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Smarter public policy: Tips from a pilot network on political activities

Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Public Policy

“The fun for me in collaboration is working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

It may be a long way from Broadway, and Policy Statement CPS-022 definitely isn’t as hummable as anything from Hamilton, but the CRA’s political activity consultations have given us the chance to prove Lin-Manuel Miranda’s point.

Earlier this year, Imagine Canada decided to do public policy in a different way. The first opportunity to do so presented itself when CRA was tasked with reviewing the way government regulates political activities by charities.  This entire issue has diverse implications for charities around the country, so it made sense to involve many voices.

We opened up our policy shop and invited the sector in to get to work. Working together ultimately pays off in better policy, but the road can be tricky. This is an incredible period of learning, and we’d like to share some tips that you can adapt into your own work.

1. Tap into existing energy

The issue of charities’ engagement in political activity has had a long and storied history in Canada. Recent events created the conditions to bring a policy working group together. During the 2015 election campaign the federal government committed to reforming the rules around political activity by charities. Early in 2016, the Max Bell Foundation and the Muttart Foundation convened more than 100 charity leaders from across Canada in Calgary to explore how to work together on the issue. Imagine Canada also published research (pdf) describing the extent of charities’ engagement in political activities. 

United by a common goal, we had the momentum and energy needed for collective action. We put out an open invite through our Early Alert (our policy focused e-update that you should sign up for), and 33 different organizations came forward with enthusiasm!

2. Embrace the debate

It was a challenge to figure out how to lead this collaborative effort in a way that considered all perspectives, but was also timely and efficient. Especially tricky with such a high profile issue that inspires so much passion.

At the beginning of the process, it was anticipated that the group would focus on revisions to the existing guidelines, and that the bigger picture questions would be tackled if and when the government looks to revisit legal and regulatory reform. Wrong!

The tension between the two approaches led to rigorous debate over strategy and what was feasible, as well as the interests and rights of the sector. The working group was effectively a platform for this debate. It was a privilege to hear these passionate and well-informed positions.

Then, it was time to focus on areas of common ground – and there were many. Internally, we’ve speculated that this can be attributed to the issue’s high profile and the amount of time the sector has had to consider the policy file. There was overwhelming support in proposing Income Tax Act changes that would shift the focus away from political activity and toward charitable purposes, while having consequential changes in other areas of the existing regulation.

3. Do something

While this was all going on, the Canada Revenue Agency launched its consultation on political activity reform . We aligned our recommendations with the consultation and launched a mobilization campaign to encourage others to participate.

The network hadn’t done much outward facing work up to this point, so we weren’t sure what to expect. The Call to Action was publicized through a number of channels, asking sector organizations to participate in the consultation by either submitting our recommendations or some of their own. It’s been exciting to see the ways and extent to which organizations across the country are engaging with the group’s work and in the consultation more broadly. There is plenty of momentum to sustain in the coming months and years, as the government seeks to meet its ambitious agenda, and as we look to improve our operating environment as a sector.

4. Keep on learning

Continuous learning is a key principle of network leadership.  You have to adopt an openness to be continually challenged on assumptions, ways of working, and expectations. Here are some very practical key lessons that we learned:

  • Leave some wiggle room. Network facilitation requires time to reach out to individual members, host conference calls, draft papers, collect feedback, and sort disagreements. Things also have the tendency to get unpredictable when there’s more than a few cooks in the kitchen. Understand that you’ll need to leave space to tackle ideas, conflicts, and new directions as they arise, and there’s a lot you won’t be able to plan for.
  • Use multiple channels to communicate. Not everybody feels comfortable speaking up in a meeting or on a teleconference. The extra time and effort to reach out to individuals through personal calls, email, or social networks for their thoughts and advice is well worth it.
  • Be flexible. Individual policy issues present their own unique constraints and require different approaches. There is a big difference between reacting to a long-standing and tested regulatory framework, and coming up with ideas related to a broad topic. There is also a big difference between working to a deadline, and having the time to thoroughly explore an issue. While we might have liked more time to really get into the nuances of political activity reform, we were able to accelerate things and still have a package of reform proposals that we’re all proud to put our names to.

So that’s one down, and many still to go (check out our working group on youth employment in the charitable sector!). If there’s an issue that you think would benefit from collective action, reach out and let us know. We may not have the capacity to take the lead ourselves, but we might be able to help you gather some like-minded colleagues and help you run with it.

After all, we’re a lot smarter – and a lot more effective – when we put our heads together.


About the Author

Bill Schaper

Bill Schaper is the Director of Public Policy in Imagine Canada’s Ottawa office. In past lives he was a political staffer on Parliament Hill, the senior policy advisor to a federal cabinet minister, a policy analyst and GR practitioner for universities, an independent policy consultant, and a communications specialist for the United Kingdom’s Auditor General.

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