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Nonprofit Policy Forum

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Civil Society and Nonprofits in the Age of New Public Governance: Current Trends and Their Implications for Theory and Practice

Michal Almog-Bar
Published Online: 2018-03-23 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2018-0004


Introductory essay to the special issue on: Civil Society and nonprofits in the age of new public governance: Current trends and their implications for theory and practice.

Keywords: New Public; Governance; civil society; nonprofits

The last two decades have witnessed significant changes in civil society and the nonprofit sector. These changes include substantial growth in the size and importance of the sector in many countries, especially as a delivery mechanism for public services, and in the contribution it makes to community building (Anheier 2009). It is increasingly recognized that civic engagement creates social capital, which contributes to a better functioning of the society, economy and political system. Nonprofit associations, which form the social infrastructure of civil society, manifest this engagement and facilitate the creation of trust, social inclusion and communal responsibility (Putnam 2000).

The growth of the nonprofit sector has largely occurred within the context of the “New Public Management”, a school of thought which argued that shortcomings in public service operations could be overcome by introducing business-style management approaches and practices such as strategic planning, management by objectives, and incentive-based reward systems into the administration of the public sector, and favored outsourcing many government services to non-governmental private and nonprofit organizations through contracts (Lane 2000). However, as Osborne (2010, 1–2) suggests “the time of the New Public management (NPM) has in fact been a relatively short-lived and transient one between the statist and bureaucratic tradition of Public Administration and the embryonic plural and pluralist tradition of the New Public Governance (NPG)”. Critics have claimed that the benefits of the NPM are at best partial and contested (Pollitt and Bouckaert 2004). NPM has been criticized for its intra-organizational focus in an increasingly plural, fragmented and inter-organizational environment and for its adherence to the application of outdated business-like techniques to public policy implementation and public services delivery despite growing evidence of their inapplicability (Flynn 2002; Rhodes 1997).

In light of these criticisms a new approach emerged in the public policy field in the early 2000s, called New Public Governance (NPG). While public governance is not a new term in the rhetoric of public administration and NPM, it is now recognized as a distinctive approach in its own right (Osborne 2010).

Relying on institutional and network governance theory, the NPG posits both a plural state, where multiple interdependent actors contribute to the delivery of public services, and a pluralist state, where multiple processes inform policy-making processes. NPG is concerned with the institutional and external environmental pressures that enable and constrain public policy implementation and the delivery of public services within such a plural and pluralist system. It focuses upon interorganizational service networks and the role of government in orchestrating a wide range of third parties, stressing service effectiveness and outcomes that emerge as a result of interactions between public service organizations and their environments (Osborne 2010; Salamon and Toepler 2015). These networks are riven with power inequalities that must be navigated successfully for effective policy making and service delivery. The value base in such networks is often dispersed and contested. Thus, as Osborne (2010) contends, the NPG is thus both a product of, and a response to, the increasingly complex, plural and fragmented nature of public policy implementation and service delivery in the twenty-first century.

In contrast to the NPM approach, which emphasizes reliance on market mechanisms to assume functions formerly performed by governments, the NPG emphasizes the significant strengths that nonprofit organizations can bring to the delivery of public services (Salamon and Toepler 2015). In particular, nonprofit organizations are thought to have significant advantages over other types of providers of public services including unique knowledge deriving from close proximity to distinctive user groups, greater capacity for tailoring holistic services to client needs, flexibility, and ability to innovate; expertise in mobilizing volunteers and private charitable resources, and advantages for promoting important social values such as diversity, a sense of community, and civic activism; and capacities to democratize public services through co-production and user involvement (Bode and Brandsen 2014; Pestoff and Brandesen 2010). For these reasons, the NPG approach calls for extensive collaboration between the government and the nonprofit sector in the delivery of public services (Salamon and Teopler 2015).

Indeed, recent years have witnesseda growing understanding of nonprofit-government relations as partnerships, worldwide. Since the early 2000s the partnership approach has prevailed as a model for nonprofit-government relations in developed countries, linking government to nonprofit organizations in a wide assortment of fields (Bode and Brandsen 2014; Lofler 2009; Salamon and Toepler 2015). The partnership approach emphasizes interdependence between the state and various other social actors, including nonprofit organizations, and the emergence of widespread patterns of collaboration. Noteworthy manifestations of the partnership approach are “government-voluntary sector compacts” which reflect an international trend towards more deliberate and cooperative relations between government and the nonprofit sector (Casey 2016; Myers and MacDonald 2014). These compacts are written agreements that seek to formally define and regulate the relationships between the nonprofit sector and the state. Since the signing of the first compact in England in 1998, similar agreements have been implemented in several countries. In many other countries, while formal agreements have not been signed, new coordinating structures have emerged as means to define and strengthen the relations between government and nonprofits (Reuter, Wijkström, and Von Essen 2012).

While the NPG approach and the partnership policies derived from it have gained prominence in many countries in recent years, the consequences of these policies are not clear yet. To date, there is only limited empirical evidence on the actual contribution of the nonprofit sector to public service delivery and to public governance (Pestoff and Brandsen 2010). Moreover, NPG’s impact on civil society more broadly defined – the wider sphere of institutions, organizations and individuals between the family, the state and the market within which people associate voluntarily to advance and debate issues of common concern, create policy solutions, and exert influence on the state (Cohen 1995) –, remains unclear. Although current policies relating to government-NPOs relations in different countries are replete with the language of partnership and collaboration, in many instances they display distinct inequities in power (Osborne 2010). These power asymmetries raise concerns that involvement of nonprofit organizations in public service delivery will lead to their overdependence on government, a change in their distinctive roles and contributions as members of civil society, bureaucratization and over-professionalization of civic organizations. There is also wide variation in the success of these collaborations, and even though it may appear that a given collaboration has been successful, this may well be in name only (Furneaux and Ryan 2014; Phillips & Smith 2014). In fact, while the focus of public service provision have shifted to interorganizational networks and relations and while partnership has gained prominence in the government-nonprofit relations discourse, many of the old NPM policies and arrangements are still in place (Phillips and Smith 2014). Such arrangements include rapid marketization of public social services, and policies emphasizing performance, accountability and transparency (See: Harris; and Smith in this issue).

In some places the NPG approach has served as a background for tightening regulation and supervision of operations, and for the emergence of restrictive policies directed towards selective groups of organizations in civil society (Almog-Bar 2016). Thus, it has been suggested that partnership policies may constitute a new way of co-opting nonprofits into government’s policy agenda, allowing government to interfere and reshape civil society according to its own preferences (Bode 2014; Brandsen, Trommel, and Verschuere 2014). In addition, there are also concerns that NPG and partnership arrangements may deepen divisions between different types of organizations in civil society. Many such arrangements engage large nonprofit organizations with established infrastructures and capacities and influential political connections, and are less accessible to small and medium sized organizations, thus limiting their potential contribution to the design of public services (see Harris; and Smith in this issue). For example, the policy emphasis on creating partnership and dialogue between the government and the nonprofit sector as part of the adoption the NPG approach in Israel, has increased opportunities of large nonprofit human service organizations (which mainly funded by government) to influence public policy (see Almog-Bar in this issue), while distancing many small and grass-root organizations from public policy-making (Almog-Bar 2016). Thus, while the NPG approach holds promise for enhancing democracy and innovation in the provision of public services, it also create complex relationships and present new challenges.

This special issue of Nonprofit Policy Forum explores some of the opportunities and challenges that civil society and nonprofit organizations are facing in the age of NPG. It describes the changes in the environments in which nonprofits operate and analyzes the implications of these changes for the nonprofit organizations and civil society. The issue examines nonprofit organizations in different fields of service and civil society in alternative national settings, all in the context of policies informed by the NPG approach. The five articles offer broad and critical accounts of the turbulent and complex policy environments in which nonprofit organizations have operated in recent years. They present important insights into the challenges that organizations in civil society face in this age, in promoting the voices and interests of vulnerable populations, in maintaining their own integrity and sustainability, in promoting voluntarism and civic activism, and in building and strengthening civil society as an alternative public sphere within which issues of common concern can be debated, new policy solutions created, and influence exerted on the state (Cohen 1995). They also highlight innovative ways in which diverse actors in civil society respond to these challenges.

The first article, “UK Civil Society: Changes and Challenges in the age of New Public Governance and the Marketized Welfare State”, by Margaret Harris examines changes and challenges for UK civil society in the first years of the 21st century. It draw together recent published research findings about smaller civil society organisations and volunteering. It offers a critical discussion about the inter-relationship between changes in civil society and changes in public policy including new public governance and the marketization of the welfare state.

The second article, “The Future of Nonprofit Human Services” by Steven Rathgeb Smith analyzes ongoing developments in nonprofit human services, including concerns about in managing human services organizations and their relationships to government, users, and communities. The article suggests that the “new governance” of public services encouraged by the implementation of NPM will encourage the continued adoption of policies emphasizing performance and accountability. More transparency in operating nonprofit human service agencies is also expected, and emphasizing performance in the context of fiscal scarcity will abet prioritization of services, leading funders to diminish their support forlow-priority services whose outcomes are vague or elusive, in favor of larger agencies with diversified revenue sources, sufficient infrastructure and capacity, and influential political and community connections. Yet, the push for social innovation and co-production will also ensure that new agencies will continue to form and seek public and private resources. Experimentation and new program models will proliferate although many will struggle with developing sustainable business models.

The third article, “Religious Congregations and Poverty Alleviation in the Age of New Public Governance” by Marquisha Lawrence Scott and Ram A. Cnaan, focuses on religious congregations actively engaged in supporting people living in poverty. In the context of the theological traditions of four world religions, the article seeks to guide religious congregations towards innovative, actionable responses that can help them to offer long-term responses to poverty alleviation, through two broad strategies – community development and financial development.

The fourth article, “Insider Status and Outsider Tactics: Advocacy Tactics of Human Service Nonprofits in the Age of New Public Governance” by Michal Almog-Bar analyzes nonprofit Human Service Organizations in Israel, focusing on the ways in which partnership policies in the age of New Public Governance (NPG) affect their advocacy activities and tactics. The findings reveal that the shift towards increased government funding and contracting to nonprofits increases nonprofit Human Service Organizations’ opportunities to influence public policy, using a wide variety of tactics, including both insider cooperative tactics and more confrontational outsider tactics. Nonprofits are firstly concerned with establishing their insider status, using cooperative tactics; and later, after achieving this status, they turn to more aggressive outsider tactics, utilizing their relative power as major providers of social services.

The fifth article, “New Public Governance, Social Services, and the Potential of Co-Located Nonprofit Centers for Improved Collaborations” by Diane Vinokur-Kaplan examines co-located nonprofit centers as vehicles to promote collaborations among nonprofits providing contracted services. Nearly 400 such centers have been identified in the United States and Canada. Two profiles of these centers where co-located organizations collaboratively provide social services, are presented to illustrate how such nonprofit center sites operate and can serve as vehicles to support collaborative goals of the New Public Governance.

Earlier versions of these articles were presented in a seminar of the Centre for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israeli Science Foundation entitled “Civil Society and the Welfare State in the age of New Public Governance” that was held in Jerusalem, Israel in June 2016. I would like to thank the authors for the efforts they have invested in developing their seminar papers to produce the articles for this special issue. I also want tols extend myr appreciation to the reviewers, who provided comments and suggestions to improve the manuscripts prior to publication.

In sum, the articles in this special issue highlight different ways in which civil society and nonprofit organizations are operating and evolving in the context of the New Public Governance. Hopefully, these articles will stimulate further learning about the impact of NPG arrangements and policies upon civil society, in different national and cultural contexts. More work is certainly needed in order to better understand the impact of these policies on the distinctive character of nonprofit organizations and particularly on the less established and more vulnerable organizations of civil society.

Michal Almog-Bar, Ph.D.

Guest Editor

January, 2018


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-03-23

Published in Print: 2018-03-26

Citation Information: Nonprofit Policy Forum, Volume 8, Issue 4, Pages 343–349, ISSN (Online) 2154-3348, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2018-0004.

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© 2018 Almog-Bar, published by De Gruyter. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License. BY-NC-ND 4.0

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