Saturday, 10 December 2011

Profiting from a vibrant civil society

The non-profit sector's initiatives can complement government programmes
By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2011

CIVIL society needs to step up and do much more to help meet the increasingly complex needs of the Singaporean community.

Since Independence, Singapore's progress - including its social development as measured by key social indicators - has been nothing short of dramatic.

The state has been the dominant authority in bringing this about while civil society and the non-profit sector have mostly played a supporting role in state-directed programmes. (In Singapore's context, 'civil society' is sometimes used in a way that connotes something more political and adversarial than the non-profit sector, which need not be the case. I use both terms in this article interchangeably.)

Civil society in Singapore can and should learn to do more: Non-profit organisations (NPOs) need to play a complementary role in society and be innovative in their own right. NPOs can uniquely help create an environment where Singaporeans feel empowered to start new ground-up endeavours, where civil society is able to do things that the Government cannot do.

It may not be self-evident in a state where the Government is so dominant that there are indeed areas of social and community interventions that the Government simply cannot take on. Humans are more than material beings, and NPOs can provide for social, spiritual and emotional needs better.

For example, halfway houses which treat recovering drug addicts use religion for rehabilitation, which would be prohibited in state-run establishments (as most are religion-based).

NPOs are better placed to provide customised solutions to heterogeneous needs. Government programmes are like big stones filling a container, while NPO programmes, with their closeness to the ground are like small stones filling the remaining gaps. The Government's subsidy and income redistribution schemes cannot precisely meet the unique needs of each recipient, nor be too broadly generous - it would be too administratively costly, inefficient and unsustainable to operate.

Government schemes tend to provide subsidies to individuals based on criteria related to income or implied wealth (for example, dwelling type), and are not typically based on actual needs. Yet we know there are many who fall through the cracks, such as those with unavoidably high household expenses, taking care of a sickly parent or a disabled child.

This is where NPOs can come in. They can be a rich source of innovation and experimentation. The state is sometimes not in the best position to develop new policies and services, or to drive innovation. In social policy, government programmes, once adopted, tend to have to be deployed nationally. Citizens do not take kindly to beneficiaries being a narrow pilot group. Moreover, there can be heavy political costs in withdrawing a programme even if it proves ineffective.

Governments are thus typically conservative in implementing new interventions, and there is a tendency in policymaking to value stability over radical innovation.

On the other hand, the non-profit sector can attract the contributions of people, including private sector entrepreneurs and philanthropists, who can deploy their entrepreneurial know-how, long-term focus, initiative and instinct for risk-taking. Closer to the ground, NPOs are better able to identify opportunities for innovative intervention.

The public sector should welcome and even encourage the proliferation of new ideas from this sector - competition can lead to better approaches and models for Singapore.

Finally, there is power in civil society organisations (CSOs) that governments do not have. CSOs have more moral authority in dealing with one another and with beneficiaries than government agencies may have. In government programmes, entitlement sets in more quickly. For example, philanthropic organisations can have a higher degree of convening power in bringing NPOs together to work collaboratively towards a common cause, as they are seen as more neutral and having less of a specific agenda than government agencies.

If the Government gives a dollar, there is little appreciation from the recipients, as they would consider it their right to receive that benefit as citizens and taxpayers. But if a neighbour helps out and gives a dollar, there is deep gratitude and even shame, as it is voluntarily donated out of goodwill and compassion.

Similarly, a volunteer might succeed with a difficult patient where a professional nurse might not, through diversionary therapy efforts. Appreciated as a compassionate person rather than someone who is only doing his job, the volunteer can offer reassurance and comfort, persuading the patient to comply with his medication or therapeutic regimens. The prescription may be the same but the results achieved can be starkly different.

The Government should refrain from undertaking activities that the community, family and individuals can take on, stepping in only when these initiatives exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups. The Government can play the important primary role of empowering civil society efforts to fulfil these needs in the community.

We need to emphasise the importance of smaller communities or institutions, such as the family, religious organisations and voluntary associations, as mediating structures which empower individual action and link the individual to society as a whole. Each of these social groups has something unique to offer to the community.

It is only when individuals are able to exercise self-determination and contribute meaningfully to the communities they live in, that they feel they are fully human - and fully citizens of this country. This is when a place becomes a home.

The Government plays a strong role in supporting NPOs by substantially funding many community-based services. The reality in Singapore is that NPOs have in most cases become subcontractors, delivering social services on behalf of the Government.

The brains and heart of social intervention remain with the state, while NPOs simply follow the piper's tune and those with competing models of intervention are often viewed as threats.

Many NPOs lose their own sense of aspiration, and some, for example, would typically not take on new programmes - no matter how socially beneficial - if they do not get the green light and funding from a government agency to do so. For example, family service centres are part of a national system running mostly core, homogeneous, funded programmes.

We are severely under-delivering on the promise of civil society. Civil society will only truly thrive when it serves a complementary function, not when NPOs are vendors and substitutes for government funding and provisioning.

We urgently need to encourage more civic-minded individuals to express their values, interests and visions of the public good, and inject energies and creativity into how society solves its problems.

So what can we do to build up the non-profit sector?

First, we need to expand the organisational capacity of NPOs. Nurturing leadership and talent are key. Effective, committed and passionate leadership - both at the board and management levels - can transform the sector and their organisations. Talented young people need to see the non-profit sector as a viable career.

NPOs also need to make the conditions conducive to attract talent. While the sector's wages are a significant discount against private sector salaries, this 'passion' discount cannot be so large as to grossly disadvantage the individual and his family.

There is also a need for NPOs to move upstream to tackle root causes rather than the symptoms of social problems; to pursue justice, not just charity; to be impact-driven, and not output-driven; be willing to take risks and adopt new business models, rather than look to the Government for solutions.

NPOs should strengthen their organisations by being clear on their strategies, institutionalising processes, seeking strategic relationships, mobilising community resources, and improving their productivity through technology.

The Government, on the other hand, needs to focus more on enabling and empowering the sector. Enabling means building capability, particularly in developing leadership and soft infrastructure, such as technology development and process improvements. Empowering means a real ceding of power, decision-making and ownership of projects, with a tolerance for a degree of messiness and inefficiency.

NPOs should be equal partners and co-creators; for example, information and knowledge from the Government's vast database of administrative and survey data need to be made more readily available to NPOs.

Apart from letting NPOs do their own strategic planning and research, and interpret their own sense of reality, it is a concrete demonstration of co-ownership. Instead of leaving many small gaps across the funding spectrum, the Government should plug the gaps in their retained areas of priority and fund those areas more generously.

As Singapore matures, civil society too must mature. Rather than being omnipresent, the Government should be prepared to cede control in some areas - particularly where new thinking is required - while allowing civil society to flourish. And civil society must step up to the plate.

The writer is the chairman of Lien Foundation, the chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and the Acting CEO of the Community Foundation of Singapore. He previously served in the Singapore Administrative Service for 14 years.

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