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The Third Sector

By Henry Lamb
web posted August 11, 2003

A new mechanism of governance is emerging. Georgetown University calls it "The Third Sector." The United Nations calls it "Civil Society." The President's Council on Sustainable Development calls it "...a new, collaborative decision process." Whatever it's called, it is a process to formulate public policy by non-elected individuals, unencumbered by the legislative process.

The process was developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the United Nations. As the IUCN developed its land management policy proposals, a network of "civil society" organizations, called BIONET, was created to promote the policy proposal and to lobby U.N. delegates. As the IUCN developed its climate change policy proposals, a network of "civil society organizations, called Climate Action Network was created to promote the policy proposals and to lobby U.N. delegates.

The same process created the Women's Environment and Development Organization; the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives; the International Action Network on Small Arms, and many other "networks" of special interest groups, largely funded by the U.N. and sympathetic governments.

The process has been incredibly successful at the international level. It is rapidly becoming equally successful in the United States.

In 1995, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a "network" of special interest groups, banded together to urge UNESCO to declare Yellowstone National Park a World Heritage Site "In Danger." The designation required a willing Clinton-Gore administration to impose additional land use restrictions on private property beyond the park's boundary. Neither local, state, nor federal elected officials had any say in the matter.

Throughout the 1990s, the President's Council on Sustainable Development spawned hundreds of these "networks" to focus on specific issues, such as the Sierra Club's "Smart Growth" programs, and to work at the local and regional levels to generate visions of smart growth for nearly every community.

These special interest groups are often called "visioning" councils, or "stakeholder," or "watershed" councils. They are designed to appear to be representative of the affected community. Most often, however, they consist of individuals who are government employees or executives or staff of special interest groups, with only a token number of carefully selected elected officials and business leaders.

The process of consensus building to achieve "collaborative" decision making has been refined to an art. In a given community, the appropriate council is chosen and begins meeting to discuss the future of the community. When the council is fully formed, and a couple of "day-glow" big-wheels have been recruited, a public announcement explains how the wonderful "citizens'" vision will unfold.

At the public meetings, a paid facilitator leads the group to choose from several options in several categories - transportation, zoning, education, economic development - until a final set of proposals is developed, which is then presented to the governing body for adoption and implementation. Rarely do the elected officials have the necessary information, or the political will, to oppose this vision developed by the "citizens" of the community.

In reality, it is not a vision of the citizens of the community. Ordinary citizens are rarely even notified of the meetings. When they do show up to ask questions, they are often ridiculed, marginalized, and dismissed. When complete, virtually every one of these plans contain the elements recommended in Agenda 21, and by the President's Council on Sustainable Development.

Councils created to represent trans-boundary jurisdictions have even less input by ordinary citizens or elected officials. When a multi-jurisdictional plan is developed, and presented to the various jurisdictions, they either adopt it, or risk political ridicule, and even the loss of federal funds.

These special interest groups - The Third Sector - are deeply embedded in the policy-making process. The American Planning Association was funded by the government to produce model legislation for state governments. The Center for Civic Education has the exclusive authority to write the Civics curriculum for federally funded public schools. The Nature Conservancy, and similar groups, are used by government to buy private property, which is then resold to the government for a profit.

This new mechanism of governance has become so prevalent that Georgetown University has developed a special Ph. D. program to train special interest organization leaders to be even more effective. The great danger in this emerging new system of governance is the absence of accountability. If citizens don't like the policies developed by these special interest groups, who do they un-elect?

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization, and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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