Six Functions of Non-Governmental Organizations in a Democratic Society, By Mark Winfield

Six Functions of Non-Governmental Organizations in a Democratic Society

Mark Winfield


More broadly the government’s actions reflect a lack of understanding of the role of non-governmental organizations in democratic governance, and the formulation, implementation and evaluation of government decisions and policies. Non-governmental or civil society organizations can play six major roles in these processes. Although the examples of these roles that I give in this article are environmental, the same functions exist in relation organizations concerned with social policy and services, human rights, public health and safety, and other matters where the collective public interest is at stake.

First, NGOs can act as “knowledge creators conducting original research and analysis. They can typically do this in a manner that is far more timely and relevant to current policy debates than is possible for academic researchers, and around which the work of experts within government is unlikely to ever see the light of day.  The Pembina Institute’s recent assessment of the greenhouse gas emission implications of the proposed Alberta to New Brunswick “Energy East” pipeline stands as an excellent example of such work, as do the efforts of the David Suzuki Foundation to establish the economic value of the services provided by the environment.

Secondly, NGOs can be  “knowledge brokers,” translating scientific and technical information generated by academic and government researchers into terms understandable to decision-makers, the media and the public, and into specific recommendations for new or amended laws, regulations, polices and initiatives to respond to this information. Environmental Defense’s current work on the presence of toxic substances in consumer and personal care products, provides a good illustration of these types of efforts.

Third, NGOs can be “policy entrepreneurs,” representing and advancing particular issues and initiatives through the policy process. This is an especially important function in relation to issues, like the environment, around which the benefits of public policy responses are likely to be widely distributed throughout society and the costs concentrated on a relatively small, but potentially powerful range of interests. Climate change is a particularly good example of such a case.  The benefits of reducing GHG emissions will be shared globally, but the costs, at least in Canada’s case, will be focussed on one sector, the Oil Sands, which accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the current and projected growth in Canada’s industrial GHG emissions. Without organized capacity to give voice to the public interest around such issues, the result will be environmental policies that only serve the interests of the biggest polluters.

Fourth, NGOs can be important contributors to the process of implementing policy and delivering services. In the environmental case this can include work to restore degraded areas, participation in scientific research such as wildlife surveys and bird counts and the management of natural heritage lands and features.

Fifth, NGOs can be major providers of public information, education, motivation and engagement on topics ranging from fair international trade, sustainable food, to home energy efficiency and production.

Finally, the combination of independence from government, expertise is what can be highly specialized areas of public policy, and capacity to communicate with the media and public, as well as decision-makers, positions NGOs to be highly effective “watchdogs” on government activities, decisions, and performance in their areas of interest.

mark winfield

Mark Winfield

Assistant Professor and Coordinator of MES/JD Joint Program
BA (Science & Technology Studies), MA PhD (Political Science) Toronto

Email: [email protected]



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