Will a 19th century budget really position Canada for the 21st century?

Reading the 2012 federal budget, I am struck at how it positions Canada as the world’s water and resource supplier. Is this all Canada really has to offer? Is this politically visionary? Is this the Canada that we want? Or is it a narrow-minded, short-term view that enslaves Canada to responding to the whims and needs of the real global leaders?

Canada is so much more to me. We excel at communications, collaboration, creativity, service innovation and so much more. We have vibrant renewable energy, clean tech and social technology sectors. We have a diverse population with connections to the rest of the world that we have yet to really leverage. We are smart, productive and capable of balancing social and economic imperatives. We are, I think, the best in the world at figuring out how to work together and collaborate… Boy, you sure wouldn’t know it in this budget.

I have three major issues with this budget:

  1. Missing the opportunity of social innovation to drive jobs and the economy
  2. Undermining the citizen sector’s ability to have voice and independence
  3. Failing to look at themselves first to create an innovation mandate

The potential of social innovation

While the rest of the world is actively exploring social innovation (see the Compendium on the Civic Economy to get a sense), the feds are cautiously hinting at maybe thinking about social finance or social impact bonds, but once again, they are not really taking on the real issues:

  • How do we leverage the spirit of social entrepreneurship?
  • How do we enable and create a level playing field for social enterprise?
  • How do we position Canada as a global solutions provider and export our best social innovations?

Once again the social innovation agenda is being hijacked by social finance ideas without addressing the needs of the social entrepreneurs that will utilize these tools. As in the Ontario provincial budget, everyone wants to talk about money without first talking about the solutions and entrepreneurs that will drive the business models that create the money.

Social innovations are emerging in our country all the time. Many of them have been picked up by government after they have been proven successful. Pathways to Education, Roots of Empathy, RDSP’s are just a sampling of the kind of innovations that have been adopted by government but originated in the nonprofit – citizen sector.
Yes, finance tools are essential to support social innovation, but so are the early supports to social entrepreneurs. If the feds opened up their eligibility of all of their business programs to the nonprofit social enterprise sector, well, then we could start a conversation. If they created a Social Entrepreneurship program that provided salaries for a year to support social enterprises (both for nonprofit’s, charities, cooperatives and the self-employed) then we could really start positioning Canada for the future.

As it stands now, federal government wants to be the VC’s (Venture Capitalists) of business—a place where the market really does function—and it has ignored its responsibility to be the VC for social innovation that will be efficient, create jobs/wealth and position Canada as a global leader.

Citizen Sector drives innovation — why is it being squashed?

This budget proposes that we continue to extract, exploit and sell our natural resources as fast as possible. (Isn’t ‘Forest innovation’ code for ‘deforestation’?) While at the same time, we see a clamping down on political advocacy and ‘foreign donors’ in our charitable sector. This is clearly ideological and is stripping the citizen sector of our ability to organize and have voice. This is simply undemocratic.

I am shocked to see the budget restricting the public consultation and environmental review process for resource projects. The length of time required to complete these is the amount of time that the citizen sector needs to be educated and engaged in what is happening in the world around them. The shortening of this work seriously affects the public and their ability to have an active and engaged voice in this democratic process. Where is our democracy going to?

But added on top of this, a clamping down on political activities in the charitable sector is like creating a giant chill on the voice of citizens. Equally as troublesome are the restrictions being imposed on ‘foreign donations’. I suggest that if they are going to clamp down on ‘foreign donations’ that they need to equally clamp down on ‘foreign investments’. The irony is not lost.

These changes in tandem with the CRA’s increased budget to audit and evoke fear in the emerging social enterprise sector (which includes nonprofits, charities and coops) from undertaking revenue generation activities appears to be a systemic effort to quiet the voices of dissent. Is this our Canada?

Innovation labs

What would happen if the federal and provincial public services actively engaged in creating a few safe-spaces inside and outside government with the nonprofit sector to develop innovative public policies, service innovations and more? What if these ‘labs’ were free to fail, experiment and were based on real citizens needs? What if innovators (citizens, academics and professionals alike) on the ground were able to bring their ideas for transformational programs into a space to be explored, evolved, piloted and tested? What if they brought a user-centred approach and a participatory design framework? What if we started with how government is delivered? What if we looked at what Denmark, France, Britain and others are doing to build an innovation culture inside government? What if the feds truly collaborated with the nonprofit and private sectors to co-create solutions for a better, more responsive, citizen0centred Government of Canada? If only?

If the feds want to position this budget as the heart of its new innovation’s agenda, then they really missed an exceptional opportunity leverage their own mandate — to improve public benefit — to generate real innovation and downstream jobs and wealth for Canadians.

Sadly, the federal budget only recognizes 2 sectors in our country — the private sector and government itself. Just where are citizens and the collective citizen voices of communities — the nonprofit sector?

Here we are with 7% of the GDP, with 2 million employees, with millions of volunteers and with our values deeply rooted in improving public outcomes. Here we are, a sector willing to adapt, to learn, to innovate, to help make Canada better. Where are we in the budget?

For Canada to thrive in the 21st century we need to embrace the power and creativity of our citizens and the organizations that we have created to have our collective voices heard. There is so much potential here. Let’s hope that we can make our voices heard sooner rather than later.

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