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Participating in Federal Public Policy: A Guide for the Voluntary Sector

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What is public policy?
There are many definitions and interpretations of public policy. The Gage Canadian Dictionary 1 defines policy as:
  1. a plan of action; a course or method of action that has been deliberately chosen and that guides or influences future decisions
  2. practical wisdom; prudence, shrewdness or sagacity

Glen Milne, author of Making Policy: A Guide to the Federal Government’s Policy Process, defines policy as “a clear goal and/or direction. It is the considered selection of one choice among competing difficult choices. Policy directs, but does not consist of, operational programs and details. It is best expressed as a vision with goals, strategic objectives, work plan and a program of activities, resources and leadership to achieve that choice.”2

The VSI Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue further defines public policy, dialogue and development in the following ways:

Public Policy – is a set of interrelated decisions, taken by public authorities, concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them.

Public Policy Dialogue – is the interaction between governments and non-governmental organizations (in this Code, the voluntary sector) at the various stages of the policy development process to encourage the exchange of knowledge and experience in order to have the best possible public policies.

Public Policy Development – is the complex and comprehensive process by which policy issues are identified, the public policy agenda is shaped, issues are researched, analyzed and assessed, policies are drafted and approved and, once implemented, their impact is assessed.3

(See Appendix 1 for a diagram and description of the stages of the public policy process.)

In Canada, public policy affects many issues of concern including tobacco reduction, affordable housing, unemployment, health care, environmental sustainability, access for people with disabilities, positions on stem cell research, immigration levels into Canada, social justice issues, violence, employment equity and taxation. Virtually every policy of government has the potential to affect the voluntary sector and its clients. It is because public policy also has the potential to have different impacts on diverse population groups that it is important to research and analyse how public policy affects your own organization. Your organization likely includes members of both genders and from various ethnic groups, income levels and age groups who can help shape positions that are inclusive of their realities.

Ideally, public policy dialogue is driven by a vision of the future that builds the capacity of society to be safe, healthy, just, diverse and prosperous. It must be recognized, though, that although all political parties embrace these themes, the specific policy directions they choose to achieve them may differ widely. So, from government to government and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, organizations must accept that people with good intentions, who may have competing interests, can differ profoundly on the policies they develop to achieve common goals.

For a copy of Working Together visit: publications/pco-e.pdf
In the voluntary sector, participation in policy dialogue is often a part of how organizations advocate. Advocacy is an essential tool to influence public policy dialogue, effect change and contribute to the welfare of society; however, it is part of a broader process. In addition to public policy input, advocacy can include efforts to change attitudes, raise awareness and provide public education. The Voluntary Sector Initiative's Advocacy Working Group uses the definition of advocacy proposed in Working Together: A Government of Canada/Voluntary Sector Joint Initiative, which is “…the act of speaking or disseminating information intended to influence individual behaviour or opinion, corporate conduct, or public policy and law.”4 The Advocacy Working Group's position paper on advocacy explains why advocacy is so important to the voluntary sector:

“We believe that the history of advocacy parallels the development of democratic societies. In Canada, individuals have always come together through voluntary associations to help each other and to share their ideas, values and beliefs. The natural outcome of this is for people to promote (advocate for) change in many areas of public interest. The result of this is a society that evolves as it responds to the needs of its people, communities and environment.

For a copy of the Advocacy Working Group's position paper visit: eng/policy/pdf/ position_paper.pdf
This form of advocacy is at the core of the voluntary sector's work. It is the articulation of the vision toward which sector organizations are working, while also providing services and delivering programs. The sector would be negligent if it failed to communicate this vision and recommend the policy changes that are required to achieve it.”5

It should be noted that some of what the voluntary sector considers to be public policy input may be viewed as “political activity” by the federal government and, therefore, subject to restriction when conducted by a registered charity. For more information on this, please refer to Module 2 as well as the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA).

Voluntary organizations can benefit by understanding the systems and the environments in which public policies are developed. The next section introduces the structure of the federal government, outlines the federal policy development process and describes the levels of involvement along a continuum. It also provides an overview of the voluntary sector and describes the federal regulations governing voluntary organizations.

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Last Updated: 2019-11-15