The Role of Citizens in the "Soft Law" of Select Social Policy Areas in Canada and the European Union

Article excerpt

Both Canada and the European Union (EU) have experimented with new modes of "soft," non-legally binding forms of governance. The soft governance in social policy in the EU is captured by the OMC (see Verdun and Wood, this issue). Member states collectively agree to common objectives in a policy area; member states then regularly report on their progress in national action plans; these reports are evaluated at the EU level through peer member-state review, and evaluation results are published in joint EU Commission/Council reports (which are to include non-binding recommendations in cases of non-compliance). In Canada, generating public annual reports as a means to hold provincial governments to account for how they spend federal transfer payments became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and commitments to public reporting on policy results (as opposed to federal reporting on how monies were spent) were made in intergovernmental agreements in a variety of policy areas. These modes of governance on both sides of the Atlantic have arisen when the central actor (the Canadian federal government and EU institutions) lacked jurisdictional and moral authority (in Canadian terms) or competence (in EU terms) to dictate to provinces or member states the direction of policy or hold provinces or member states directly accountable for policy in these areas. They are considered innovative because they potentially enable the centre to steer and facilitate policy coordination across provinces (Simmons 2009) or member states (Kerber and Eckardt 2007) by facilitating policy learning and sharing of best practices (Saint-Martin 2004; on innovative governance in the EU see Tommel and Verdun 2009). They are also considered innovative because of the role of non-governmental actors envisioned in each. Accountability in these new modes of governance relies on government-citizen relationships rather than government-government relationships, as non-governmental actors (either individuals or societal groups) are encouraged to monitor and compare governments' progress in achieving objectives. As outlined in more detail in the Laforest contribution in this issue, in the EU, the formal role for non-governmental organizations extends further to participation in the earlier, pre-evaluation stages of the policy process.

This article compares these new modes of governance in select areas of social policy in Canada and the EU. It compares the role of citizens in the public reporting exercises of the National Child Benefit (NCB) and Canada's health care service delivery to that of citizens and non-governmental organizations in the OMC for Social Protection and Social Inclusion (OMC SPSI). The original objectives for combatting EU social exclusion were "to facilitate participation in employment and access by all to resources, rights, goods and services' and to help the most vulnerable"; and to involve the poor and excluded in the development of public policy aimed at combatting poverty (Daly 2007: 6). Since 2005, the health care and pensions OMCs have joined with what was then known as the OMC for Social Inclusion to form the OMC SPSI.

This article highlights that the institutional infrastructure providing for coordination across social policy areas and possible roles for nongovernmental actors in the pre-evaluation stages of policy development in the OMC is more developed than is the institutional infrastructure of "new modes of governance" in Canada. However, there are formidable obstacles to the creation of such infrastructure and "space" for non-governmental actors in the Canadian case, owing to the differences in the histories and political contexts of the community project of Europe, and the functioning of federalism Canada.

Trajectories of new modes of governance

Reporting to the public on provincial policy performance is part of a decentralizing trend in the Canadian federation involving less federal oversight of provincial social programs. …