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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 2, February 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Reformist Leaders and Civil Society

Increase Engagement with the New Government
Ingrid Srinath

A Confidence Gap Needs To Be Bridged
Francis N. Pangilinan

There Is a Danger That the Government Starts to Think It Owns the Sector
Liz Atkins

Getting Too Close to New Leadership Can Be Blinding
Boris Strečanský

Be Prepared to Get Your Hands Dirty
David Robinson

Bind Reformist Leaders to Campaign Commitments
Arthur Larok

A Reformist Leader Is No Guarantee
Dragan Golubovic


The Legal Framework for Not-for-Profit Organizations in Central and Eastern Europe
Douglas Rutzen, David Moore, and Michael Durham

The Legal and Regulatory Framework for Civic Organizations in Namibia
Benedict C. Iheme

International Grantmaking
Foundation Center in Cooperation with Council on Foundations

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Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

Be Prepared to Get Your Hands Dirty

David Robinson1

In considering ways in which civil society could enhance its engagement with the government when a reformist leader takes office, it is important to reflect on the fact that all new governments are “reformers” in that they have an inherent need to change the current status quo.

Recently we have seen a change of government in Australia and New Zealand as well as in the USA. In the UK, the signs are that the current Labour Government is likely to be replaced by the Conservatives at the forthcoming election. In both New Zealand and the UK the “conservative” parties have positioned themselves as “reformers” in relation to the perceived paternalism and narrow ideology of the current (UK) and former (NZ) “progressive” administrations. As with the Democrats in the USA and the Australian Labour Party, they have looked to exploit dissatisfaction with governments that have been perceived as being increasingly rigid and incapable of responding effectively to new challenges. So, I would suggest that the project for civil society is not the election per se but also the practices and programs needed after an election in order to implement new, progressive policies.

The key point about any effective engagement with government is to start this process well before the election and, at an early stage, to see this process as a continuum that will carry on throughout the term of office of the new administration—that is, to engage with policy-makers in developing progressive programs that reflect the experiences and aspirations of those represented by community activists, and not simply endorse a party political platform.

However, after the election it is critical to be strategic in considering what can be achieved. Focus on what is practical and realistic. Build your case through a series of “can-do” options that open a space for future dialogue and ongoing change.

Above all, don’t count on government officials to deliver even when new, progressive policies are introduced. Government’s practices and programs must change, not just its policies. Therefore, be prepared to get your hands dirty and engage with the practical delivery of policies and practices—and not just be content with writing “position statements.”

“Leaders” and “governments,” reformist and progressive or otherwise, are not all-powerful. In his memoirs, Aneurin Bevan commented that when the postwar British Labour Government took office, they were ready to “seize the levers of power”; unfortunately he discovered these levers were “not attached to anything.”

It is essential that community activists keep at it for the long haul—there are no quick and easy victories to be won.

The election of a “reformist” leader or government provides a space, an opportunity for change. In itself it is not that change. It is critical to sustain civic participation—the key message is that selecting a charismatic candidate and voting are not sufficient. Voting needs to grow from the experiences of people campaigning together and then lead on to working together. That means presenting policy options to the new administration but also being ready and able to help turn these options into reality.

A current example in New Zealand is the proposal to develop community-run housing for newly settled refugees where the housing is allocated and managed by the refugee community itself. This clearly cannot be achieved simply by gaining support from the minister of housing and his ministry. It requires the ongoing, active participation of community activists and organizations.

It is critical not to allow yourself to be turned into a sideline critic of government policy, but rather to remain an active participant in the development and implementation of real-life programs.

As noted in my comments of the community housing proposal, it is important to be strategic and inclusive, to involve those who will be affected by policies and practices in the ongoing work of monitoring, lobbying, and ensuring the implementation of policies.

Our process for working with a newly elected conservative National Party government in New Zealand is no different than what it would have been had the Labour-led coalition government been returned:

  1. Work together to develop practical proposals – suggesting what the government can do rather than just criticizing them for what they are not doing. This helps fill the practical policy gaps that exist in any new government.
  2. Ensure ongoing interaction with government officials and the monitoring of government’s actions. This requires effective coordinating bodies in specific policy areas such as international aid and disability policy as well as a generalist civil society organization (CSO) umbrella body.
  3. Although they may have limitations, practical proposals should not be seen as all that can be achieved. Rather, they should lay the foundations for future changes and developments.

And above all “keep on keeping on.” Be clear about what you want to see happen in practice and not just what words should be adopted in policy statements. This means keeping focused on your principles and making them practical by spelling out clearly how they be put into practice.

In this overall process, building and maintaining strong networks ensures that contact with civil society leaders is not lost if they move into government but that they remain allies. When colleagues make such a move, ensure that they are constantly reminded of where their real mandate comes from – keep them on mailing lists, and continue to invite them to participate in community actions and social functions. Citizens don’t lose their citizenship when they go to work for government, although sometimes they may need to be reminded of this!

In the case of the new US administration, it is critical to identify where the critical tipping points are. At present, the key may be to focus on an end to the “culture wars,” and to aggressively push for an end to the appointment of conservative, like-minded officials to boards, academic institutions, courts, etc. This is a key change/reform that is urgently required in order to prepare the ground for many other substantive reforms. More than anything else, this would clear the decks and create a space for the potential development of real reform in policies, practices, and programs. It is essential to remove the blinders from advisors, consultants, academics, and government officials in environmental policy, international policy (especially in the Middle East), and domestic affairs such as housing and employment. But it is important to be vigilant and ensure that one set of prejudices is not simply replaced with another set.

Clearing away prejudice and privilege should open the way for new thinking and new ideas. Not the imposition of a new “orthodoxy” that in its turn will need to be overthrown in the future.

A key strategy is to build relationships with government officials before, during, and after an election to ensure that civil society has a role to play in the development of policies and programs—that CSOs are clearly recognized as being more than service-delivery agents.

Although it may appear to be an overly restrictive factor, the current economic situation provides opportunities to lobby for the reallocation of resources. There is an opportunity to work with reformist governments in changing policies and practices to ensure that there is real community involvement. This means that governments will need to reach out and develop real community partnerships.

At the same time this may even result in some modest savings of government funds while providing services that are more clearly responsive to community needs and more inclusive of community input in their delivery.

In the above example of the potential to reorganize the provision of publicly funded housing in New Zealand, the aim is not to reduce government expenditure in housing but to begin a move from state housing to community housing. This would mark a move from a welfare to a community-development approach, from paternalism to cooperation.

To some degree this had already been taking place under the previous Labour government, but the full potential of community input was held back by an ideological emphasis on the dominant role of the state in providing and managing public rental housing.

The key to progressive reform is opening spaces to enable community initiatives and encourage people’s self-determination, not simply changing the management of those spaces sitting between the state and commerce from one set of politicians to another.


1 David Robinson, a member of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s Advisory Council, is Director of the New Zealand Social and Civic Policy Institute.


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ISSN: 1556-5157