Oz Community Sector Peak Bodies - Big Picture
27 October 2003 at 12:10 pm
One of the most extensive independent investigations into community sector peak bodies in Australia has exposed what it describes as the systematic 'delegitimisation' of these organisations by past and current governments on a both a national and state level.
The report points to the problematic relationship between peak bodies and government ministers and bureaucrats, and the 'representative' bodies' participation in this country's policy-making processes.
From the Institute of Social Change and Critical Inquiry, at the University of Wollongong, this report focuses on the organisational landscape of peak bodies, the many challenges to their roles in policy making. The study, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant is called "Changing Roles of Community-Sector Peak Bodies in a Neo-liberal Policy Environment in Australia".
Its chief investigator is Dr. Rose Melville and the senior researcher is Roberta Perkins. Most Not for Profit organisations in Australia belong to some sort of peak body or council. The roles of these organisations vary but they all engage in political lobbying and /or advocacy for their member organisations or client group. This extended study confirmed the hypothesis that peaks are undergoing major changes in the current neo-liberal political climate. This was most evident in the level of government support (political and financial) of peak bodies.
A total of 142 peak bodies were surveyed, or 42% of those invited to participate and another 89 peak body executives and senior government officers were interviewed. Dr. Melville says in her conclusions that the funding environment of peaks has changed significantly since the election of the Howard Government, although some of these changes had begun under previous governments.
The study found that more than half of the peaks claimed to have received threats to their funding from government and 10 were totally 'defunded'. Nearly 40% of reasons given for these threats or funding loss was due to political activity (advocacy and lobbying) on the part of peaks and changes in funding guidelines.
During the course of the study (2000-2002), over 20 nationally funded peaks were defunded. It found that national peaks' relationships with governments are largely negative, with less than 20% claiming to have an amicable relationship, and nearly 8% stating it had completely broken down. There was little difference between the state- and federally funded peaks.
Policy pressure from government included funding cutbacks, challenges to the legitimacy of the 'representative role' of peaks in policy making, increased government administration, and demands to cease advocacy (such as lobbying in the media).
The in-depth interviews with peak executives provided further details about changes to their roles and policy environment.
Some of the major changes in the way government has dealt with peaks include – Relations between ministers and peaks poor or non-existent, but better with bureaucrats; – Trends towards amalgamations, defunding and reductions in core funding; – Challenge to legitimacy of peaks; they no longer are seen as representative of their constituents and are not seen as accountable to them; – Major changes in funding levels and policies (from core funding to short-term project funding); – Use of stringent funding contracts, which contain clauses that effectively silence peaks (e.g. bans on media comment and criticism); – Use of unrealistic and untested performance measures and criteria; – Fickle, sudden and mandatory changes to funding regimens; – Greater control exercised over the internal operations of peaks by state bureaucracy; – Unpredictable policy environment – changes constantly and without rationale; – Pace of welfare reform has overtaken the sector; – Increased workloads and expectations from government and member organisations.
The report found in its discussion with government officers that their relationships with peak bodies were obviously fraught with mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. In the general analysis, social welfare peak bodies which operate on a national level were more likely to have greater confrontation with government.
The report says that close analysis of peak roles in representation showed that peak bodies are often caught in a dilemma. They must attempt to fully perform the duties of representation expected of them by their membership and broader constituents, while at the same time having to make compromises with the demands of government to avoid losing favour and even losing funding that would seriously curtail their ability to perform these duties.
This was highlighted through the history of government relations with a national youth peak, which ended in the total defunding of the organisation. The report suggests that one way of overcoming this dilemma would be the introduction of legislation that protects the interests of peak bodies. This would include in the legal terms of reference a standard definition that outlines the types of duties expected of a peak body, including their role as advocates for the community sector.
Another major recommendation of this report is the reassertion of the traditional ethos of neutrality, equity and the 'pubic interest' as primary values pursued in the public service.
Public sector accountability should reflect practices which involve the integration (and not segregation) of policy development and operations management. It says the current dominance of the executive arm of government in policy making needs to be realigned with an effective public service, parliament, parliamentary committees and extra-parliamentary institutions and processes.
The report proposes alternatives to the existing mode of operation adopted by peak bodies, especially in their resources for financial viability. The non-adversarial stance in the relationships between Tasmanian peaks and the State Government is offered as one solution. Seeking non-governmental funding is another suggestion.
It also focused on one model introduced by a major national charity as a new mode of operation. This hinged on adopting a social enterprise outlook and employing commercial practices through an ideology of integrating social and economic thinking as the key to survival and forming social entrepreneurial organisations to replace the 'old style' charity-based traditional peak organisations.
The report says that this social entrepreneurial approach is based on communitarian political notions and values.
The report concludes that Australian community-sector peak bodies no longer enjoy the legitimacy they once had in the Australian policy system and it offers some 57 recommendations to help redress the situation.
If you would like an electronic version of the full report in PDF format go to http://apo.org.au/research/changing-roles-community-sector-peak-bodies-neo-liberal-policy-environment-australia