The NGOs Role Within Australia’s Democracy – Government Essay
The role of NGOs in Australia’s system of democracy is an issue of increasing relevance and significance within public discourse. NGOs have been placed under proliferating scrutiny and reconceptualization within our
political landscape. This has been characterised by increasing conservative neo-liberalist philosophical underpinnings rationalised within economic rationalism’s model of entrepreneurship and free market competition. (Maddison, Denniss and Hamilton 2004 p1) The roles, responsibilities and challenges facing NGOs are numerous and ever-changing with “greater confusion about the non-profit sector and its role than before.” (Fitzgerald 2004 p1)It is important yet difficult for these NGOs to juggle values, purpose and determination within the broader context of political climates and societal change.
The need for NGOs to clarify their roles and responsibility within the Australian system of democracy is of profound significance within our changing societal paradigm moving towards conservatism, privatisation and overriding neo-liberalist philosophies contrasting the Keynesian welfare model upon which societal constructs has until recently drawn heavily upon. (McDonald and Marston 2002 p3)
NGOs have been faced with a consequential need to articulate roles and defend their actions and ideologies as governments and conservative organizations focus not on the positive processes and outcomes of NGOs for their service users and the community but rather the threat that they pose to the conservative equilibrium created within the neo-liberalist agenda, particularly in relation to their support from the community and the advice they provide to governments and corporations. (Mowbray 2003 p4)
NGOs play a unique and invaluable role within Australia’s system of democracy in playing an intermediator role between the government, the community and the corporate for profit sector, creating public forums of debate involving varying individuals often with diverse or underrepresented needs, representation of disadvantaged and marginalised groups, providing direct involvement in policy formation and change, providing uncompromising quality services to the community and striving for high levels of transparency and accountability of governments, the corporate sector and their own organizations.
The construction of a public sphere of consultation, discussion and debate may be argued to be a fundamental underpinning of the democratic process as well as “to the development of good public policy and a well functioning democracy”. (Maddison, Denniss and Hamilton 2004 p1) NGOs provide a platform from which alternative views and experiences may be expressed and often advocate on the behalf of or assist in a process of empowerment of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. This enables a public voice previously unheard or disregarded increasing access to decision making processes effecting individuals and communities and moving towards a more egalitarian holistic approach incorporating the needs of all stakeholders.
The legitimacy of these roles of NGOs has been placed under increasing scrutiny with a highly contested movement away from the involvement of NGOs in public decision-making processes. The decreasing public trust of governmental and corporate entities has concurrently been juxtaposed by an increasing level of public trust and involvement with NGOs and community participation (Maddison, Denniss and Hamilton 2004 p2) The legitimacy of NGOs subsequently has been called into question under right wing conservative ideology referring to NGOs as “a growing power of an unelected few” (Fitzgerald 2004 p5) undermining and questioning their authority, motivations and views. Thus a strengthening conservative agenda has emerged questioning the right of NGO’s to be involved in public political discourse and calling for the silencing of dissidence through intimidatory means or withholding funding. This contradicts democratic principles of free speech and the right to question governmental actions to which NGOs oppose and hope to overcome rather than engage in self-censorship or external body control as a means of self-preservation.
NGOs have played an increasingly significant role in representing disadvantaged and marginalised groups and bringing a collaborative and rights based approach into the public agenda. Citizenship and involvement within the democratic process are constructed as a framework for participation “as citizens with a range of collective identities rather than as individualised clients or customers” (Ryan 1995 in Sawer and Jupp 1996 p40) NGOs are thus playing an increasingly significant role in the meaning making process assisting in the activation of voices and perspectives of those often unrepresented and unheard within political and societal discourse. This is working in contradiction to the neo-liberalist attempt to “converge to weaken or abolish collective standards and solidarities” (Bourdieu 1998 p3) and the Darwinistic market neoliberalism increasingly upheld and prioritised within our growing conservative governmental epoch. This representation may involve creating open discussion and public forums, direct involvement in planning, implementing and reviewing policy processes and governmental decisions and working towards the capacity building and empowerment of individuals and communities to articulate and represent their needs and opinions within the public sphere.
The NGOs operational objectives and function are important in reflecting on the their role within the system of democracy. The provision of uncompromising quality services to the community maintaining philosophies, values and priorities in everyday functioning is an integral aspect in working towards broader aims and objectives regarding societal structures and change. In providing this, NGOs can act as intermediaries between governments, communities and corporations with integrity and genuine transparency and accountability for their actions.
Accountability is a central role and issue intrinsic within service provision and the multifaceted public discourse of our system of democracy. NGOs have a responsibility to the community, the government and other organizations to provide transparency and accountability for their actions and the processes undertaken working within their ideological frameworks and understanding. In providing this accountability they provide a milieu within which to question the actions and accountabilities of governments and other organizations involved with the community and the democratic state. Criticism has been mounted against NGOs relating to accountability under the neo-liberalist conceptualisation of the NGOs as an illegitimate entity with its self-interest of paramount concern. However NGOs have reflected that it is their role and responsibility to remain answerable and open to their actions and support improving accountability frameworks, benchmarking and co-responsibilities between NGOs and governments. (Fitzgerald 2004 p6)
Within the case study of the proposal for the Social Science Student’s Society (SSSS) stakeholders play a significant role in the creation of a student’s society enabling a communicative forum, participation, feedback, open and critical discussion and the creation of a cohesive collective of social science students within the university. These two stakeholders, the students and the university engage from differing conceptualisations and ideological positions underpinning their approaches and understanding of the role of NGOs.
The students take a structural ideological position in relation to the role of NGOs understanding the power imbalances and inequality systematically inherent to their position and within the organizational framework of the proposed social science student’s society. Within the broader spectrum of the university and the governmental policies and practices influencing the varying levels of their experience the students can observe and understand the societal power imbalance imposed under a top down non-consultative approach. The student’s are aiming to bring about participatory change focusing on the thoughts, ideas and experiences of social science students questioning the current systemic limitations of the university including a belief that “participation is limited due to current school structures, which do not encourage their participation” (SSSS Proposal 2005). An underlying belief that students have the right to open participatory forum, a cohesive community and involvement in planning processes regarding their education is underpinning the role of the SSSS, and an understanding of this within the confines of the universities limitations and societal realm is articulated. The students and SSSS thus construct the role of NGOs as working against recognised systematic inequalities and limitations activating the voices of the marginalised and oppressed in order to bring about positive outcomes and greater societal change.
Another key stakeholder within this proposal is the university. The universities approach and ideological position can be understood on a more conservative level than the students however is not unaware of the challenges imposed by power imbalances and inequality such as an inability of the system to incorporate the voices and opinions of the majority. The university takes a pluralist ideological standpoint examining the students and the SSSS proposal and maintains this viewpoint in the broader role of NGOs. The university is able to recognise the varying needs of students and those engaging with the university and is aware of its role in working with these groups to achieve positive outcomes. It maintains this without directly focusing upon a broader actualisation of social problems within the context of societal oppression and systematic inequality, rather focusing on specific issues effecting specific groups within the university and recognising the often unequal distribution of power among these groups. The university may conceptualise the broader role of NGOs to work towards achieving goals with varying groups and decrease the effects of inequality and oppression. NGOs may do this without significantly affecting the status quo however may question societal structures in the best interests in alleviating marginalisation and oppression of individuals and communities.
The ideological underpinning may have a vast impact on the outcomes for the organization as the various frameworks of understanding of societal structures and approaches to change construct the foundations from which viewpoints are developed and actions are undertaken. The structuralist ideological position holds a greater potential for comprehensive and holistic change, focusing on the varying levels and structures of society from which power imbalances and oppression arise. The focus is centralised on significant and multifaceted change which if achieved is likely to prove successful, as the examination and analysis of all systems of power and change are included in the social change approach. The structuralist ideological position within specific instances however may prove extremely challenging and problematic for an organization to approach. The far-reaching implications of top down systematic inequalities and oppression are complex and possibly daunting issues to tackle; and in specific instances it may not be possible for an organization to approach and change entrenched viewpoints or inequalities deriving from powerful systems over which the organization has little to no control. The pluralist ideological position acts as intermediary in understanding society and social change and due to this attaining positive outcomes and strengthening the positions of marginalized groups and alleviating aspects of inequality may be quite achievable. This may prove to be very beneficial to the groups involved with the organization if their interests are represented however an overall problem with the pluralist approach is its failure to deconstruct and conceptualise the broader spectrum of societal problems. Outcomes may be affected as immediate, short or medium term outcomes may be achievable, however working towards long term or systematic changes may not be encapsulated within the scope of a pluralist approach as they may be when working within a structuralist ideological framework.
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