I attended the Ontario Non-profit Network’s (ONN) 2012 Conference ‘Policy to Practice’ in late September. Tonya Surman of ONN updated participants on the Network’s work in relation to five policy priorities identified 3 years ago*. ONN is playing an important role in changing the narrative about the sector and shifting the relationship between the sector and the Ontario government.
We can’t underestimate the power of language to shift perspectives. A number of speakers commented on the disservice we do when we define the sector by what it’s not – i.e. ‘not-for-profit’, ‘non-governmental’. Tonya Surman highlighted some of ONN’s efforts to put the sector on a more equal footing with government by redefining the sector as: “solution innovators”, “community assets”, “community stewards”.
MPP Charles Sousa, from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration offered opening remarks that reflected greater government appreciation for the sector – he was well-informed about the size of the sector (e.g. representing $50 billion and 15% of jobs) and spoke of the sector as a ‘third pillar’ supporting Ontario’s society, on the front lines of public service. Assistant Deputy Minister Katherine Hewson spoke about how the provincial government’s OPEN for Business Program, which was initially designed to make government easier and more responsive to business and put clients at the centre of services, was expanded to include the non-profit sector. She praised ONN’s attitude of collaboration and interest in working together with government to find solutions.
Questions for leaders:
- Do the words you use when you talk about your work emphasize solutions and assets, or deficits?
- Do you offer compelling solutions when engaging with government partners?
- Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations Act – influencing the content of the Act (note: conversations continue as proclamation has been delayed until July 1, 2013)
- Sale of Surplus Public Lands – expanding the sector’s ability to express interest in the purchase of public lands before they go on the wider market
- Infrastructure Ontario’s Loan Program – gaining access to government’s low rate capital financing for non-profit organizations (NPOs)
- Police Record Checks Process – seeking greater clarity around process requirements to lessen the burden on NPOs
- Procurement and Vendor of Record – gaining access to public procurement program discounts for NPOs
The Ontario government has partnered with MaRS to launch a ‘Solutions Lab’. Assistant Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Katherine Hewson, at the ONN Conference in September 2012, noted that part of the intention of such an initiative is to put clients at the centre of government services.
This signals a shift toward a more participatory approach to governance. Social Innovation Labs like this have been implemented in other countries to change the way public policy and/or public services are developed; SiG at Waterloo provides a helpful description. It’s about the co-creation of solutions WITH citizens.
Christian Bason, of MindLab in Denmark, presented on MindLab’s innovation work within the Danish government at MaRS in June 2011. It was a compelling story – you can view his presentation here: http://vimeo.com/23657554. Bason noted he was also in Canada to meet with the Ontario government to share his experience with them… apparently they liked what they heard. Bason’s book, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society is a great source of practical advice on how to apply design principles and work with end-users to develop innovative and impactful solutions to social problems.
Participatory governance and co-creation of solutions have applications for organizations and the way they govern and do their work. In terms of governance, this involves engaging the communities served in the decision-making of your organization. For organizations serving marginalized populations or youth, this may require the provision of support in the form of education, mentorship and changing the way the board engages in and beyond the boardroom. Creating an environment that is comfortable for those who could otherwise be intimidated means ensuring they are not a singular voice, and actively encouraging them to share their perspectives on different issues. Engaging this diversity at a governance level will lead to richer discussions and different decisions.
A number of marginalized groups have adopted the term ‘nothing about us without us’ – and this speaks to their interest in participating more actively in shaping decisions about services. Beyond governance, engaging those you serve in the design and evaluation of your services is another path to greater participation and innovation.
Ruth and Sandi
QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS:
- Why might your board, staff, community and clients get excited about a more participatory approach to governance and/or program design?
- How could a more participatory approach lead to greater innovation?
- What could your board do differently to share decision making more widely?