Monday, January 17, 2011

Subsidiarity: putting civil society in its place

Communities doing their own thing
An article in today’s New Zealand Herald reported on the progress being made by a voluntary association of residents of the Matakana area developing local walkways.  Businesses, residents, and donors have pitched in to work with council support to create off-highway links between the rural settlements of Matakana Village, Point Wells, and Omaha Beach.  This is a modest local initiative.  It is a sign, though, of increasing community interest in the quality and accessibility of the physical environment outside our cities.  The Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society is in the same vein (and locality).  Here, a local community voluntary initiative has been encouraged and supported by local government (the regional council) to achieve conservation outcomes. 
This is a sign that working together communities can deliver projects with a public benefit.  They do not need simply to join the queues contesting government delivery of taxpayer funded projects.
Volunteering, the foundation of civil society
Of course, community focused voluntarism has been with us for a long time, especially in urban areas.  The Māori Warden Association is an excellent example we are all familiar with in New Zealand.  The NZ Federation of Voluntary Welfare Organisations includes around 130 member organisations, which among them employ 11,000 paid staff and represent 41,500 volunteers. The Federation is committed to building strong and equitable communities.
Volunteering New Zealand is an organisation that provides resources and support to organisations in emergency services, health, welfare, education, culture, faith based services, community support, ethnic interests, sport and recreation, conservation, special interests, advocacy and international volunteering.  It provides a strong framework of volunteering centres throughout the country. It  estimates that around 34% of the population aged over ten years is involved in volunteering. 
A high rate of volunteering is confirmed by recent research by Massey University and the Ministry of Social Development.  This puts New Zealand number seven among nations when measured as the share of the economically active population in the not-for-profit workforce.
This is all evidence that New Zealand enjoys a strong civil society, made up of the range of organisations and associations of individuals (and businesses) that contribute freely to the effective functioning of communities without relying on the strictures of the state to do so. 
Civil society, the state, and the market
Civil society has long played a role in getting underprivileged communities moving in developing nations.  For them it may be the main means of group survival, and a force against anarchy.  Often non-government organisations arise from the ground up and become important organising agencies for infrastructure and services in poor communities which depend more on social capital than state direction and resources.  
Now, it seems, civil society may have a more visible role to play as developed nations move into a new, fiscally challenged phase of slow growth and development.
An active civil society can underpin social progress and build stronger communities, ideally supported by the state.  Even better, civil society, the state, and commercial organisations (those regulated by the market) can come together to achieve beneficial social and economic outcomes.  
It’s interesting that a growing awareness of the potential of civil society has triggered some rethinking even in conservative quarters.  Think Tank Res Publica with its emphasis on a more inclusive form of democracy has informed the British government’s thinking about new ways of advancing the social programme, ways less dependent on welfare and more on capacity building. 
There is a risk that moving more towards a society based on voluntarism is no more than a means of running down central government, undoing hard-fought for welfare programmes.  Some equate it with inserting the market where the state has traditionally operated. But this thinking risks confusing the elevation of civil society with corporatisation of services that no longer fit comfortably into the state’s mandate. 
Sure, the relationship between state, civil society and the market needs to be debated.  But that should not prevent us exploring what is potentially a much more effective and balanced form of government (and governance) in which communities, business, and governments act in partnership.
Subsidiarity – a better form of governance?
I have recently been involved in a project looking at subsidiarity in Lombardy (population 9.9m ) in northern Italy.  Subsidiarity is the principle that responsibilities for governing should be allocated from central to decentralised agencies wherever practical.  This is the vertical subsidiarity that features in much of the literature about democracy and governance.  The rationale is that decisions are best taken as close as possible to where they will have most effect.  This arrangement helps communities relate to different tiers of government while providing for more effective governance.
In Lombardy the related principle of horizontal subsidiarity is also important.  This sees functions allocated to the agencies most suited to implementing them.  These may be voluntary or commercial organisations.  Functions that have traditionally been the role of government might move out under these circumstances.  It goes without saying that if the government does allocate responsibility to an outside agency it needs to be accompanied by public funding and monitoring to ensure the best return on the taxpayer investment.  The point is, though, that government need not take direct responsibility for delivery  to get the best outcome.
A suggestion: endorsing subsidiarity in the constitution
Built on our strong and growing civil society, an established and transparent market place, and sound agencies of government, the forthcoming review of the New Zealand constitution might consider vertical and horizontal subsidiarity as potential governing principles, and in doing so acknowledge and endorse the growing importance of community-based organisations in future New Zealand governments.

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