PSG VIII: Civil Society, Citizens and Government


In 2010, Taco Brandsen, Willem Trommel and Bram Verschuere established the EGPA Permanent Study Group on the Public Governance of Societal Sectors. This Study Group was the successor of the EGPA Third Sector Study Group which was active in the period 2007-2009. In the period 2010-2012, the Study Group explored the drivers behind the changing governance of societal sectors (Toulouse 2010), the current trends in societal sector development (Bucharest 2011) and the co-optation of civil society organizations by governmental institutions (Bergen 2012). We had three successful meetings which provided us with a much better understanding of why and how a new type of civil society is ‘manufactured’. One of the conclusions of our work holds that public governance is increasingly ‘invented’ or ‘manufactured’ in practice, as a result of social improvisation by managerial, professional, political and civil actors. Governments set the stage for these practices, by providing incentives, and governing space, but actual patterns of societal sector governance seem emergent rather than designed and/or enacted. In the current period 2013-2015, the Study Group builds further on the conclusions from the previous editions, and examines the new (societal) governance patterns that can be observed, and the mechanisms that can explain their emergence (Edinburgh 2013), and the intriguing question whether governments are ‘fit’ to function in contexts of new governance (Speyer 2014). For the 2015 edition of the EGPA Annual Conference (Toulouse), we decided to formulate a broader call that already contains echoes of some of the directions we want to proceed to with the renewed Study Group in the period 2016-2018: the critical study of the relationship between civil society, government/public administration, and citizens. Relationships that can be studied on different levels and from different angles (e.g. collaboration in public policy design and implementation, participation of citizens and civil society organizations, and the effects on public administration and civil society organizations of collaboration and participation).

Achievements in the period 2010-2014

Over the last five years, a steady number of approximately 12-18 papers per conference. We had the participation of a stable group of colleagues from a diversity of countries in the European space. We also played an active role in renewing the conference formats, e.g. by working with Round Tables and book reviews. We published a policy brief on the changing nature of civil society in Europe[1], which was also published in the ESADE-Bulletin[2]. Besides this kind of valorization aimed at stimulating the public debate, we also published the proceedings of our scholarly conference work in two edited volumes with international publishers[3]. Also, with our study group, we aimed at establishing active links with other international academic communities, e.g. the co-organization of a seminar on co-production in Budapest (22-23 November 2012, with IRSPM and BAM), the active participation in the IIAS group on co-production, and the organization of panels in NIG-conferences or TAD-conferences.

A new direction for the period 2016-2018: “Government – Civil Society Relations in the 21st century”

Empirical scope of the study group

Broadly spoken, civil society (and its organisations) is the (organisational) field between state, market and citizen (see figure 1 below).


Figure 1: Defining civil society (adapted from van de Donk 2008[4])

Organization in civil society is based on private initiative, with a goal that is not primarily for profit. It is not based on the emotional ties of the private sphere of communities like families, and it is not (directly or totally) controlled by the government. This broad definition may encompass a very diverse set of civil society organizations, both formal or informal. This diversity is due to the observation that the ‘ideal-typical CSO’ is rare. Indeed, many of civil society initiatives or organisations find themselves in ‘grey zones’ in which civil society seems to ‘move’ in the direction of the spheres of government, market and/or communities. Hence, our definition, and as a result also the scope of our study group includes organisations and initiatives that may belong to different categories that all reside under the broad and heterogeneous umbrella of ‘civil society’:

  • New social initiatives in response to new societal challenges (e.g. self-help groups, migrant associations, anti-poverty networks). These are CSOs that move in the direction of ‘community’ and/or ‘state’.
  • New ways for engaging citizens in the context of public services, e.g. through co-production, both individually and collectively.
  • New urban initiatives in response to new economic challenges (e.g. urban agriculture, energy cooperatives, climate coalitions). These are CSOs that move in the direction of ‘community’ and/or ‘market’ (‘transition economy’).
  • ‘Traditional’ and (sometimes) subsidized social profit organisations, often delivering services in sectors as broad as health, welfare, education, … These are CSO’s that move in the direction of ‘state’ and/or ‘market’.
  • Well-established CSO’s with advocacy, activist, charitable and/or philanthropic roles and objectives (e.g. Greenpeace, OxFam, World Wide Fund for Nature, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) which interface with in policy making and achieving social outcomes.
  • (Informal) social movements that may come and go quickly, and that advocate for a certain cause or set of causes (e.g. Indignado, the 99% movement, #IamCharlie, Occupy). These are also expressions of civil society that situate themselves in the space that links with ‘state’ (advocacy, protest) or with ‘community’.

Our study group will be open for empirical, theoretical and/or conceptual work on this diversity of civil society initiatives. In order to delineate the analytical scope, we take an explicit focus on three analytical angles (cf. below). In addition, we explicitly focus on two major roles civil society plays in the public domain (besides being builders of social capital (cf. Putnam et al. 1993[5]): (1) public service delivery and (2) the more expressive roles of advocacy, political work and interest representation (cf. this dual classification by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, Salamon et al. 1999[6]).

Problem statement

When we compare civil societies internationally, we observe large differences between civil societies in different countries on variables like size, scope, tasks and roles in the public domain. This has been described in detail by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit project (Salamon et al. 1999). Similarly, civil societies are also changing in their nature, roles and tasks as a result of societal trends and evolutions. Depending on the country/civil society in case, we may observe trends and evolutions that impact to a larger or lesser extent on the service delivery and political roles of civil society (in relationship with governments and/or citizens), and on the internal functioning of civil society organizations. We acknowledge that from a comparative perspective, every country has a default position what civil society roles in society or the public domain is concerned (Salamon et al. 1999). This may make some of the issues discussed below more relevant or less relevant, depending on the country/group of countries under scrutiny.

Regarding the political and advocacy roles of civil society, we may observe dynamics in the relations between CSOs and government that point in the direction of ‘resource dependence’, or demands for political loyalty and acceptance of policy choices to be made in exchange for public funding or support. Or CSOs may look themselves for this kind of loyalty because they want to be involved in innovative or effective forms of policy implementation. The result may be that CSOs are becoming more like ‘executing’ agencies, at the detriment of their ‘community-expressive’ or ‘political advocacy’ roles. Ceteris paribus, we may observe new branches of civil society that explicitly refuse this kind of relationship with government and look for (financial) self-provision in order to remain autonomous. We may also observe new relationships with citizens that want to express their concerns and interests to and via CSOs. For example, citizens may increasingly replace their initial long-term membership-affiliation or volunteer engagement (e.g. based on ideological or religious beliefs) by a client-based perspective on engagement and by more privatized, project-based or individualized forms of participation. Also CSOs themselves may be responsible for this evolution, in case they start to treat their rank-and-file more and more as ‘clients’ in an attempt to increase or maintain their legitimacy. The political role of organized civil society may also be put under pressure by more direct forms of citizen-participation organized by governments at the detriment of having traditional organized civil society as the prime sparring-partner for government.

Regarding the service delivery roles of civil society, the relationship between government and civil society may also be in constant evolution. In case the default position is/was that the state outsourced many of the public services to private-not-for-profit CSOs in sectors like education, health care and social work (like many neo-corporatist countries), there may be a shift towards new forms of steering and controlling CSOs in the agency relationship between state and civil society: short term contracts instead of recurrent subsidies, a focus on measuring results with indicators on the quality and quantity of the delivered services, introducing competition for governmental resources, marketization, etc. Moreover, CSOs may be confronted with citizens that become increasingly ‘critical’ and behave as citizen-consumers, seeing the service provided by the CSO as a ‘tradable’ good that can also be replaced by other providers (social enterprises, market, etc.). Or citizens may start to act as co-producers, thereby expecting as much as participation possible in the design, production and evaluating of the services delivered.

Civil society and its organizations may also change from within, in response to new developments, trends and evolutions that put the organizations under pressure. In that case, civil society starts to question established practices and searches for innovations, for example:

  • CSOs are requested to show more ‘entrepreneurship’, resulting in more managerialism focusing on performance in response to a competitive environment. In that case, implicit legitimation based on an ‘institutional’ non-profit logic is no longer sufficient. This will challenge CSOs to rethink their strategies and mission, their management, and their internal governance, in order to be able to deal with new demands from government (accountability, results, and different forms of steering) and citizens (consumers and co-producers).
  • CSOs no longer can claim that they alone are the exclusive interest defenders of certain social groups or communities, in times of individualization and de-pillarization (with decreasing legitimacy of traditional community-based interest representation). The answer may be more cooperative and collaborative relationships between civil society organizations that overcome previous ideological or political demarcations. Or new expressions of a dynamic civil society that may come and go with the urgency of the needs/challenges in case. We may even observe a ‘clash’ or even ‘forced collaboration’ between traditional interest representation (like unions) and new citizens’ initiatives (e.g. movements fighting inequality), which are sometimes more innovative, focusing on a political ‘niche’ and using social media.

Finally, the issues above may also pose challenges for governments and public administrations. The key question to be tackled is how governments and administrations are able to cope with new relations with civil society, and with the emergence of new manifestations of civil society. This question relates to the issues we discussed in Speyer (2014): are governments and administrations ‘fit’ to function in these dynamic governance environments?

We believe a set of relevant questions can be derived from this general problem statement about new dynamics in a sector that is highly relevant for public administration because of the prominent role of many civil societies in the public domain (as advocates or as service deliverers). By this direction, we also respect the ‘history’ of this study group. We pick up with, and build further on, the conclusions of the ‘Third Sector Study Group’ (2007-2009) by focusing on civil society as an explicit focus for the new Study Group. And by focusing on challenges and trends that all in a certain sense relate to ‘governance-issues’, we pick up with the work and conclusions from the ‘Study Group on Public Governance of Societal Sectors’ (2010-2015). The work in the new study group can analytically be organized along three research angles.

Questions to be addressed from three analytical angles

We want to describe, compare and understand current dynamics in civil society on three levels:

(1) government – civil society relations

(2) civil society – citizen relations

(3) internal functioning and organization of civil society initiatives and public administrations in dynamic governance environments where government and civil society interact.

In order to advance the state of the art in research we will apply following strategy:

  • We will only accept papers that meet quality criteria for our purposes:
  • Empirical studies based on original data that address and answer a relevant descriptive or explanatory research question. There are no restrictions as to data used (qualitative and/or quantitative) or methods used (case studies, surveys, interview, meta-analyses, etc.).
  • Theoretical, methodological and/or conceptual papers based on literature reviews are accepted, but these also need to have a clear goal: e.g. the development of a methodological/conceptual/theoretical framework that can be tested in (comparative) empirical research.
  • We will appoint 3 responsible colleagues to co-chair the sessions that deal with our 3 research angles. The idea is that these responsible persons will assist the study group co-chairs in the scientific work on the three research angles: delineating problem statements, drafting the calls, assessing papers, scanning publication opportunities, directions for comparative research, and dissemination. This is a task that not is limited to the (weeks before and after the) conference, and should lead to some ‘permanence’ in dealing with the scientific work over the period 2016-2018.
  • We will dedicate at least one session per conference on each of the three research angles.
  • We will dedicate at least two sessions per conference on scientific valorization and policy relevant impact, comparative research perspectives, and directions for comparative research projects.

Work plan for the period 2016-2018

  • Workshops in the Study Group at the conferences in 2016, 2017, 2018.
  • With a new and recurrent format of (minimal) 5 sessions at the annual conferences:
  • At least 3 topical sessions on the 3 angles with a ‘responsible spokesperson’ for the period’
  • Session on scientific valorization and policy relevant impact (links with similar academic communities, new formats of science-dissemination, etc.)
  • Session on comparative research perspectives (research questions, theorizing, methods) and directions for comparative research projects (funding opportunities, publications)
  • Possibility to topical workshops (cf. 3 research angles and) during the year with a limited number of participants, informally organized, but aimed at things like a joint research project, publication, policy briefings.

Expected outputs

  • Scholarly publications: edited volumes, special issues
  • Exploration of ‘new’ dissemination platforms (social media platforms)
  • Publication of “10 things we did not know before …”
  • Policy briefing papers.



[3] – Pestoff, V., Brandsen, T. & Verschuere, B. (2012). New Public Governance, the Third Sector and Co-Production. Routledge.

  – Brandsen, T., Trommel, W. & Verschuere, B. (eds.) (2014). Manufacturing Civil Society: Principles, Practices and Effects. Palgrave McMillan.

[4] Van de Donk, W. (2008): Maatschappelijk besturen: sector of idee? Brugge: Die Keure, 32p.

[5] Putnam, R.D., Leonardi, R., & Nanetti, R. (1993). Making democracy work. Princeton:. Princeton University Press

[6] Salamon, L., Anheier, H. K., List, R., Toepler, S., & Sokolowski, S. W. (1999). Global civil society. Johns Hopkins Center for

Civil Society Studies.

International Institute of Administrative Sciences
6th Floor C Block
Rue du Commerce 96
1040 Brussels (Belgium)
Phone : +32-(0)2-536.08.80
Fax : +32-(0)2-537.97.02
E-Mail: [email protected]