Government Reform: A Civil Society Perspective


Government Reform: A Civil Society Perspective

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 - 7:58
“Civil society” adherents see society as being largely comprised of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that act collectively or individually on behalf of their larger community. From this perspective, good public management implies...

“Civil society” adherents see society as being largely comprised of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that act collectively or individually on behalf of their larger community. From this perspective, good public management implies that the development and delivery of government services should be highly distributed, and that government decisions should be made as close to the point of delivery as possible.

According to the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society:

“In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.”

Like the previous two perspectives, the Civil Society perspective has a continuum. One end is based on the importance of individuals. Individualists tend toward libertarian philosophies. The other end is based on the importance of community. Communitarians favor a civil society that emphasizes communities and societies over individuals. They also tend to be liberal on economic issues (e.g., environmental protection, public education) and conservative on social issues (e.g., character education, faith-based programs). This second strand is also related to populism, which proposes reining in the power of both government and business.

The institutional presidency has traditionally not emphasized a Civil Society perspective as much as the political presidency has. However, the institutional presidency has on occasion applied a Civil Society perspective. For example, White House conferences have been a medium a President uses to get insight from, and act upon, dialogue with citizens on specific topics. Past presidents have used Conferences on Aging, Small Business, etc. to engage citizens. In fact, this “engagement with civic authority” was seen as the genesis of Medicare in the mid-1960s.

There are other examples of public sector chief executives engaging the public, but these are predominantly at the state level. For example, Washington State governor Christine Gregoire conducts town halls and talks in-person around state-wide priorities. In the past, governors from Oregon and other states have used heavy citizen-dialogue efforts to gain legitimacy around state-wide goals. With the advent of the Internet, wide-spread engagement has shown more of a potential for the institution of the presidency. Future presidents may choose to use this approach more than their predecessors. Technology is allowing the evolution of social networks that could be leveraged around selected issues. European Union countries have been making strides in recent years in efforts to better engage citizens in governance issues.

From a Civil Society adherent’s perspective, “good public management” would be characterized by a greater emphasis on activities such as philanthropy, voluntarism and service, and character building.

The tools of Civil Society adherents might include:

• The use of term limits for elected political office holders, and maybe even for senior civil servants, as a way to ensure a constant flow of citizen perspectives into the top levels of government.
• The use of recall and referenda provisions, which allows direct democracy, possibly over the Internet
• Allowing direct citizen debate over legislation, again, possibly over the Internet.
• Anti-corruption campaigns to reduce the influence of corporate and special interests on policy making and contracting
• Moving administrative decisions and action closer to the people affected
• Revenue sharing between levels of government as a way of ensuring a common base of purchasing power among different communities.
• Encouraging greater citizen-government co-production of public services, where citizens bear a greater responsibility for services they receive or services that are provided in their communities.

Options the Next President Might Consider for Achieving
“Good Public Management” from a Civil Society Perspective

A president who advocates a Civil Society perspective might support initiatives such as:

• Create an active White House role in defining national outcomes via the use of citizen-based dialogs. This might be inspired by similar efforts in Oregon, Florida, or Washington State, or the Washington, DC, city government’s Citizen Summits held in recent years.

• Include customer feedback as part of the regular reporting of agency-level metrics in service delivery functions.

Encourage greater transparency in legislative and regulatory processes, such as allowing a public review period of all legislation before it is sent to the President for signature, and posting readable regulatory information on the Internet for public scrutiny in advance of actions taken.

• Continue or expand White House efforts on voluntarism, faith-based initiatives, and community service-oriented campaigns, which involve co-production of services. This might include expanding the role of this White House office, or creating a new office, to encourage greater citizen engagement.

• Revise the federal rule-making process to invite more citizen-engagement, possibly through the Internet. This may require revisions to the Administrative Procedure Act of 1949. A proposal at a recent forum to expand citizen engagement recommended a broader step, starting with an inventory of all laws and regulations that may constrain citizen involvement or participation in their government.

• Encourage on-line dialogs, coupled with in-person forums and on-line voting (probably non-binding), on key issues of national interest.