Eyewitness Report - The Policy Research Needed to Support the Social Economy

A PRI-SSHRC Roundtable

September 28, 2004 Ottawa

Alan Painter, Policy Research Initiative

Alan Painter is a Senior Policy Research Officer with the Policy Research Initiative.

The social economy is a fairly new label for a diverse collection of organizations that have been producing and delivering goods and services across Canada and the world for over a century, generally at the community level. These organizations are separate from governments and different from commercial enterprises in that they involve a diverse collection of stakeholders in decisions, and reinvest profits to advance the mission of the organization, instead of disbursing them to shareholders. Examples include co-operatives, nonprofit organizations, and credit unions.

The social economy has received considerable policy attention over the past decade in Europe and in several provinces, especially Quebec. Interest has also increased in Ottawa. As a concrete example, the February 2004 Speech from the Throne cited the Roasted Cherry Coffee House, located a few blocks from Parliament Hill. This coffee shop with a difference offers employment and a welcoming environment to young Canadians, particularly those at risk.

The focus of the day was not on the specific initiatives announced in the March 2004 federal budget, but on the policy research needed to provide factbased, high-quality advice regarding possible future initiatives. The Roundtable explored what policy researchers need to examine now in consultation with practitioners and policy makers to better support organizations like the Roasted Cherry Coffee House to help Canadians.

The proceedings opened with a presentation by the Honourable Eleni Bakopanos, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Social Development with special emphasis on Social Economy. The Parliamentary Secretary provided background on the social economy and its evolving role in Canada’s communities. She wants to see research collaboration that is policy relevant.

Janet Halliwell, Executive Vice President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), provided an overview of the process underway to transform the organization from a granting council to a knowledge council. She also described the ongoing development of the new SSHRC Community- University Research Alliance (CURA) program on social economy. It will link research with communities and not-for-profit organizations to work on social and community economic development issues.

There was considerable discussion regarding the importance of community- level action and the promotion of self-help for individuals and communities. These concepts are clearly an important part of Canada’s evolving social economy.

Several senior officials offered views on ongoing policy and program development efforts. Identified themes included citizen-led community-based processes, social innovation, corporate social responsibility, and employer demand for skills, particularly hybrid skills. Several participants emphasized the need to avoid creating silos of information across organizations.

Three experts from outside government made well-received presentations on the scope of the social economy.

  • Marguerite Mendell from Concordia University provided an overview of the paper she prepared with Benôit Lévesque from l’Université du Québec à Montréal to support the development of the CURA program on social economy. Professor Mendell’s presentation emphasized the diversity of the social economy, which has been defined in a variety of ways since the 19th century. She noted, for example, that social economy organizations have contributed to the transformation as well as to the delivery of health services.

  • Nancy Neamtan, Executive Director of le Chantier de l’économie sociale, described the social economy as an integral part of a pluralist economy. She outlined an emerging model for managing development that integrates social, economic, cultural, and environmental goals in communities. She provided several examples of how the social economy has evolved in Quebec in diverse sectors, such as home care and forestry, as well as examples of how the social economy is supported in different jurisdictions. Ms. Neamtan suggested that policies and programs need substantial change in recognition of the emerging model.

  • Brett Fairbairn from the University of Saskatchewan provided an overview of the social economy outside Quebec. He noted that while co-operatives, mutuals, and associations all play a significant role across Canada, the social economy as a whole has not yet been conceptualized much as a single entity outside Quebec. For many organizations that make up the third sector throughout Canada, key underlying themes place people before profit and emphasize the importance of community orientation. Professor Fairbairn ended his presentation with several questions and observations concerning the development of effective policy regimes. For example, he noted that public policies can be any of destructive, neutral, supportive, participating, or controlling. Care is needed when supporting the social economy not to inhibit the effectiveness of organizations that tend to value highly their autonomy.

Alan Painter from the PRI provided an overview of an issues paper shared with participants in advance of the Roundtable. The paper applied welfare economics principles and findings from the social economy literature, and made some broad observations regarding whether and how governments should support the social economy. It also identified policy research issues that might be explored in the future. The general conclusion of the paper was that the development of the social economy is a promising approach rather than a solution to the problem of how to direct public money to increase well-being.

There was considerable discussion and significant agreement at the Roundtable concerning future policy research priorities, although views differed on whether further data collection should be a priority. Asking what are the necessary conditions for the success of the social economy was identified as a good way to think about research priorities. Answering this question helps identify best practices which, in turn, need to be communicated to those within and outside governments who will apply them. Examining specific sectors, such as child care, was also identified as a possible way forward. Framework policies adopted in different jurisdictions and reporting and evaluation were among the policy research issues identified as possible priorities.

While there was considerable productive discussion and information exchange during the day, one clear point of contention emerged. The concern was that the PRI issue paper represented a viewpoint that was too narrow and placed too much emphasis on economic considerations. There would be merit in exploring how diverse perspectives can and should inform policy development concerning the social economy.

As a specific next step, the PRI is preparing a publication based on the background documents distributed in advance of the Roundtable, additional research, and the presentations and discussions of the day. The document will be designed as a reference tool to support future policy research on the social economy. It will identify and discuss key policy research issues, and further explore the perspectives that underlie the development of policy advice. The document will also include resources useful to policy researchers.

In addition, the PRI’s December conference, Exploring New Approaches to Social Policy, will include a workshop on the social economy. It will explore the role of government and of policy research in supporting the social economy based on the underlying objective of increasing the well-being of Canadians, with speakers representing a variety of perspectives.