about the NCA


Simon Says ‘ Take a Giant Step Forward’:
Advancing the National Children’s Agenda


A Discussion Paper
Prepared by Susan Phillips with Havi Echenberg
for the National Children’s Alliance
red line


Canadian governments have agreed that enhancing the well being of children is a shared priority and have committed to working collaboratively to develop and implement a National Children’s Agenda (NCA). Their commitment to the NCA is a critical opportunity in three respects: as a public policy investment that may produce significant results; as a more collaborative model of intergovernmental relations that will guide the future of a renewed social union; and as an exemplar of new models of horizontal governance that may involve genuine engagement with the voluntary sector. In terms of child and family policy, the desire to work collaboratively as part of a national strategy can be seen as recognition of governments’ shared responsibility for children and of the need to better coordinate the patchwork nature of existing programs and services. The NCA is intended to be both a vision and a long term action plan that, in the words of the Prime Minister, will coordinate and advance a wide range of children’s programs and create "an effective, modern, truly national approach to benefits and services for children and families."1 It should contribute to Canada’s ability to live up to its commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As an approach to intergovernmental policy development, the NCA is framed by, and serves as, a first test of the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA) that was signed by the federal and provincial/territorial governments, with the exception of Quebec, in February 1999. As a new way of approaching intersectoral relations, the vision statement for the NCA acknowledges that the voluntary sector is a key partner with governments in "creating circles of responsibility around children, families and their communities that can inspire new solutions across the country."2

The development of the NCA first began in January 1997 when the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Council on Social Policy Renewal (usually known simply as the Ministerial Council) requested that governments begin exploring possibilities for working together to develop a broad agenda and comprehensive strategy aimed at improving the well-being of all Canadian children.3

Provincial premiers expressed strong support for this initiative in their annual summer meeting. In December 1997, First Ministers with the exception of Quebec affirmed their commitment to develop a National Children’s Agenda, and agreed to fast track the ground work through the Ministerial Council. In May 1999, their commitment to the NCA was formalized by the Ministerial Council through the release of a vision statement entitled, Developing a Shared Vision. This document sets out broad values and four general goals of promoting the good health of children, ensuring their safety and security, enabling success at learning, and encouraging social engagement and responsibility. It does not contain specific means for meeting these values and objectives, however. A consultation was held with selected voluntary organizations and experts in the summer of 1999 to get initial feedback on this vision, the feedback of which was generally positive toward the goal, but without detail, could not go very far. The federal government signalled its continued support for the NCA in the 1999 Speech from the Throne that indicated that a federal-provincial agreement on a national action plan on early childhood development, consistent with SUFA, should be in place by December 2000.4

The NCA cannot succeed as simply a government-to-government exercise. Although governments have essential roles as funders, policy setters and regulators, much of the actual delivery and innovation in a broad range of children and family services is done by voluntary organizations. In addition, voluntary organizations are normally closer than governments to particular geographic, social and cultural communities and thus are important voices for them and communicators of their needs in the design, delivery and evaluation of children’s policy. If the NCA is to operate and succeed as a partnership, it needs to include not only the government partners, but the voluntary sector as well. So far, there has been little thinking about how the voluntary sector can formally participate in the development of the NCA. Nor has there been much consideration given to the specific policy content of the Agenda. How should the NCA unfold and what should it look like in order to maximize its benefit to all Canadian children and families?

The objective of this discussion paper is to propose how to fill in the detail of the NCA process and content. Its focus is on the development of the NCA outside of Aboriginal communities because representatives of Aboriginal organizations are involved in a more integrated way in the intergovernmental process relative to developing an agenda appropriate for their communities. The paper has been written for the National Children’s Alliance, a group of national voluntary organizations established in 1996 with the goal of devising strategies to respond to the issues affecting children and their families and, specifically, of promoting a National Children’s Agenda. The intent is that the paper will serve as a device for stimulating discussion and refining ideas by forming the background to a Think Tank hosted by the National Children’s Alliance at the end of March 2000. Based on feedback from this session, the paper has been revised and used as one item for discussion in a series of consultations convened by the Alliance with local community organizations across the country in the spring of 2000.

The paper is divided into three parts. We begin with a review of the context of the NCA by providing a brief overview of existing child and family policy, and of the parameters of SUFA that will frame the evolution of the NCA. The second section focusses on process – the means by which citizens and their organizations can be engaged in the development and implementation of the NCA. In this assessment, we draw upon international experience with various mechanisms for engaging citizens in the policy process. Adapting these to the context of the NCA and the emerging social union, we discuss the potential for a new Children’s Agenda Civic Forum as the beginning point for a broader discussion of how to engage the voluntary sector. In the third section, the paper turns to content. How, specifically, should the policy goals of the NCA be met? What should constitute its package of essential services? This analysis is based on a review of the literature on children’s policy in Canada, the policy work of the National Children’s Alliance, and interviews with key informants from federal and provincial departments and from the voluntary sector. The paper concludes by asking: What are the challenges involved in moving the Agenda forward to December 2000 and beyond? How much should the NCA be expected to achieve? Is it only a statement of common vision, or should and can it be more than that?

The National Children’s Agenda in Context

The NCA is inherently complex, involving issues, policies and processes that are necessarily cross-sectoral (involving both governments and the voluntary sector), intergovernmental (including federal, provincial/territorial and municipal levels), horizontal (incorporating many different policy areas) and vertical (integrating the policy-delivery chain from initial development to program delivery on the ground). Given this complexity, the NCA is not a single program, policy or funding mechanism, but a policy framework, affording opportunities for governments and the voluntary sector to participate within their own spheres and to collaborate.

How the details of the NCA unfold will be influenced by two important contextual factors: the existing array of child and family policies, funding arrangements and mix of services, and the SUFA framework for guiding the conduct of intergovernmental relations.

Existing Child and Family Policy

Within the scope of this paper, we can provide only a brief overview of existing child and family policies in Canada, and note the major gaps in programs and services. Child and family policy is a broad category for several reasons. First, "children’s" policy refers to children up to the age of 18, thus involving quite a different mix of programs aimed at youth compared to those focussed on young children. Second, children are normally part of families and of communities, and it is impossible to focus on the child without considering the child’s context and supporting environment. Therefore, child, youth, and family policy is inherently horizontal, including: income support provided directly through transfers and indirectly through the tax system; measures that support parental employment; child development and quality child care; harm prevention and protection programs; effective parenting; and the maintenance of supportive, safe and healthy environments. Although jurisdiction for social policy related to children rests with provincial governments, the federal government nevertheless plays a major role through the use of the tax system and its spending power.

In recent years, two trends have been evident in the configuration of child and family policy. The first is that income support and services have become increasingly targeted on low income families.5 Rather than viewing child rearing as a benefit to society as a whole, the value of which should be recognized and partially supported by the state, the tendency has been to target support to the "needy." During the past decade, universal benefits available to all families, such as the family allowance, have been replaced by targeted benefits offered mainly through the tax system. One of the lingering effects of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) through which social assistance was cost-shared from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s, is that publicly supported child care is now perceived to be part of the welfare system, rather than as either a support for employment or as a means to gender equality and child development. The second trend is toward increasing diversity across the provinces.6 Although the federal government’s involvement through tax credits builds in a common platform, provinces differ considerably in their variety and design of programs, levels of support, and preferred mix of market, non-profit and government providers.

The goal of the NCA, which is to create a strategy that enhances the well being of all Canadian children and their families, not simply the poorest, is somewhat at odds with these trends because it presupposes both targeted and more broadly accessible programs and services. The NCA does not entail a standardized system of uniform policies and programs in every province, but in accordance with SUFA, it does imply that Canadians have access to programs of reasonably comparable quality regardless of where they live, and that residency-based barriers to mobility are not built into social policies.

Excellent work has already been done to evaluate the components of Canada’s child and family policies and there is no need to replicate such analysis here.7 Nevertheless, it is useful to set the context with a brief overview of the variety and the gaps in Canadian policies related to children.

Income support

Since the early 1990s, with the demise of universal family allowances and the transformation of the dependent child income tax deduction into an income tested tax credit, income support for families with children has been increasingly targeted to those with low incomes. It has also been designed to reward the transition from welfare to work and built attachment to employment as the best form of income security. The one exception is Quebec, which has resisted targeting and still provides a universal tax credit for dependent children, thereby recognizing that all parents, regardless of income, bear additional costs for raising children.8

The center piece of the income support system related to children is the National Child Benefit (NCB), introduced in July 1997, by combining and supplementing two existing benefits provided under the federal income tax system.9 The NCB consists of three components: the basic Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB); a low-income supplement; and a portion (equivalent to the amount paid to social assistance recipients) that provincial governments can reinvest in child-related services. The federal government pays the basic CCTB plus $213 per child under 7 if the deduction for child care expenses is not claimed. In addition, the full supplement is paid to a working family whose income is less than $20,921, thus providing incentives to remain in the workforce. Beyond this level of income, the benefits are taxed back so that the low income supplement disappears completely once family income exceeds $29,590 (as of July 2000)10. The third component substitutes federal benefits for provincial social assistance payments. The provinces/territories deduct the amount of the supplement from their payments made to social assistance recipients, allowing their incomes to remain stable. Any funds saved in this manner can be reinvested by the provinces in social services for children or paid as additional income supplements.

Another form of income support has been the increased efforts by both federal and provincial governments in recent years to ensure that custodial parents can collect the support payments they are owed. The extent to which increased governmental enforcement and collection machinery has been effective in collecting court-determined support payments is as yet unknown, however.11

Employment-Related Supports

The costs of child care as a requirement for employment are partially recognized in the tax system through the Child Care Expense Deduction which allows parents to deduct the cost of receipted child care from income, up to a maximum of $7,000 per child under 7 and up to $4,000 for children aged 7 to 16. In few instances, does this deduction cover the actual cost of care. Beyond this, supports to help parents balance work and family are quite limited, especially in comparison to European countries. Parental and family leaves provided by provincial labour codes are short with no job guarantees and there is virtually no provision for leave to care for sick children. As Jenson and Stroick note, "Canada’s policies have not kept up with the times and do not meet the needs of the restructured labour force.12 Although recent changes made by the federal government improve the situation considerably, by doubling the benefit period up to a year for maternity and parental leave, Canada still has much to do in providing reasonable income replacement, extended unpaid leaves for new parents, and annual family leave to care for sick children and family members. While governments set general regulatory frameworks, it is individual employers who are directly responsible for policies that permit more flexible working hours so that parents can better balance home and work. They have much work to do as well.

Early Childhood Development and Effective Parenting

Provincial and municipal governments are experimenting with a variety of programs aimed at child development, harm prevention and protection. The scope of these programs is broad, including ones aimed at promoting better pre-natal nutrition, ensuring school readiness for young children, enhancing the physical and emotional development of adolescents, and preventing risk behaviour. These programs cut across and bring together programs from education, health, justice, recreation, arts and environment departments of governments. In addition, early Childhood Resource Centres, drop-in centres and the CLSC’s in Quebec are important community resources for teaching more effective parenting skills and as a venue for coordinating community partners and programs.

The federal government is responsible for development and child care services to Aboriginal children and their families. It has also contributed considerable money, for example through the Community Action Program for Children (CAP-C), for pilots and joint initiatives with the provinces and with community agencies.

Quality, affordable child care has long been recognized as one of the most important elements in promoting early child development and in helping parents attain and maintain an attachment to the labour force. In child care, the impact of market failure is glaringly obvious: there is a grossly inadequate supply of regulated, quality care, resulting in long waiting lists and in extensive use of cheaper, unregulated home care. Virtually every province provides some subsidies to parents on a income-tested basis for child care and some also directly subsidize the operating costs of child care centres. Due to limited supply, however, the ability of parents to use these subsidies may be compromised, forcing them onto waiting lists for quality, subsidized spaces. The legacy of CAP, which supported child care on an income tested basis, combined with such inadequate supply is that middle income parents often have the greatest difficult accessing quality, affordable, regulated care and thus pay enormous out of pocket expenses (which are only partially covered by the child care deduction). Both across and within provinces, community needs for better care vary considerably. In small towns, rural areas and the territories, there is a greater need for quality home care, rather than for regulated centres that are in such short supply in large urban centres.

Creation of a national child care program has been attempted twice by the federal government – in 1987 by the Conservative Mulroney government and in 1995 by the Chrétien Liberals based on their electoral promise to create 150,000 new spaces if the economy grew annually by a minimum of 3 percent. It failed both times due to jurisdictional conflicts and fiscal restraint.13 Only Quebec has made radical reforms in enhancing the affordability and accessibility of quality child care, moving its system away from its welfare-based roots to making care universality accessible. In 1997, Quebec introduced a subsidy system whereby parents pay a maximum of $5 per day, with even lower rates paid by low income families.14

With the focus on the transition from welfare to work in recent years, there has been a certain tension between programs aimed at getting parents to work – and which programs will subsidize care, often of questionable quality – and those that see child care as an important vehicle for early childhood development. The focus on employment has contributed to the role of child care in enhancing development being undervalued.

The primary problem in this aspect of a comprehensive child and family policy is that, due to the budgetary cutbacks of the 1990s, considerable ground has been lost. For instance, many provinces severely cut school-based programs such as junior kindergarten, extra-curricular activities, and special needs classes and supports. Cuts in government support have been exacerbated by pressures on voluntary organizations that arise from concerns over direct and vicarious liability which have resulted in a dramatic rise in their costs for training, screening and insuring volunteers and staff.

It is evident, as noted by Jenson and Stroick, that there are huge gaps in the availability and mix of services in both large and small centres, and the absence of a consistent network or portability of services across provinces.15

The specific gaps include:

  1. little recognition of the costs incurred by parents in raising children in comparison to societal benefits;
  2. insufficient income support for low and middle income families with children;
  3. inadequate developmental services, including too few regulated, affordable child care spaces;
  4. limited rights to parental and family leave and inadequate protection of pensions and benefits while on leave;
  5. poor provisions for flexible work arrangements to help parents balance work and family responsibilities;
  6. restricted and uneven access to programs for healthy child development and well-being, particularly for children with special needs and child in care;
  7. under supply of community resource centres providing integrated programs for effective parenting and child development; and
  8. inadequate development and protection programs for school-aged children and youth.

The impact of fiscal restraint of the 1990s was not only to cut or limit the creation of many child and family programs, but to cement the existing bifurcation between federal and provincial roles. The federal government has narrowed its role to focus on transfers to individuals, primarily through the income tax system, putting aside any interest in direct support for program delivery. Although this duality of roles generally respects provincial jurisdiction and recognizes that the federal government is not very adept at direct program delivery in local communities anyway, it has contributed to the need for coordination on a community basis between income support and services.16

A related impact of the 1990s was to realign the institutional actors with governments and the relationships between governments and the voluntary sector. Ministers of Finance gained ascendancy and control, not only over global budget allocations, but over program design.17 This is most evident at the federal level where Finance led the restructuring and cutting of CAP and the CHST. Any influence that voluntary organizations and advocates for children had on public policy historically occurred mainly through their working relationships with ministries of social services and health. The dominance of ministers of finance - and increasingly of intergovernmental ministers in the process of negotiating the NCA - tends to cut voluntary organizations out of the policy loop.

This context demonstrates two critical elements for the development of the NCA in our view: the need for greater input by representatives of a diversity of communities and by service providers, including voluntary organizations and local governments; and the need for stronger policy congruency and service coordination on a community basis. These serve as the basis for our arguments in favour of an innovative new process to draw upon the expertise of the voluntary sector in the development and ongoing evaluation of the NCA, and of institutionalizing community-based decision making which involves a variety of community partners in the delivery and coordination of child and family services.

The Social Union Framework Agreement

The Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA) also sets certain parameters and affords some particular opportunities for the development of new child and family policies, and the mechanisms that will fund these. The importance of SUFA for the NCA rests on its emphasis on three things: collaboration; citizen engagement; and results-based accountability.18

First, SUFA marks a commitment to more collaborative working relationships between the federal and provincial/territorial governments. Although federalism has gone through cycles of collaboration and conflict over the years, SUFA is the first formal undertaking to operate collaboratively as a general stance to policy-making across a variety of social programs. Second, although SUFA is an intergovernmental agreement, it also acknowledges that the renewal of the social union needs to reform the relationships between governments and citizens. Thus, an emphasis on new forms of meaningful engagement of citizens is an important aspect of the agreement. Third, SUFA signals the beginning of an era of "instrumental" federalism – that is, a focus on results. As the federal government suggests, the emphasis in the social union is on "doing what works for Canadians," rather than concentrating on [and being limited by] jurisdictional authority.19 Moreover, results are to be transparent to the Canadian public through assessment and public reporting of program outcomes. From Quebec’s perspective, this logic does not spell better social policy at all. Rather, it is seen as a derogation of the basic principles of federalism that are built on respecting the constitutional division of powers and it represents a centralization of power by the federal government.20 Hence, Quebec refused to sign the Agreement.

SUFA is a short, and seemingly simple document, albeit sufficiently vague in many places so as to be open to contests of interpretation. In analyzing the agreement, it must be kept in mind that SUFA is a political accord between governments, rather than a binding constitutional or legal document with enforceable sanctions attached. The extent to which it becomes a living document that affects how governments and non-governmental actors alike behave will depend, in part, on political will by governments and, in part, on interpretation by the courts.

Five specific components of SUFA are of particular interest to how the NCA might be shaped:21

Principles: A number of social policy principles and values frame the agreement including: equality of opportunity and respect for the equality of all Canadians and their diverse needs; access to programs of reasonably comparable quality; provision of appropriate assistance to those in need; agreement to work in partnership with individuals, families, communities, voluntary organizations, business and labour, and to ensure appropriate opportunities for Canadians to have meaningful input into social policies and programs; assurance of adequate and stable funding for social programs; and the caveat that nothing in the Agreement abrogates the treaty and other rights of Aboriginal Peoples. These should be interpreted as principles that will guide the development and implementation of social programs, rather than as national standards that can be strictly enforced. They nevertheless provide a foundation upon which new social policies, such as the NCA, are to be built.

Perhaps the most significant of the SUFA principles for the design of the NCA is the commitment to ensure access to "essential social programs and services of reasonably comparable quality" wherever citizens live or move in Canada. In addition, SUFA reasserts the principle that governments will provide assistance to people in need, an element that had been part of the CAP but was abandoned when it was rolled into the CHST. The commitment that governments will ensure stable and sustainable funding for social programs (which is reinforced elsewhere in the Agreement) is also important because it could be used to prevent the kind of dramatic cuts in federal-provincial transfers that caught provinces by surprise in the 1995 budget. Finally, the principles have implications for the process of policy making, the most important of which stipulates that citizens should have meaningful input into social policy and its assessment.

Mobility Rights: Governments have agreed that: no new barriers to mobility will be created in social policies; existing residency-based policies will be removed within three years; and there will be full compliance with the mobility provisions of the Agreement on Internal Trade by all subject to it by July 2001.22

Policy Collaboration and Spending: SUFA recognizes the legitimacy of the federal spending power, but also limits its use to some extent.23 When the federal government wishes to use is spending power to create new Canada-wide social, health and education initiatives, it will first obtain the agreement of a majority of provincial governments. It also agrees to work collaboratively with all provincial and territorial governments to identify pan-Canadian priorities and to consult with provincial/territorial governments at least one year prior to any significant funding changes in existing social transfers. Although the federal and provincial/territorial governments, except Quebec, have agreed to a general vision for the NCA, this provision would also require agreement upon particular funding mechanisms – an issue that may be much trickier if the federal government’s preference is to set up designated funds to be spent only on NCA programs. Both provincial/territorial and federal governments commit to sharing information on social trends, collaborating on implementation of joint priorities, and offering to consult with other governments. Agreement on this kind of accountability framework has already been reached in principle in the case of the NCA.

SUFA also provides provincial governments with an opting out provision with compensation should they chose not to participate in all aspects of the NCA. Under the scenario that federal transfers are used to fund at least part of the NCA, but that a provincial government already has existing child and family programming and does not require all of the transfer to meet the agreed upon NCA objectives, it can invest the funds in the same or related areas. This provision is part of what is referred to as the "race for the top." The underlying goal is to encourage and reward provinces that invest extensively in social policies by allowing them to use, not lose, federal support for these programs. It is also seen as a way to permit Quebec to buy into a number of programs, particularly related to children, where it already excels above other provinces. In all such national initiatives, provincial governments retain the right to determine the specific program design and mix best suited to their needs.

The federal government explicitly reserves the right to use its spending power to make transfers to individuals or organizations although, if introducing Canada-wide initiatives through these means, it will give at least three months notice to the provinces/territories and offer to consult with them regarding potential duplication and alternative approaches.

Citizen Engagement: For the voluntary sector, a critically important component of SUFA’s attempt to promote greater transparency is the commitment to "ensure effective mechanisms for Canadians to participate in developing social priorities and reviewing outcomes." This section is imprecise, undoubtedly intentionally so. Nevertheless, it is part of the broad attempt of a new social union to realign relationships between citizens and governments, as well as between governments. It at least implicitly recognizes the legitimacy of voluntary organizations as important societal institutions that have their own accountability regimes toward the public. Implementation of this provision will also need to acknowledge that national organizations have a particularly valuable function as existing infrastructure for connecting communities and citizens across the country and across different parts of the voluntary sector. The agreement to undertake meaningful consultation is used as the basis for our argument that new participatory institutions need to be created, rather than allowing such engagement to be undertaken in an ad hoc and haphazard manner that would be perceived as less than legitimate by the public.

Accountability and Transparency: A central and recurring theme of SUFA is that governments have to be publicly accountable. This is phrased as each being accountable to its constituents, rather than accountable to other governments. Accountability is to be achieved in several ways: by agreeing upon an accountability framework before a new social policy initiative is implemented; measuring and monitoring outcomes of new and existing social programs and reporting regularly to constituents; sharing information and best practices to support the development of outcome measures; making eligibility criteria for social programs publicly available; having in place citizen complaints and appeals processes, and a public reporting of these; and using third parties to assist in assessing social program performance. In addition, this section establishes some measure of accountability for provincial spending under federal transfers with the proviso that federal-provincial transfers will be used for the purposes agreed upon and that increases will be passed on to residents. This seemingly innocuous point potentially opens the door to a greater willingness on the part of the federal government to put money into the CHST and other provincial transfers, rather than relying on transfers to individuals or tax expenditures, if they can hold provinces accountable for how the transfers are spent and if they can get adequate public recognition for their contributions.24

SUFA was created with a "best before" date indicating the length of its initial shelf life. By the end of the third year – 2002 – governments are to undertake a full review of the Agreement and to make appropriate adjustments. This process is to ensure significant opportunities for voluntary organizations and for individual citizens to provide input. The NCA is one of the first real testing grounds of the SUFA and how it is approached will either make the agreement a "living" document, which influences behaviour and which becomes an important touchstone in the design of social policy, or merely a paper document, effectively ignored and left to languish until it expires. Thus more than improved child and family programs is at stake in the development of the NCA.

SUFA and the Intergovernmental Policy Process

An understanding of the machinery associated with policy making in the intergovernmental context is also important to our case for reform. Long part of Canada’s intergovernmental decision-making is a rather complex and isolated machinery. This is not a product of SUFA, but was developed in a incremental manner over many decades to accommodate executive federalism – that is, to provide fora for negotiations and for policy discussions among Ministers and among officials. Both the increased collaboration and greater accountability implied by the new social union will place stronger emphasis on this intergovernmental apparatus, however, because issues are likely to enter the intergovernmental arena at an earlier stage. Yet, there are two serious problems with the machinery: it is closed to external sources of expertise; and matters of policy process are unduly separated from matters of policy content.

At the pinnacle of this machinery are the conferences of First Ministers that are convened periodically, but irregularly to deal with issues of national significance. Most of the actual policy work is conducted on a sectoral basis. This machinery includes both sector-based conferences of Ministers and associated conferences of officials. The most important of these for the NCA are the sectoral conferences related to Health and to Social Services, plus the joint table of Health-Social Services Ministers that has dealt with issues of early child development.

The newcomer to this intergovernmental machinery is the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Council on Social Policy Renewal. It was formalized in 1996 when the federal government was invited to join a relatively new provincial initiative. Membership of the Council consists of ministers responsible for social policy (or closely related areas) or for intergovernmental relations from nine provinces (Quebec does not officially participate), the federal government and the three territories. Increasingly, provincial governments are choosing intergovernmental ministers, rather than those representing line departments to sit on the Council. This raises a concern that Council relationships are becoming increasingly politicized because intergovernmental ministers tend to be more focussed on corporate interests rather than sectoral ones. The Ministerial Council is co-chaired by the federal Minister of Human Resources Development (HRDC) and a provincial minister selected on a rotating basis (currently Manitoba).

The Council meets somewhat more frequently than the sectoral Ministerial Councils, but normally only a few times a year. In contrast to the sectoral tables that focus on the actual content of proposed policy and programs, the Ministerial Council is largely concerned with the processes of negotiation, coordination and monitoring of social program initiatives. It will also be the primary mechanism for collecting information, determining effective means of implementation and working toward dispute avoidance under SUFA and hence will have a lead role in the development and oversight of the NCA.25 Under the Ministerial Council there are a number of working groups of officials related to specific tasks that for the NCA consists of a steering committee with four sub-groups working under it.26

This intergovernmental machinery presents two inherent dangers for the development of the NCA. This first is that, because negotiation of detail will take place at the intergovernmental level, the process will be closed to the public and to the expertise of the voluntary agencies that do such a large part of the delivery of services and who represent a variety of communities. Unless governments begin soon to plan how they will meet their SUFA commitments to meaningful engagement of citizens and, in particular, how this will apply to the NCA, they are likely to end up scrambling as the initial time period for the SUFA expires, and thus end up resorting to their well worn and not very effective means of consultation. The second danger is that the development of policy details at the sectoral tables – and the connections that these health and social services ministers have with voluntary sector organizations – may not adequately inform negotiations over frameworks, funding and other protocols at the Ministerial Council. For both of these reasons, the process would benefit from the injection of additional expertise and public discussion. It might also benefit from a reconsideration of the entire intergovernmental machinery governing the NCA, particularly the role of the Ministerial Council versus the sectoral tables, but the latter debate is beyond the scope of this paper.

Interdepartmental Machinery

The development of an agenda aimed at enhancing the well-being of children is necessarily a horizontal issue, touching on fields traditionally thought of as social, health, education, environmental and disability policies. No one department or policy community "owns" the child. Within each level of government, the NCA requires extensive coordination of various departments. At the federal level, an interdepartmental Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) working group on Investing in Children has become the active mechanism for the development of policy options related to the NCA which will be brought forward to the Cabinet Committee on the Social Union and eventually to the Ministerial Council. Meeting on an ad hoc basis, the working group includes senior officials from the major line departments (HRDC, Health, and DIAND) and from the central agencies (Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat and Finance). A Deputy Minister Steering Committee mirrors the ADM group to provide strategic overview on this and related policies, but it meets less often and most of the hard slogging of developing program details will take place at the ADM level. As with the intergovernmental level, once policy matters move from the departmental to the interdepartmental arena, outside parties tend to be excluded from participation. These interdepartmental arrangements are still experimental in many respects and their effectiveness questionable since there are often significant differences in interests and priorities across ministries. In our view, the inclusion of several representatives of national voluntary organizations with expertise in child and family policy on the ADM working group, in a manner similar to the recent Joint Table Initiative on the Voluntary Sector, would provide insight related to program delivery and coordination that would be of enormous benefit to the committee.

Provinces have varying degrees and mechanisms of coordination among line departments in advancing policies related to children. In a survey of the governance mechanisms of six provinces, Thompson, Maxwell and Stroick note that there has been a trend toward greater recognition of the importance of children’s policy accompanied by greater integration of policy at the ministerial level, often through the creation of separate ministries focussed on children and families, and increased coordination of service delivery through the establishment of regional authorities.27 Among the provinces, Quebec is the most integrated in both the policy and service dimensions.28 Although several other provinces have also established ministers responsible for children and families, their governance and delivery structures vary considerably.29 Municipalities also have a vital role, again to varying degrees, in funding and delivery of services to children and families.

While the integration of services has advanced significantly in recent years, involvement of delivery agents in policy making has lagged far behind. Saskatchewan has innovated in developing an action plan and in bringing together representatives of community service providers in the form of a provincial advisory council that is consulted regularly by the provincial government. Quebec’s Ministry has created a forum of Partners, representing various sectors including voluntary community services, with which it consults on a regular basis.30 At the national level, a Public Dialogue was held in 1999 that subjected the vision statement to a national roundtable process, thereby permitting comment from a variety of voluntary organizations and communities.

Although these events and consultative mechanisms are valuable, they do not go far enough in our view. For the most part, voluntary organizations are still treated as outsiders, in spite of their stake in children’s policy. The result of existing practices that have limited feedback from delivery agents to policy makers, is a disconnection between policy and service delivery, and a limited ability to promote continuous learning and innovation. Making the process engage community expertise in an inclusive, ongoing and truly participatory manner is the first step toward an effective NCA.

Engaging the Voluntary Sector in the NCA

The vision of a new social union, as articulated by SUFA, is greater collaboration, citizen engagement and accountability. The NCA reflects this approach. It is a shared vision and policy framework that necessitates the mobilization of many players, working collaboratively. It is not a policy owned and driven by any particular government, neither federal nor provincial. Rather, the NCA is inherently intergovernmental and intersectoral in both policy content, and process. We argue that the existing machinery for policy making and for public accountability, however, will severely hinder the fulfilment of the NCA’s vision. Under the existing machinery, the process would be for the Ministerial Council to approve the details of the action plan by December 2000, which they may chose to do without or without involvement of the voluntary sector. If past intergovernmental practices are followed, however, this is likely to occur behind closed doors with no external input, except perhaps the representatives of Aboriginal organizations on the working group. As the work of the Ministerial Council proceeds, provincial governments individually may chose to consult with voluntary organizations delivering children’s services, and with the public more broadly through their existing mechanisms of provincial councils, secretariats, regional authorities, or traditional consultative events. At the federal level, the consultative machinery related to children tends to be less developed, so engagement of voluntary organizations is unlikely to be extensive. National voluntary organizations, working with their provincial counterparts and allies will undoubtedly continue their advocacy efforts at both levels of government, to the extent that their limited resources permit. But they can expect minimal, if any, opportunity for cross-governmental/cross-sector discussions.

Although a common governmental vision and action plan may emerge, the ability of this plan to mobilize non-governmental players or anticipate their capacity for involvement in implementation is likely to prove difficult if they have not had some input into the policy design. In particular, without the involvement of the voluntary organizations and municipalities that are centrally responsible for delivery, the process cannot adequately facilitate mutual learning and communication of best practices. The development of reliable, meaningful and useful measures of accountability would greatly benefit from the input of the organizations involved in actual service delivery and would be one part of the "effective mechanisms for Canadians to participate in developing social priorities and reviewing outcomes" promised by SUFA. In short, failure to provide for participation by citizen organizations in the NCA fails the test of meaningful citizen engagement that is a key aspect of a renewed social union.

Principles for Engagement

What kind of process for engaging the voluntary sector and citizens at large would work? In the context of intergovernmental relations, participation of non-governmental actors has traditionally made governments and, in particular, intergovernmental affairs ministries nervous. We suggest, however, that the NCA is reflective of a new approach to relationships among governments and between governments and citizens that, in order to work, will require thinking in non-traditional terms and exploring various new approaches to voluntary sector and public engagement. Whatever specific models are developed further, several key principles are foundational to forging meaningful participation of the voluntary sector in the NCA. Such engagement should:

  1. broadly represent a variety of expertise and experience related to child and family policy and services. In addition to the inclusion of groups working in social services, education, health, environment, and justice (and possibly others), representatives of Aboriginal communities, children with disabilities, and children in care are essential participants. The trick, of course, is to balance breadth of representation against manageable size.
  2. facilitate connections between national, provincial and community level organizations, and participation by individual citizens as well as organizations.
  3. complement, not replace the role played by elected officials and public servants. Such engagement is an expression and realization of partnership between governments and the voluntary sector, each of which retain distinctive and independent, but connected roles in the relationship.
  4. work as a form of real engagement, not mere consultation. The difference between consultation and engagement is depth of involvement. In consultation exercises, representatives of a diversity of interests and communities are invited to express their views on an issue, often with limited opportunity for debate, discussion or follow-through. Engagement is necessarily deliberative and iterative with participants assuming responsibilities not merely articulating opinions.31
  5. operate in a publicly transparent manner, serving as a gateway to rather than a gatekeeper of information.
  6. be supported with adequate resources, notably in the form of a secretariat.
  7. undergo evaluation on a periodic basis.

A Possible Scenario: A Children’s Agenda Civic Forum

There are a variety of ways in which the voluntary sector might be effectively engaged in the development of the NCA in a manner that satisfies, fully or partially, the above principles. Alternative options include:

  1. Several national voluntary organizations are appointed members of the federal interdepartmental ADM committee, with provincial counterparts playing similar roles within provincial interdepartmental processes.
  2. Selected voluntary organizations are appointed to sit on the working groups reporting to the NCA steering committee under the Ministerial Council, as is already done with Aboriginal organizations. As with the above option, however, this would necessarily include only a few groups and would force them to operate under constraints of secrecy. Thus it does not fully satisfy the criteria of broad representation and transparency.
  3. Reference groups of voluntary organizations are appointed at both the federal and provincial levels (some of which already exist) to provide advice to their governments. Selected members of these groups might meet regularly to provide a cross-national perspective and perhaps to consult directly with the Ministerial Council and Sectoral Tables.

One bold possibility for discussion is to consider the creation of a Children’s Agenda Civic Forum (CACF). How would the CACF work? Two alternative models drawn from international experience are potentially useful guides. The first approach is a forum comprised of representatives of the voluntary sector that complements and feeds into the deliberations of elected officials; the second is a partnership model that directly incorporates representation of elected officials as well as of voluntary organizations. The voluntary sector model is perhaps best illustrated by the new Scottish Civic Forum which was established in 1999 as part of devolution in an explicit attempt to "break the mould of old fashioned politics" by increasing participation of the voluntary and community sector, opening up public dialogue and raising awareness of policy challenges facing the country.32 The Forum is comprised of national voluntary organizations (and local organizations that are not branches of national organizations). In addition, a broad cross-section of business, trade unions, professional associations and municipalities are registered with the Forum as non-voting, affiliate members. Its mandate is to foster and lead a public dialogue on priority policy issues and, through this process, enhance civic participation in the country. The Forum is independent of the Scottish Parliament, but complements its work by examining policy issues, clarifying options for the Parliament, and carrying out consultations on its behalf. Although still in its formative stages, the Scottish Civic Forum is a positive exemplar of the possibilities of broader and more consensual policy discussions. Admittedly, Scotland is a much smaller country than Canada and one which does not have to contend with the same intricacies of intergovernmental relations of a truly federal system.

The highly visible National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) in Ireland, created in 1993, is an example of a structured partnership or tripartite mechanism at the national level through which the voluntary and community sector can have an input into the development of national policy. It is part of a larger attempt to establish overall policy frameworks related to economic and social development. Its terms of reference are to develop economic and social initiatives, particularly related to combatting unemployment and "to contribute to the formation of a national consensus on social and economic matters."33 The NESF differs from the Scottish Forum in that its membership is composed of three broad strands: government; the traditional social partners (employer, trade union, and agricultural interests); and groups normally outside of consultative processes (such as women, youth, the unemployed, and persons with disabilities). Two important issues of discussion for the Forum have been how to create a full partnership status for the voluntary and community sector in National Agreements, and how to involve the sector in monitoring such agreements. What is common to the NESF and the Scottish experience is that the forum is not a stand alone means of participation. Rather, it is part of a broader network of social partnerships or is supported by citizen juries, panels of experts and other means of connecting the narrow circle of forum members to broader community-based initiatives.

Although either of these participatory mechanisms could conceivably be adapted to the task of bringing expanded sources of expertise to the development and monitoring of a National Children’s Agenda in Canada, the voluntary sector model, exemplified by the Scottish Civic Forum, would be more appropriate in our view to an intergovernmental context. The advantage of a voluntary sector body is that it could complement the work of the Ministerial and Sectoral Councils, but would not compromise or complicate the role of elected officials by involving them directly in the Forum. Nevertheless, the success of any participatory mechanism hinges upon being respected by and connected to the political process.

How might this work in Canada? The central purpose of the Children’s Agenda Civic Forum would be to engage voluntary organizations in the development of the overall framework of the agenda and its implementation, review accountability measures, facilitate learning and feedback and, encourage participation by broader communities and citizens. We propose that the CACF be comprised of a broad representation of national voluntary organizations (which after all are federations of provincial and local organizations; or to include provincial/local organizations where no national affiliate exists) drawn from a wide variety of service areas related to children and families. It should also include representation by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in recognition of the major role played by municipalities in funding, social planning and delivery of children’s programming.

Selection of individual members could begin with self or external nomination, vetted by the federal and provincial/territorial governments and confirmed by the Ministerial Council. The Government of Quebec should be asked to make its own determination whether it would support representatives from the province.

A key to making such a body a broadly inclusive and participatory mechanism rather than another version of a staid advisory council lies in connecting the Forum to provincial and community-based networks and to other interested parties. Once appointed, representatives would serve as experts as well as organizational representatives. Each would be expected to serve as a conduit with his or her organizational network of provincial and local groups, reporting back to them and bringing their concerns forward as appropriate to the Forum. This places significant responsibilities on the Forum members, but is key to ensuring that those at the table are connected and responsive to their broader communities. Like the Scottish Forum, we propose that the CACF have a set of registered affiliates that might include business, labour, professional associations, academics, and other interested parties. In addition, it would have formal connections with a system of NCA community-based partnerships across the country (described in the next section) that would be involved in setting priorities, and making recommendations regarding services and program accountability measures at the community level. The CACF would have a responsibility to provide information and transmit the recommendations emerging from the national level to these community partnerships, and to receive information from them that it would share more broadly with governments and with its affiliates. This communication is an important part of the desire for shared best practices, facilitated learning, and continuous feedback that underpins SUFA.

Like the Ministerial Council, the CACF could be a flexible institution that is built on information sharing rather than bricks and mortar. Thus, its meetings could be held at different centres across the country, rather than in a single place. It would need to be supported by a secretariat, the costs of which (as well as operational and travel costs) would be borne half by the federal and half by provincial/territorial governments.

The deliberations of the Forum would directly inform the work of both the Ministerial Council and the Sectoral Tables. It would make recommendations to the Ministerial Council (and possibly to the Sectoral Tables as work shifts between the two) related to the content and implementation of the NCA, comment upon and relay to the Council the policy discussions conducted by the community partnerships. Like the Scottish Forum, the CACF could put items for discussion on the agendas of the Ministerial Council and Sector Tables, be requested by the Council or the Tables to examine and recommend solutions for certain policy or delivery problems, and conduct public consultations on their behalf. The CACF could play an important role in developing accountability measures and benchmarks, as the NESF does in Ireland, but it should not be body responsible for third party evaluation of the NCA. Its political clout would come from the utility and visibility of its recommendations, not from mandated decision-making authority.

Meetings of the Forum should generally be open to government officials, affiliates and the public. Its transparency could be enhanced by the requirement to file an annual public report to the First Ministers, just as the Ministerial Council does. In the spirit of SUFA, the Forum should be given a renewable, fixed term mandate, say four years, at the end of which its contributions would be evaluated by a third party. As noted in the case of both Scotland and Ireland, however, the Forum should not be the only means of engaging the voluntary sector in the NCA. Existing provincial and federal mechanisms of community and citizen engagement should continue to be encouraged and, indeed, expanded.

The model of a Children’s Agenda Civic Forum could go a long way toward bringing the expertise and knowledge of the voluntary sector to the development of the NCA and making the process of intergovernmental relations in the new social union more transparent. But, it will not replace or remove closed door discussions among ministers and among officials. Nor should it. It would not give voluntary sector representatives a place equivalent to governments at the intergovernmental table. Nor should it. The fundamental principle is that the Forum should complement the political process, weaving together but nevertheless separating the distinctive strengths of both governments and the voluntary sector.

We stress that the proposed Forum is only one possible approach to more formal, ongoing engagement of the voluntary sector in the NCA. It is not the only option by any means. By providing a concrete example, however, our goal is to move the discussion forward regarding this and other possibilities for meaningful engagement.

So far, this discussion paper has argued that the development of an effective NCA would be enhanced the creation of a more inclusive process. We now turn to the content of the NCA. To date, only a very general vision has been issued by the Ministerial Council, as outlined in the May 1999 Discussion Paper, Developing a Shared Vision. The next task is to fill in the details of that vision. What should the NCA look like in terms of policy principles and directions, mix of services, and funding mechanisms? What should be the investment priorities?

It should be noted that the time frame for agreement on specifics of the NCA related to early childhood development is extremely short. If an action plan is, in fact, to be in place by December 2000 as the federal government suggests, a proposal will need to go forward to the Sectoral Tables and Ministerial Council, probably in September.


Developing the Content of the NCA

The objective of the NCA should be to develop a new public system for child and family services that is jointly funded by federal and provincial governments, delivered locally according to community needs and priorities, and supported by sufficient resources and mechanisms to promote sharing of effective best practices and encourage innovation where needed. The ultimate goal is to allow children to be the best they can be and to increase the spectrum of choices and supports in communities for enhancing the well being of children and their families.

Conceptually, we can think of the NCA, like any framework policy, as consisting of five elements: setting of overall policy direction and parameters; funding mechanisms; service coordination, management and delivery; evaluation and public accountability; and community capacity. In this section, we suggest principles and specific approaches for each.

Principles for Policy

The overall policy direction for the NCA will necessarily be a framework which will be supported by several funding mechanisms and upon which specific programs can be hung. A policy framework is not a single policy or program. Its essential role, therefore, is to establish general principles and direction, rather than identify particular programs.

We suggest the following principles as a starting point for the framework:

  1. accessibility - that Canadian children and their families wherever they live in Canada should have access to programs and services of reasonably comparable quality. This does not imply that the services delivered under the NCA will be standardized, however. Indeed, a cookie cutter approach would be inappropriate.
  2. portability - that there are no residency-based barriers to mobility.
  3. congruency - that children and families have access to a comprehensive and coordinated set of services and community supports. The NCA is necessarily inclusive of a range of essential services, such as childhood development, effective parenting, healthy and supportive environments, as well as income support. It must be designed to link income support and services and, on a community basis, provide coordination among a diversity of services.
  4. respect for diversity - that the diverse needs of particular communities are accommodated and that the existing mix of programs and services, where effective, become a building block. This diversity does not map neatly onto provincial boundaries. Indeed, the differences in needs and capacities may vary as much between urban and rural settings as across provincial boundaries. The literature and pilot projects on children’s services have thus stressed the desirability of community-based determination and delivery of services. Aboriginal communities and organizations representing children with disabilities, special needs and those in care have particular concerns that need to be considered.
  5. public, community-based administration - that decision making about the mix of services, funding arrangements and the balance between public, non-profit and market delivery be established and overseen by public authorities, responsible to democratically elected assemblies. Although provision of certain services by private sector firms may be deemed appropriate, public administration means that the determination of the public/market mix be the responsibility of public authorities. Community-based administration means that local communities make decisions or have input into the appropriate mix of services in their locale.
  6. evidence-based - that research and monitoring of program outcomes be part of the policy in order to stimulate ongoing policy learning, innovation and re-investment in existing effective practices.

These policy principles are the foundation for the NCA that should be incorporated as part of the action plan that is to be developed by the end of 2000, and should be reinforced through a mechanism for voluntary sector engagement.

As a framework, the NCA also needs to build bridges across what constitutes child, youth and family policy. As noted above, the coordinated network should be quite expansive to include: income support; early childhood development and child care; youth development, harm prevention and justice; education (including special needs); effective parenting; child welfare; community and preventative health (as applied to children); recreation and cultural activities, and environmental protection (relative to children). A range of other policy areas affect children to varying degrees, such as social housing, homelessness and transportation and tele-communication, and we propose that these be approached through a children’s "filter," although they are not directly bounded by the NCA.

Funding Mechanisms

The way in which the NCA is to be funded is understandably a sensitive matter given the recent history of fiscal restraint. Regardless of the specific funding mechanism used, adherence to certain basic requirements is essential. The principles for funding should be:

  1. adequate for the achievement of the agreed upon goals of the NCA;
  2. transparent and accountable to the public;
  3. respectful of jurisdictional authorities and, according to SUFA, the federal government will only proceed with the agreement of a majority of province;.
  4. reliable and stable so that multiple year planning, by both governments and voluntary organizations delivering services, can be assured. Under SUFA, the minimal requirement for notice by the federal government of renewal or significant changes to transfers is one year.
  5. sufficiently flexible so that different or changing needs can be accommodated in different places and over time.

The difficult task is not agreement on funding principles, however, but embodiment of these principles in a particular funding model(s). Although general tax cuts may provide parents with more discretionary income and thus benefit children, they will not in themselves provide the means of fulfilling the objectives of the NCA which will require investment of new and some reallocation of existing funds. In our view, there are three alternative funding models that could satisfy the primary goals of the NCA, although each has different strengths and weaknesses. Some combination of these models, rather than reliance on only one will undoubtedly be necessary. The basic models are:

  1. the National Child Benefit
  2. the Canada Health and Social Transfer
  3. designated funds, of which there are several varieties

The National Child Benefit (NCB): The NCB is an agreement between the federal government and provinces by which Ottawa makes targeted transfers to low income families (regardless of whether they are receiving social assistance or are working) under the income tax system. This permits provinces, territories and First Nations to use money freed up by the transfer to reinvest in improved services or to top up the tax benefit. The design of the NCB means that the federal government provides only income support to low income, working individuals through the tax system and has no direct involvement in services or national program objectives. Nor is it intended to recognize the value of raising children for all Canadian families. The provinces have sole responsibility for shaping the direction of the social service systems: 31 percent state that they have invested in child and earned income supplements; 39 percent in child care subsidies; 5 percent in early childhood services; 3 percent in supplementary health benefits; and 22 percent in other types of assistance.34 Both statistics about the outputs and about the outcomes of the NCB are to be reported, with the first report due in the fall of 2000. Joint federal-provincial outcome assessment and reporting will be directed toward three general measures: decrease in the depth of poverty; attachment to the workforce; and reduction in duplication and overlap of federal and provincial/territorial programs. The table of Ministers responsible for Social Services, supported by the NCB working group of officials, will constitute the principal mechanism for its governance, overseeing both strategic directions and monitoring of results.35

The NCB is regarded as a major step forward in the establishment of more collaborative fiscal and policy framework collaboration in Canada. The strengths of the NCB funding model derive largely from its ease of use and avoidance of jurisdictional conflict: it is relatively easy for the federal government to make transfers to individuals under the tax system as it does not tread on jurisdictional toes in attempting to configure or influence program delivery.

There are several drawbacks of the NCB, however. The most significant is that it targets low income families and, although this is one pillar of the NCA, it is not broad enough to address a range of other programs that may be available to families across a broader part of the income spectrum. Over time, as federal funding displaces provincial/territorial welfare funding, there will be less scope for complementarity between the two. In other words, the NCB on its own cannot generate enough income to fully implement a more broadly based services agenda. Second, accountability is complex and appropriate information may not be supplied to the public at all.36 Indeed, whether the tax credit supplement is devoted to additional income support and/or to children’s services at all is up to the provinces. Third, the impact of NCB in reducing poverty and supporting additional services depends in large measure on the value of the credit and whether it is indexed to inflation (which was reinstated in the February 2000 budget). Moreover, the basic benefit begins to be taxed back for families at a point at which they would still be classified as ‘poor" under the Statistics Canada low income cutoff and the credit has not increased the incomes of families on social assistance. Some critics also argue that it merely creates a newer, higher welfare wall – situated at the point at which the low income supplement disappears rather than at the level of social assistance benefits, and thus may not improve incentives to work at all.37 Although the NCB is likely to form the centre piece of the NCA, there is still a strong need to find additional means of investing in the creation of new children and family services.

The Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST): A financially enriched CHST is the second model for expanding services under the NCA. The CHST is a block fund created in 1995 by rolling the cost-shared Canada Assistance Plan into the existing federal-provincial block transfer that nominally supported health and post-secondary education, at the same time that the federal government unilaterally made dramatic cuts to the overall allocation. One clear result has been a shift by the provinces of the support designated for welfare to health and other funding areas and the abandonment of direct support of the federal government for social services. In part, a restored and richer CHST is seen as a matter of basic fairness given the extensive cuts to the transfer made unilaterally by the federal government over the course of the 1990s.

The primary advantage of the CHST for the provinces is that there are very few strings attached, thus respecting provincial decision making authority in this area and allowing them maximum flexibility in meeting local needs, including not spending on children and family services at all. With the advent of SUFA, the transfer has an added measure of stability because the federal government has agreed to consult before making any significant changes in funding levels. From the federal perspective, an inherent problem with the CHST is a lack of visibility. Provincial governments, not Ottawa, get the political credit for the programs funded through the CHST. Although the autonomy of the provinces to make spending allocations is to be respected – they will either spend the CHST funds dedicated the NCA on child and family services or pay the political consequences – the very real budgetary pressures on the provinces need to be acknowledged. At least in the short term, there will be significant pressures to allocate spending priorities to health care, even if it means diverting money from NCA programs. Thus public transparency and accountability for how money is actually spent under this kind of open-ended block funds that nominally supports several, often competing programs, is compromised.

Designated Funds: The premise of a designated fund is that an envelop of funding is tied to particular programs with public accountability to ensure that the money is spent on the intended programs. A designated NCA fund could work on two levels: either as a federal-provincial transfer of which each province has a per capita share conditional upon spending the money on NCA-related programs; or as a funding envelop in each province to which both the federal and provincial governments contribute, also tied to NCA program spending. The primary advantages are twofold: greater public accountability that new priorities or political pressures will not divert money away the NCA and transparency regarding the amount of money that has been allocated and how it has been spent.

There are several emerging examples of designated funds that would have the benefit of facilitating community-based allocation. A good example is the Supporting Community Partnership Initiative (SCPI) that was established in December 1999 as the vehicle responsible for the allocation of federal funds to address homelessness.38 Under this initiative, just over $300 million is available over three years to "community partnerships." Since the federal government is determined to gets its "marching orders" from the "community," it has not established terms and conditions for the funding, expecting that community partnerships would define the need, and then identify what and how they needed federal funding to achieve the need defined.

Human Resources Development Canada and Health Canada have staff in regional offices across Canada, from whom were drawn the regional "facilitators" for the homelessness initiative. These facilitators have been working to bring together the funders of services to people who are homeless and the community-based agencies that deliver the services, and to determine how existing funds from various levels of government and various departments within each government might be leveraged by some of the SCPI funds. The particular challenge facing this project is that it has a three-year life-span, and each community partnership is expected to come up with its own plan, which in turn is to be submitted to SCPI for funding. The process of bringing together the players, building sufficient trust and momentum within the new "group" and spending the money within the three-year time-line is daunting, particularly in the absence of federal leadership.

The SCPI model thus provides a cautionary note for other designated funds. Its main problem is that, due to its respect for the unique solutions that would come from each community seeking funding, there are no terms and conditions, few deadlines, and little documentation on what is and what is not eligible for the available funding. The lesson to be learned, perhaps, is that broad frameworks and a mechanism for determining direction at the local level would be wisely set out in advance of the actual funding being put in place. A similar framework and mechanism suitable for the NCA might already exist in some communities. A helpful task for the Alliance’s regional consultations would be to probe the state of existing partnerships at the regional and local level, and assess how they might be used as a base for the determination of appropriate services to be funded and delivered within a particular community.

A specific proposal for a designated fund for the NCA is already on the table. The Caledon Institute makes the case that the federal government needs to get back into directly supporting the services side of child and family policy which it abandoned when it rolled CAP into the CHST.39 Under this model, the federal government would create a national child development fund that would make the federal-provincial reinvestment agreement related to the NCB permanent. The fund would establish sustained federal contributions to help the provinces continue their investment in infrastructure and services for children and families, but unlike the NCB would not be restricted to low income families.

Service Coordination, Management and Delivery

The mix of services to be provided under the NCA can be thought of as two parts: essential services that should be available in every community; and a broader "community basket" of customized services, selected and provided according to local community needs. Essential services should be sufficiently comparable to satisfy the SUFA requirements of avoiding residency-based barriers to mobility and of providing accessibility to reasonably comparable quality regardless of place of residence. As part of the policy framework, the federal and provincial/territorial governments need to define a common set of essential services. This does not imply that these services will be delivered in a uniform or standardized manner, but simply that there would be reasonable access to comparable quality. Beyond this, the broader or customized basket of services should be determined by local community partnerships as a means of tailoring programming to particular community needs.

Although definition and agreement on essential child and family services may sound daunting, several provinces have already begun this task – most notably Alberta’s recent Children’s Forum which outlined a set of "themes" that could be interpreted as its definition of essential children’s services.40 The May 1999 vision statement developed by the Ministerial Council is also a good starting point. Although not specified as "essential" services, the vision statement outlines six areas where cooperative effort can have positive effects on children:

  • supporting parenting and strengthening families;
  • enhancing early childhood development;
  • improving income security for families;
  • providing early and continuous learning experiences;
  • fostering strong adolescent development; and
  • creating supportive, safe and violent-free communities.41

In considering the nature of essential services for children and youth, the National Children’s Alliance builds on Developing a Shared Vision and proposes a list that includes services focussed on young children, on youth, and on children with special needs and in care. In each case, a fundamental principle is that the delivery of services must be respectful and inclusive of particular cultural, religious or other ethnic groups, and of the special needs faced by some children and their families. In some cases, including that of Aboriginal peoples, this may result in separate service delivery.

Essential services and programs need to be inclusive of:

  1. income support to parents, particularly those with inadequate earnings and/or with children with extraordinary needs, including children with disabilities or chronic or acute health problems;
  2. employment support, including parental leave, that allow parents to better balance the demands of work and family over the course of the work day and year;
  3. preventative, community-based health services, including disease-prevention and wellness-promotion;
  4. childhood development services for both pre- and school-aged children that augment their physical, intellectual, emotional and social well-being, and that includes high-quality, affordable child care;
  5. resources and supports to families to assist parents in the child rearing role;
  6. a strong public education system that promotes early and continuous learning;
  7. programs for children and youth at risk;
  8. community-based recreation programs;
  9. an effective child welfare system that promotes the well-being and development needs of children and youth; and
  10. integrated and coordinated programs and services directed to youth and their families in trouble with the law.

Top-up levels of essential, additional types of services, and provision of services in ways that respond to the specific needs of local communities is what we call the "community basket." For example, communities with a large seasonal work force might require higher levels of some services at particular times of the year. Also, northern and rural communities might require greater co-ordination and planning of services to make them accessible to everyone, or more decentralized delivery than would be needed in large urban centres.

More broadly, a range of other policies has important impact on the well-being of children and their families. Even if not narrowly defined as being "children’s services," they might be part of the basket and include a healthy environment, a dynamic job-market and required training opportunities to ensure access to it, and access to affordable, safe, and healthy housing.

Although models for community collaboration in determining the preferred local basket of services will need to be discussed further and fine-tuned, we propose a basic model of a community-led process that involves the creation of a coordinating body in selected communities or locales.42 Wherever possible, these bodies should be built upon and supported by existing community infrastructure such as social planning councils, existing coalitions or consortia of children’s services providers, and existing child and family regional authorities (in Alberta and British Columbia). These coordinating community bodies would include representation from the provincial government, local governments, major community-based funders (e.g. United Way, community foundations, and service clubs), community voluntary organizations engaged in delivery of a broad range of child and family services, and local research bodies and academics involved in research related to children. Representation from the voluntary sector should be roughly equivalent in number to that of funders and governments. The role of the community partnership would be to:

  1. provide ground-up intelligence by identifying emerging community needs and issues;
  2. assess gaps in service delivery and coordination and make recommendations to the province for solving these;
  3. assess community needs and make recommendations regarding the broader basket of services as well as specific funding allocations related to it;
  4. discuss and recommend appropriate results-based measures of program accountability that will promote learning around best practices; and
  5. engage in capacity building.

The community partnership needs to be given some discretion in how communities are provided with child and family services and how these are integrated with other services. The model also implies that communities are provided with a funding envelop that may come from some combination of federal-provincial-municipal designated funds. The funding would have to be sufficient to cover the costs associated with the above roles. Moreover the funding envelop should be congruent with the principles outlined above and cover ongoing services, not merely flow as project money.

Our suggestion is that, initially, the partnership has the power of recommendation rather than full delegation of decision-making power, although further delegation may evolve over time, depending on experience and provincial preferences. Each of these coordinating bodies should be required to report annually to the public, share information on a regular basis within and beyond their community. They should also have strong two-way communication linkages with the CACF, were it created. The goal in this connection is to encourage cross-jurisdictional learning regarding investment in existing best practices and innovation in new approaches, and to assist in identifying issues that may need to be addressed at the intergovernmental level. A related goal is to create community-to-community exchange of views, and sharing of effective practices.


In principle, there is little argument with the desirability of better accountability to the public by governments, among governments, and between governments and the voluntary sector. On the critical question of accountability of government to the public, the difficulty comes in the application and funding for outcome-based accountability. Who determines the measures to be used to assess results? Who gathers and analyzes the data? Is it national in scope? How are the results reported? To what extent is measurement consistent over time, so that longitudinal data become available? Who pays for such evaluation?

A preliminary cut at developing outcome-based accountability measures for the NCA has been made by the Ministerial Council, released in May 1999 at the same time as its vision statement, in a paper called, Measuring Child Well-being and Monitoring Progress.43 In the case of the National Child Benefit, more specific indicators of success have already been agreed to that evaluate, on a population basis, reduction in the depth of low income, labour market attachment and degree of harmonization/ duplication of federal/provincial programs. Such measures are essential in measuring broad changes in the well being of children at a population level. In addition to tracking populations, it is necessary to be able to account to the public for specific programs and services. To achieve the continuous learning that is at the heart of SUFA, results-based evaluation of the basket of programs and services will also be essential. In some respects, such evaluation is even more difficult than collecting population level indicators because it requires intimate knowledge of actual programs and services at the community level. In this regard, the voluntary sector has a vital role to play in accountability alongside governments and communities. An ongoing public dialogue about accountability is needed.

Given their knowledge of service delivery and management, one particularly valuable contribution of the proposed CACF at the national level and of community partnerships at the local level would be to play a formal role in an ongoing, public discussion about accountability measures. At both levels, these bodies could review measures proposed by governments and by community agencies, and make recommendations on preferred, meaningful measures. In addition, the CACF might work jointly with governments and other funders to help provide greater consistency in how results from contracts and project funding related to children are to be reported. At present, different levels of government and different funders often require that essentially similar information be reported in different ways, thereby tying up considerable amounts of staff time simply in filling out forms. Given their limited resources, it is not expected that either the national or community level forums would be directly responsible for conducting outcome-based program assessments. These assessments would be better conducted by third parties as envisaged by SUFA. Over time, however, the role of the CACF and community partnerships in the NCA accountability regime may evolve so that they assume more responsibility, for both contracting with third party evaluators and communicating evaluation results.

It is imperative that governments support the costs of the research and data collection required to meet the accountability obligations under SUFA and the NCA. Part of the funding envelops for both CACF and the community partnerships has to be dedicated to supporting the costs associated with the role of voluntary organizations in accountability. Such support is even more critical when governments require program accountability as part of the service delivery package provided by community agencies.

Community Capacity

The community, in this case, refers to both locally created voluntary organizations and their provincial and federal umbrella groups which advocate on behalf for and deliver services to children and families. These organizations pride themselves on their ability to detect emerging concerns before they become intractable problems, their tenacity to advocate on behalf of their communities to obtain better social and economic policy, their commitment to provide quality services to children and families in their communities, and their flexibility to meet new needs as they arise. If not for the volunteers in Girl Guides, minor hockey or parenting classes, to name only a few, such programs would simply not exist. Voluntary organizations generally need professional staff, however, to screen, train and manage these volunteers, and they pay for much of this out of dollars raised from the public. In short, they play a role that no government could play, and they do it extremely well. If voluntary organizations are going to continue to be real partners in children’s policy and programming, governments have a responsibility for ensuring that they have the capacity to continue their role in policy, delivery and innovation and that they can meet future challenges.

Capacity was defined by the (Broadbent) Panel on Accountability and Governance in the Voluntary Sector and by the Joint Table Initiative as "the human and financial resources, technology, skills, knowledge and understanding required to permit organizations to do their work and fulfill what is expected of them by stakeholders."44 Capacity-building supports include:45

  1. improved knowledge including better technology, greater access to expertise in designing outcome measurement and methods, support for the costs and risks of innovation, and enhanced policy capacity;
  2. greater human resources, such as compensation for additional staff who have responsibilities mandated by governments (such as accountability measurement and participation in the community partnerships), training and management of volunteers, and skills development;
  3. better financial capacity, including stable funding horizons that facilitate strategic planning, an enabling environment to mobilize resources, and compensation to cover mandated costs such as program evaluation related to the NCA;
  4. strengthened governance and organizational capacity, ranging from knowledgeable boards of directors capable of providing policy leadership in a challenging environment to better administrative capacity for internal management and service delivery.

Building community capacity should be seen as one element of the NCA framework. A portion of the funding envelop should be dedicated to capacity-building as a requisite part of providing sustainable and innovative children’s services. Although capacity-building requires infusions of financial resources, it can also be assisted with in-kind contributions, such as secondments of staff, provision of technology, provision of training, and no-cost meeting space in government buildings.

Conclusion: Moving the NCA Forward

The National Children’s Agenda is a bold move. It is bold to plan a comprehensive strategy that integrates horizontally across a variety of policy fields, breaking down traditional policy silos. The NCA must succeed in enhancing the well being of Canadian children and their families. It is also a bold move in the direction of more collaborative and accountable federal-provincial relationships that, although the absence of Quebec is a serious shortcoming, may have salutary benefits for intergovernmental relations over the long term. And, the NCA is a stride toward more genuine partnership between governments and the voluntary sector that is a central player in the social union. There are, however, a number of challenges to creating an action plan by the end of 2000 and then moving it forward.

Such a bold initiative cannot proceed by traditional intergovernmental processes. Process matters critically. This paper argues that a mechanism(s) for involving the voluntary sector at a national level in the development of the NCA, and means of involving local organizations, municipalities and funders in the creation of a community-based mix of appropriate programs and services will be essential to a successful agenda. The proposed Children’s Agenda Civic Forum would be an innovative step toward creating a truly participatory, rather than merely a consultative mechanism for incorporating the expertise of the voluntary sector that would supplement and support, not supplant, the role of government officials. But, there may be equally effective engagement mechanisms. The first challenge is to begin the discussion and devote serious attention to create meaningful engagement of the non-governmental partners.

What can we realistically expect the NCA to be: a common vision, a policy framework, or something more elaborate? It is clear what the NCA will not be. It will not be a standardized, uniform set of programs with federal ownership and direction. Nor should it be. In our view, it will at minimum be a vision that articulates values and foundational principles. The most difficult issue is not agreeing on a common vision, however, but determining the mechanisms to implement the vision. At least the essential services to be supported by the NCA need to be agreed upon. The provinces, with justification, fear getting entrapped by a funding mechanism, from which the federal government can withdraw in whole or in part, leaving it hanging with clients and public expectations, but with inadequate money. Because the NCA will require new investment by all governments, however, it is imperative to address the funding vehicles that work. Agreements on content and funding mechanisms stand as the second important challenge.

Beyond this, the NCA should also set general priorities and establish basic policy frameworks that serve as a general direction, but that will allow for diverse responses to meet differing community needs. The concurrent challenge will be to develop engagement mechanisms for community-based dialogue to determine local and national priorities, service mixes and funding allocations, and create the requisite infrastructure where it does not already exist.

There is a general concern that governments have already begun to lose interest in the NCA and that unless the time frame of a general action plan by December 2000 is met, the entire initiative may be lost. Thus, the next critical step will be to bring ministers to the table again to think boldly about process and goals, and to initiate a sustained dialogue with the voluntary sector.









1 Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Speech to the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Trade, February 1997, quoted as part of Background Information on the National Children's Agenda, at

2Federal/Provincial/Territorial Council on Social Policy Renewal, A National Children's Agenda: Developing a Shared Vision, May 1999, preface.

3See Government of Canada, "Background Information on the National Children's Agenda," available at

4From commitments announced in the 1999 Speech from the Throne, the federal government has undertaken a number of specific initiatives with regard to children and families. These are outlined on the HRDC website at

5See Jane Jenson with Sherry Thompson, Comparative Family Policy: Six Provincial Stories (Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 1999), p. 16.

6Gerard William Boychuk, Patchworks of Purpose: The Development of Provincial Social Assistance Regimes in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998).

7See Jane Jenson and Sharon M. Stroick, A Policy Blueprint for Canada's Children, (Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 1999).

8Jane Jenson and Sharon M. Stroick, A Policy Blueprint for Canada's Children, p. 21.

9In addition to the NCB, the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) administers several working income supplement programs on behalf of certain provinces.

10The February 2000 budget improved the level of NCB benefits up to a maximum of $2,056 for the first child and $1,805 for the second by July 2000. These levels will rise to $2,400 and $2,200 respectively by 2004. In addition, the 2000 budget reindexed them to inflation.

11Jane Jenson and Sharon M. Stroick, A Policy Blueprint for Canada's Children.

12Jane Jenson and Sharon M. Stroick, A Policy Blueprint for Canada's Children, p. 12.

13Sandra Bach and Susan D. Phillips, "Constructing a New Social Union: Child Care Beyond Infancy?" In G. Swimmer, ed., How Ottawa Spends 1997-98: Seeing Red. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1997).

14For an alternative perspective on Quebec's universal policies, see Robert Baril, Pierre Lefebvre and Philip Merrigan, Quebec Family Policy: Impact and Options (Montreal: IRPP, 1999).

15The first part of this list, related mainly to younger children, draws heavily on Jane Jenson and Sharon M. Stroick, A Policy Blueprint for Canada's Children, p. 18.

16This is not the only factor in increasing the need for greater community coordination. Other factors include: the involvement of the voluntary as well as government sector in program delivery; lack of a comprehensive system in most provinces; and increasing recognition of the links between health, social, economic and environmental conditions.

17Jane Jenson with Sherry Thompson, Comparative Family Policy: Six Provincial Stories, p. 38.

18For a concise history of the ebb and flow of federalism see, Keith G. Banting, "Social Citizenship and the Social Union in Canada," Policy Options, 19, 9, November 1998, pp. 33-6; and Roger Gibbins, "Taking Stock: Canadian Federalism and its Constitutional Framework," In Leslie A. Pal, ed., How Ottawa Spends 1999-2000, Shape Shifting: Canadian Governance Toward the 21st Century (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 197-220

19Treasury Board Secretariat, "Analysis of the Social Union Initiatives: Staff Working Paper" available at

20For a discussion of Quebec's concerns, see Alain Noël "Will the Social Union Divide Canadians?" Breakfast on the Hill, March 18, 1999, available at and Gérard Boismenu and Jane Jenson, "A Social Union or a Federal State?: Competing Visions of Intergovernmental Relations in the New Liberal Era," In Leslie A. Pal (ed.), How Ottawa Spends 1998-99: Balancing Act: The Post-Deficit Mandate (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 57-80.

21Note that these are not presented exactly according to the original seven SUFA headings which are: principles; mobility within Canada; public accountability and transparency; working in partnership for Canadians; the federal spending power; dispute avoidance and resolution; and review. In this discussion we have combined collaboration and spending, and dealt with consultation separately as it is a critical part for the voluntary sector.

22As part of the attempt to make it completely transparent to the public as to whether these objectives are being met, sector Ministers will submit annual reports to the Ministerial Council identifying residency-based barriers and providing action plans to eliminate them.

23Ironically, this limitation could be seen as less restrictive than the one the federal government voluntarily placed itself in the 1996 Speech from the Throne.

24SUFA also contains some provision for dispute resolution. Should federal and provincial/territorial governments run into disagreements over how new national social programs, such as the NCA, are designed and implemented, SUFA articulates a dispute resolution mechanism, albeit a weak one. The preference is for dispute avoidance, but should disputes persist, SUFA provides a process for joint fact-finding, the opportunity for governments to comment on this report and to seek assistance of a third party for advice or mediation (although no specific mechanism is stipulated) and for public reporting of this fact-finding at the request of either party in a dispute. Again, transparency is emphasized by requiring governments on an annual basis to report publicly on the nature of intergovernmental disputes and their resolution.

25Each year, the Council produces a public progress report to the premiers, the fourth of which was issued in August 1999.

26One innovation of the Ministerial Council is that five Aboriginal organizations participate in one of the NCA working groups, the sub-committee on Measuring and Monitoring, and several experts, sitting as individuals have been involved as well. The members of the Ministerial and sectoral councils are assisted by both intergovernmental and departmental officials from each government. Often, the differences in world view between the central agency intergovernmental officials and those from line departments are as different as perspectives between governments. While line departments generally have considerable contact with and reasonable knowledge of the concerns of the voluntary organizations working in their area, central agency officials are usually more isolated from the outside. They are naturally more attuned to the political level than to citizens and to relationships than to policy content. Consequently, they tend to be more comfortable with in-camera discussions and closed deal making and are generally less sensitive to the value of public engagement.

27Sherry Thompson with Judith Maxwell, Sharon M. Stroick, Moving Forward on Child and Family: Governance and Accountability Issues (Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 1999), p. 14.

28The province has a Ministry of the Family and Childhood directly responsible for developing and maintaining a network of child care services and for coordinating multisectoral interventions with other ministries. At the community level, a regional authority known as the Centre Locale de services communitaires (CLSC) whose governance includes representation from service providers and local agencies, delivers health and social services in an integrated manner.

29BC and Alberta have regional authorities responsible for funding and governance; Saskatchewan has developed regional intersectoral committees to find ways of integrating services at the local level. In most provinces, actual delivery of services is provided by voluntary and, in some cases, for-profit agencies contracted by the provincial or regional authorities.

30Thompson with Maxwell and Stroick, Moving Forward on Child and Family: Governance and Accountability Issues, p. 13.

31Katherine A. Graham and Susan D. Phillips (eds.), "Conclusion: From Public Participation to Citizen Engagement," In K. A. Graham and S. D. Phillips, eds., Citizen Engagement: Lessons in Participation from Local Government. (Toronto: IPAC, 1998), pp. 223-40.

32See Scottish Civic Forum, at

33Government of Ireland, Department of Social Welfare, Supporting Voluntary Activity: A Green Paper on the Community and Voluntary Sector and its Relationship with the State (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1997). See also, Speech of the Taoiseach (prime minister) to the inaugural meeting of the new plenary of the NESF, at: current/12-11-98.htm; and A. McCashin, E. O'Sullivan and C. Brennan, "The National Economic and Social Forum, Social Partnership and Policy Formation in the Republic of Ireland," Paper presented to the 28th Annual Conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), November 1999, Arlington, VA.

34Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers Responsible for Social Services, The National Child Benefit Progress Report: 1999. (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1999), p. 23.

35See "NCB Governance and Accountability Framework," National Child Benefit available at

36See Auditor General of Canada, Report (Ottawa: Auditor General of Canada, 1999); also Adil Sayeed, Improving the National Child Benefit: Matching Deeds and Intentions (Toronto: C. D. Howe Institute, 1999).

37Adil Sayeed, Improving the National Child Benefit, p. 10-11.

38For more information, see the media release and background information issued at the time of the launch of the initiative, available on-line at

39Ken Battle and Michael Mendelson, How to Do a Children's Budget and a Tax Cut Budget in 2000 (Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy, 1999), available at

40See Alberta Children's Forum, First Circle: Uniting for Children, Calgary, February 9, 2000. Available at Note that it expressed strong support for community-led initiatives although it did not spell out mechanisms in much detail.

41 Ministerial Council, Developing a Shared Vision, pp. 11-13.

42The definition of community for these purposes is the responsibility of provincial governments, but might be developed based on the input of the CACF and provincial voluntary organizations.

43Available online at

44Panel on Accountability and Governance in the Voluntary Sector, Building on Strength: Improving Governance and Accountability in Canada's Voluntary Sector (Ottawa: Voluntary Sector Roundtable, 1999), p. 14 and Government of Canada/Voluntary Sector Joint Initiative, Working Together: Report of the Joint Tables (Ottawa: Voluntary Sector Task Force, Privy Council Office and Voluntary Sector Roundtable, August 1999), p. 29.

45These are drawn largely from Government of Canada/Voluntary Sector Joint Initiative, Working Together: Report of the Joint Tables, pp. 30-33.

Appreciation is expressed to Joan Murphy, Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at Carleton University, for the superb assistance with research that she provided to this project. We also thank the federal and provincial government officials who gave generously of their time and expertise in interviews with us.

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