are those that face more challenges in engagement.

The targeted groups most often thought about those that are the protected characteristics in the UK’s Equality Act 2010. But there are groups such as the home educated that need to be engaged with when discussing local youth services. This shows that it is important not to just use the “easy” routes, such as through schools, to gather views on the policy proposals but to reach out further.

It is time to challenge perceptions on those ideas and stress that everyone has some ability to input useful advice to policy. The need for this is often suggested in international governance settings because, due to the range of actors, situations as simple as applying for accreditation to work with a committee become political and stagnate.

This has been seen in the working of the United Nations Economic and Social Council NGO Committee which, because it is an art to complete the application, civil society does not know how to act.

Governments try to work with others but until all put equal strength into it civil society and government will continue to hit these roadblocks.

It’s not just about developing an understanding, or about opening up but it is about making sure that opportunities to engage with government are not purely tokenistic. This lack of true engagement has been recently demonstrated by the Welsh Government consultation data, which shows that ministers were not responding to nearly a third of consultation exercises.

Throughout the fellowship, discussions were held about the challenges which these organisations and government have. The view was held that government is generally good at sharing data, and is okay at having conversations with others, but that its challenge is co-creating policy and work. What this shows is that for governments to be able to address 21st century challenges, they need to buy in to the idea of co-creation. Government cannot do everything but still needs to be engaged.

In situations where Government is criticised, politicians are questioned and organisations are grilled, having a more transparent, accountable and welcoming government system can lead to better policy. It is time to get government right by building those relationships which build better government communication.

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