Strengthening connections between civil society and government institutions
May 27, 2024

Strengthening connections between civil society and government institutions

The dynamic between government and civil society is an important aspect of political stability and democratic development in society. Historically, the state has often been perceived as the primary source of power, exerting control and influence over society, while society remained relegated to the role of passive recipient. However, modern perspectives are shifting towards a more nuanced understanding, acknowledging the key role of civil society organisations in actively shaping and influencing governance processes alongside the state.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are non-profit volunteer or professional, national or international organisations with legal or informal status that are independent from the state. Classic examples of CSOs are public organisations, charitable foundations, trade unions, think tanks, etc.

The diversity of CSOs, reflecting the diversity of social groups, contributes to strengthening representative democracy by incorporating public opinion, knowledge, experience, and expertise into the formulation and implementation of public policy. Civil society acts as an important link between people, their interests and needs, and the state as a political organisation of society. The state authorities, on the other hand, can influence societal development, either creating the conditions for civil society’s engagement or impeding its progress.

Partnerships and cooperation between civil society and government agencies enhance the dynamism and efficiency of policy development and implementation.

Public sector representatives influence the development and implementation of state policies through various means. Primarily, this occurs through advocating for socially significant initiatives. Advocacy serves as a channel for the government to become aware of grassroots issues and concerns that may not be addressed by existing laws or adequately covered by the media. Consequently, CSO representatives also inform government officials about societal challenges and provide research data regarding public opinion on a particular issue.

Additionally, CSOs offer their expertise to policymakers, sharing their experiences and best practices. This not only contributes to the quality of policies but also provides an opportunity to use optimal approaches in addressing social issues. CSOs also engage in soft control, and monitor the implementation of draft laws, ensuring the government’s adherence to international standards. This involvement of the public sector adds to the value of policy formulation and implementation, contributing to its legitimacy, quality, comprehension, and long-term impact.

However, some challenges may arise in the relationship between civil society and government representatives. The bureaucratisation of the public sector and the variety of civil society organisations, each with its own ideas, approaches, and practices, can make it challenging to find common ground and foster cooperation between the two sectors.

The main challenges facing effective cooperation between CSOs and the state include the following:

  • Lack of sustainable ties. Establishing partnerships can be a complex and time-consuming process that also requires a change in the perception of the parties. Successful partnerships seek mutual understanding, trust, and ongoing support.
  • Short-term cooperation. Interaction between CSOs and the government often remains fragmented and limited in time.
  • Structural disparities and inconsistencies in convictions. Differences in organisational structures, legal constraints, divergent professional interests, different expectations, and a lack of understanding of cooperation methodologies are primary factors that lead to the failure of many collaborative initiatives.
  • Mistrust. The relationship between CSOs and state representatives can be competitive, with each party defending its interests and perceiving the other’s perception as hostile. Moreover, CSOs advocating for the public interest may have limited influence over decision-making processes. In many cases, public opinion and the outcomes of public consultations are not properly considered in final administrative decisions, which reduces trust in further cooperation.

To overcome these and other challenges and improve cooperation between CSOs and government institutions, it is necessary to ensure openness, trust, and partnership in relations.

The Council of Europe encourages cooperation with civil society representatives across various policy areas and at all levels of political decision-making and implementation, whether at the international, national, regional, or local levels. This commitment is based on a few key principles:

  • Involvement in decision-making. Non-governmental organisations gather and disseminate the interests of their members or concerned citizens.  This requires transparent and accessible processes for developing and implementing government decisions. A prerequisite for this is openness and accessibility of the process of developing and implementing government decisions. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure clear and understandable mechanisms for interaction with the public, businesses, donors, and foreign governments.
  • Openness and accountability. Activities aimed at benefiting society should be based on the principles of responsibility, transparency, and accountability for both non-governmental organisations and government agencies. This includes mutual evaluation of activities and fostering quality relations between public authorities and civil society institutions.
  • Trust and standards of cooperation. Consistency and reliability are essential in communication and cooperation.
  • Respect for partners’ activities. CSOs are independent entities with the freedom to establish their goals, make decisions, and operate in line with their mission and values. Respect for their autonomy is crucial, regardless of official policies or government decisions.

Therefore, civil society and public authorities should act as partners at all stages – discussion, adoption, and implementation of political decisions. Collaboration and interaction between these sectors are essential in ensuring effective, transparent, and accountable governance that aligns with the needs and interests of society.

Such a productive partnership between society and government can be carried out in a format such as a social partnership.

Social partnership involves collaborative efforts between public authorities and civil society to align interests and address societal issues, particularly in the socio-economic sphere. In the context of social relations, where social partnership operates, we can also distinguish cross-sector collaborations, where the public, private, and civil society sectors collaborate to implement rapid and impactful social change.

For instance, Ukraine hosts an annual campaign titled “Civil Society and Government – Best Practices of Cooperation”, which has recently expanded to “Civil Society, Business, and Government – Best Practices of Cooperation”. This campaign aims to showcase successful projects undertaken by civil society organisations in collaboration with both government and business.

As part of this initiative, a competition is held to collect stories highlighting the best joint projects among CSOs, businesses, and government agencies. In 2024, the collection featured 37 outstanding cooperation stories.

Another effective model of cooperation involves the establishment of a joint institutional platform for CSOs and the government, as is implemented in Finland. The Finnish Advisory Council on Civil Society Policy aims to promote cooperation and foster dialogue between civil society and government bodies. Its objectives include monitoring changes in the civil society landscape at both national and European Union levels, as well as advocating for key aspects of civil society policy. Similarly, Sweden’s National Authority for Dialogue and Consultation (NOD) and Ireland’s Citizens’ Forum offer consultation between civil society representatives and government entities. In Estonia, CSO representatives and civil servants have jointly developed the so-called framework for participation, outlining best practices for interaction between the two sectors. Estonia also conducts training programmes for government and civil society representatives to foster mutual understanding.

It is clear that the interaction between the state and civil society organisations is fundamental in shaping a democratic society operating within the rule of law. Striking a balance between state influence and the autonomous development of civil society is essential for developing a state that respects the rights and social values of its citizens. This balance requires prioritising constructive civic engagement in public administration processes, with civil society serving as a guide for government action. However, to ensure this dynamic in practice, it is necessary to consolidate the relevant principles of partnership. Only through such an approach can we establish an effective mechanism of interaction that promotes democratic societal development, ensuring its long-term sustainability and prosperity.

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