Report Warns on Compact Between Govt & Community Sector
8 September 2008 at 2:57 pm
A new report by Australia Institute argues that community groups should be very careful about signing an agreement or Compact with the Rudd Government that would set out their future working relationship.
Australia Institute Research Fellow Gemma Edgar says in her report Agreeing to Disagree: Maintaining dissent in the NGO sector, that while the Rudd Government’s desire to build bridges with the community sector should be applauded, any decision to enter into a formal compact needs to be carefully considered by both sides.
Edgar says the idea that the Government and the community sector can agree on how they will work together constructively sounds good in theory, but experience shows it is the sincerity of both parties, not the words of a formal agreement, that is the key to a positive relationship.
She says that as recently as last year the Iemma Government distanced itself from an agreement between the NSW government and the NSW community sector on the basis that it had been signed by the previous Premier, Bob Carr. If these agreements don’t hold when there is a change of Premier, even within the same party, what chance have they got of withstanding a change of government?
A compact is a set of non-binding guidelines that frame the relationship between government and NGOs. The Rudd Government has committed to the introduction of a national compact, and is currently consulting with NGOs regarding the development of such an agreement by 2009.
Edgar says compacts themselves do not guarantee the legitimacy of the community sector. Nor can they be relied upon to ensure an effective and respectful long-term relationship between government and NGOs.
She says these things will only occur if NGO advocacy is recognised as a legitimate and valuable element of public debate.
The report examines what advocacy NGOs stand to gain from entering into a compact, as well as what they may lose. It also considers the conditions necessary for a compact to be effective. Conclusions are reached through an assessment of the
existing compacts in England and NSW, an extensive examination of relevant literature and an analysis of interviews with selected Australian advocacy NGOs.
Although the Report finds that compacts are not necessarily optimal for the NGO sector, it says there are a number of factors necessary to ensure success should government and the NGO sector agree to one in the future.
In particular, it says a compact must:
– Be known: government officials and both large and small NGOs whose work falls within the ambit of the compact must be aware of its existence and understand its implications.
– Be monitored: a check of some sort is required to ensure that the commitments made within the compact are being met. One way the compact could be assessed is through a regular and comprehensive survey of NGOs.
– Include penalties: a penalty needs to apply if NGOs or government bodies do not comply with the arrangements made in the compact.
– Have champions: there must be people in both the Australian Government and the NGO sector who firmly support the development and operation of a compact.
It says these conditions, at minimum, are necessary for a compact to be effective, but they are not easily met because they require considerable effort and money on the part of both NGOs and government.
The report says a shift in cultural attitudes, in which the worth of NGO advocacy is recognised, is the most effective defence against government attempts to undermine and constrain the sector. NGOs should, therefore, direct their energy towards the promotion of this message rather than towards an often ineffective, and usually short-term, agreement.
It says the Australian Government must also play a part in creating this cultural shift.
Governments have a responsibility to support NGO participation in public and policy debates; they rely on these organisations to deliver necessary community services and have therefore made them important constituents in policy production.
The report says there are numerous ways in which governments might assist NGOs, including the encouragement of philanthropic support for them and increased funding of their infrastructure. The Rudd Government’s removal of gag clauses from NGO funding agreements is a step in the right direction.
Gemma Edgar says on balance, the conclusion is that while compacts may offer certain benefits, they are unable to guarantee lasting legitimacy for NGO advocacy. Nor can they be relied upon to ensure an effective and respectful long-term relationship between government and NGOs.
The report builds on the Australia Institute’s previous work on the capacity of the non-government sector to be an effective voice for change.
The report can be downloaded in full from the Institute’s website – www.tai.org.au.