Policy-making in Canada, whether it occurs at the municipal, provincial, or federal level of government, follows an established hierarchical process, or at least it is intended that it follow an established process. In general, the bigger the government, the more complex the process. Each follows a system involving elected officials, committees, staff research and preparation, and public input that varies with the level of government and the particular jurisdiction.
Even if your work is focused on one neighbourhood or one municipality, the work you do, the people you work with, and the issues you address are often impacted by senior levels of government. It is important for local organizations to become involved in the decision-making processes that can improve the quality of life of their stakeholders. Every organization has the opportunity to contribute to the debate that moves policy forward. Those organizations that belong to provincial or national organizations may participate in broader efforts as well as local ones, often working with their local politicians and government employees in concert with other association members.
There are two distinct kinds of government policy opportunities for voluntary organizations. In the first, the government initiates a process; in the second, the initiative is taken by the voluntary organization itself. Recently, the government has begun to concentrate more in engaging communities beyond simply responding through one-time events, and the opportunities for input have been increased. In all cases, organizations can respond outside a given process through letters, e-mails, meetings, and phone calls if they want to.
Processes in which the government takes the initiative span five steps along a continuum. Looking at the process from the government's perspective the five include informing the public, consulting to obtain feedback, involving the public in decision-making, collaborating, and empowering.
The first step, informing the public, is more an information-giving process than an information collection process. There is no real opportunity for voluntary sector input because the decision has already been taken. In this process the government is trying to educate the public about an initiative they are committed to taking, or have already taken. Even if input hasn't been requested, organizations can always make their views known and can point out that they believe their input should have been invited.
The next step of consultation is one in which the government has already chosen one course of action from among the options available to it, and intends to proceed with this course unless actively dissuaded. In some cases there has been public input in the development of the policy that is being taken around for consultation, but this doesn't apply in all cases; and its likelihood varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
If the process is the step 2 type, the chances of influencing policy are slim to none. But don't discount your participation altogether. If you have important things to say on the subject of the consultation, the government is providing you with a free stage, usually complete with media coverage. You can raise important questions, make important points, and use the opportunity to attract members of the public to your cause.
At the third step, the public gets real involvement in the process. Government works with stakeholders to understand the issue from their point of view, and feedback is sought at various stages in the policy development process. Government still makes the final decision, but it is made with the help and advice of the public.
At the fourth step, there is true collaboration in the development of public policy. The Accord Between the Government of Canada and the Voluntary Sector serves as an excellent example of this kind of policy development process. The Accord, in this case, was jointly developed.
In the final step, the government empowers the public to make the final decision. This is more likely to occur at the local government level because of its limited carry-over to other settings. A local government, for example, may hand over program and operational policy decision-making for a municipal neighbourhood centre to a local community committee.
So, the first questions to ask yourself before becoming involved in a government-initiated consultation process are: "How much influence will our group have?" and "Where will our energies be most effective?" Don't forget that even if one particular process is not likely to have much impact, effective public policy influence requires sustained input over a period of time. Don't discount any opportunity to make your case and win public support.
It is important, however, when using precious organizational resources, to make sure that you are investing them wisely. So, remember to ask yourself these questions:
It is important first to understand how the federal government is organized in order to understand how its policy development process works. The organization of provincial governments is very similar to the federal model, and policy development for provincial governments is similar to the national model. Government consists of three constituent parts: The Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judiciary. The first two are involved in the development and implementation of policy.
The Legislative Branch is responsible for introducing, considering, and passing legislation. An important part of the work accomplished by the House of Commons and Senate goes on outside the chambers themselves, in Parliamentary Committees. These committees comprise members from all parties. Membership on certain Committees is a matter of great interest to MPs as it is here that they may have the chance to prove their abilities. In the House, backbenchers (those MPs who are not members of the Cabinet) often feel they have little opportunity to play a substantive role. Voluntary organizations that are active or are becoming active in the public policy process should identify which MPs sit on the committees that relate to their concerns. Make that they receive information regarding your concerns and the direction you would like to see policy take. Large organizations may want to monitor committee activities on an ongoing basis. It is always useful to find out which committees you local MP or MPs sit on and meet with them to provide insight into your concerns. Local public processes, studies, position papers, and research that substantiates your concerns and/or your proposals should be provided to your MP as well.
Standing Committees: focused on a substantive sphere of government policy, each responsible for one or more departments or agencies of government. There are also joint House-Senate committees, and specialist standing committees, which review overarching, long term issues that cross departments (e.g. the Public Accounts Committee);
Special Committees: set up to examine specific issues (pensions, child care);
Legislative Committees: although rarely used, they are established to examine specific government bills after they have passed second reading in the legislature.
Committee of the Whole: composed of all members from either the House or Senate and take place in their respective Chambers.
Cabinet controls most Committees, because the chair and majority of members are from the governing party. Exceptions are the Public Accounts Committee and the Standing Joint Committee, which are chaired by a member of the Opposition.
Every Wednesday morning, each party holds a caucus (a meeting of its elected members) to discuss emerging issues and strategies. The caucus of the governing party will also be advised of upcoming legislation. Caucus is consulted during the course of developing government policy, but has no formal role in the decision-making process.
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The executive branch of government comprises those who propose policies and bills (Prime Minister and Cabinet) and those who carry them out (the Public Service).
The undisputed head of decision-making in the federal government is the Prime Minister. He or she provides overall direction for the government and although the Prime Minister's role is not written down in detail, the Prime Minister does the following:
The Prime Minister's staff in both the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO) zealously guards these powers. The methods and practices used to enforce these powers are largely determined by the personality of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister appoints the Cabinet from among selected members of his or her party. The current Cabinet is made up of 29 Ministers (including the Prime Minister) whose work is assisted by Secretaries of State. Ministers also have Parliamentary Secretaries, who are also MPs, assigned to assist in managing the Minister's House business.
Cabinet Ministers are selected by the Prime Minister on the basis of their experience but also with an eye to ensuring representation, if not balance, of Canadian diversity: regional, provincial, gender, native/non-native, francophone/anglophone; ethnic, cultural and linguistic background, etc. Each Cabinet Minister is given responsibility for a department and may hold additional responsibilities for regional or provincial interests, or for Crown corporations affiliated with the portfolio.
A few Ministers have other titles (e.g. President of Treasury Board, or Solicitor General) but their rank is not different to that of Minister.
Ministers represent their portfolios in the House and table legislation affecting their departments as necessary. They are accountable to the House for all actions carried out in their name because, under our Constitution, this is where elected officials are made responsible to the citizens of Canada.
The Prime Minister and Ministers in Cabinet make all major policy decisions. For convenience, the Prime Minister usually establishes Committees of Cabinet to handle streams of policy issues. Currently, for example, there are Cabinet Committees for Social Union, Economic Union, Government Communications, Treasury Board, and Special Committee of Council. Committees with these general responsibilities have existed for several years, but only one Committee, Treasury Board (the financial control committee for government expenditures), is established in legislation. The others are established "at pleasure" of the Prime Minister. Ad Hoc Committees can also be established to work on particular issues over a short period. Cabinet and the four Cabinet Committees meet once a week on an established schedule.
Cabinet Committees review proposals from individual Ministers and send their written recommendations forward to Cabinet for ratification (if no problems are foreseen) or for further discussion. If approved proposals have expenditure implications that go beyond the approved budget allocations for the department, the proposal must also receive the approval of Treasury Board in a separate discussion.
The Prime Minister, Cabinet and Cabinet Committees are supported by the Privy Council Office (PCO), the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister's department, headed by the Clerk of the Privy Council.
There are two types of documents presented to Cabinet: Memorandum to Cabinet and an Aide-Memoire. A Memorandum to Cabinet requests a decision; an Aide-Memoire is prepared to inform Cabinet on an issue. Once it is decided an issue should come to Cabinet for decision, all documentation, discussions and other transactions concerning it are conducted in secrecy, on a "need to know" basis, by individuals who have received the necessary security clearances. There is a strict process surrounding the preparation and submission of Memoranda to Cabinet in order to ensure that Ministers can consider and judge proposals in a balanced manner, in as little time as possible. PCO produces and shares Cabinet document guidelines with departments.
The following is what the writers need to put into these documents. Making sure the information you provide in the process covers as many areas as possible helps to ensure that your points get heard.
At Cabinet or its Committees, attendance is strictly limited to Ministers and those few officials needed to record the discussions and decisions and to help present technical aspects of proposals to Cabinet.
Relatively few decisions are brought to Cabinet. Typical agendas for Cabinet have only four or five issues, each of which will have about 15 to 30 minutes of discussion. Issues that have already been discussed at the Committee level will generally have very little time on the Cabinet agenda. If a proposal involves significant or new government spending, a policy with wide impact on government, new or revised legislation, or if the proposal has considerable political fall-out, it will be deemed worthy of Cabinet time. Otherwise and most commonly, decisions are made between individual Ministers or even between officials. Knowing when or when not to raise an issue to Cabinet is a matter of judgment that is developed over time. PCO has final control over the Cabinet agenda.
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The Public Service is the third and largest component of the executive branch of government. Public Servants work to "translate the declarations and definitions of public policy into action". In Canada, this means supporting the activities of the government of the day. Public servants devise options for action, Ministers decide on a course of action from among these options, and public servants then implement the decision.
The policy development process itself, looks something like this:
If you find this confusing, don't worry. So does everyone else who doesn't work full-time in the system, and many who do.
Down in the lower left-hand corner you will find the "interest group". Whether you belong to a small direct-service organization or a large association, your position in the maze is that of "outsider" trying to be heard. On the other hand the number of different players means that there are numerous doors through which the public policy process can be accessed through parliamentary and senate committees, MPs, public consultations, hearings, and the media. Building credibility, allying with like-minded groups, providing praise when it is deserved along with criticism when necessary, and providing valuable insight into the real-life implications of policy choices without hyperbole or unnecessary scare-mongering, will greatly increase your chances of being invited to become part of the policy development process.
The Voluntary Sector Initiative is funding a number of projects designed to enhance policy development in departments by strengthening opportunities for input by voluntary sector organizations and to strengthen the voluntary sector's capacity to contribute to departmental policy development. These projects are designed to provide opportunities for voluntary sector organizations to provide input into the development of departmental policy. The projects in this round will build capacity to support a wide range of policy priorities such as environmental issues, childcare and health. Over 100 voluntary sector organizations from across Canada will work on 46 projects in partnership with 17 government departments and agencies.
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In many ways, the effectiveness of organizations' ability to move their issues and concerns forward is impacted by government and society's view of the sector itself. If the sector is seen as an economic generator and a strong, important contributor to national well-being, its needs and concerns will be taken more seriously than if it is seen as a drain on public finances that is of marginal importance. All governments are on a steep learning curve concerning the true value of the voluntary sector; so when you meet with your MP, minister, or bureaucrats, let them know that the following matters are of concern to the voluntary sector:
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