On May 6, 2013, I joined the Prime Minister’s Office as senior adviser on legal affairs and policy. Nine days later, journalist Bob Fife broke the story that Stephen Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright had secretly written a personal cheque to cover Senator Mike Duffy’s contested living expenses. Fife’s scoop instantly became the biggest political news story of the year. Police court filings provided a rare peek behind the blinds of the Langevin Block, the staid Second Empire edifice on Wellington Street that houses both the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) and the senior public servants of the Privy Council Office (PCO).
What do PMO staffers really do? How much power do they really wield? Can they be dismissed as bungling “kids in short pants,” that favourite epithet of frustrated MPs? Or are they more nefarious, the “25-year-old jihadis” and “ruthless, cutthroat psychopaths” of Bob Rae’s and Elizabeth May’s respective phrases? Throughout the summers of 2013 and 2015, the media and the public were provided an insight into life in a partisan political office, albeit under extremely unusual circumstances. The impression was not edifying. In his new book, Backrooms and Beyond: Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada, University of Toronto professor Jonathan Craft undertakes a much deeper examination of the role of partisan political staff (“exempt staff,” in Ottawa parlance). It is a thoughtful and reassuring guide for those left confused or concerned by the limited insights of the Duffy trial.
Craft’s purpose is to update the academic literature on the function of exempt staffers within Canada’s political system, which since the 1950s has followed a path of institutionalization, then expansion and finally specialization. In an early chapter, Craft sketches this progression, dating the institutionalization of partisan policy advisers to the appointment of former journalist Tom Kent as a “special policy adviser” to Mike Pearson in 1963; Kent was the first to fill a role that was subsequently expanded by Pierre Trudeau and has been consolidated under all subsequent prime ministers.
The contemporary research that underpins the rest of the book is drawn from more than 65 interviews with current and former exempt policy advisers, elected ministers and career public servants in three jurisdictions: the federal government, British Columbia and New Brunswick. Craft chose them for the varied sizes and complexities of their governments. He quotes extensively from these interviews to describe the inner workings of the various systems, while also drawing general conclusions that are illustrated in the book’s concluding chapter in a series of charts mapping the different paths by which advice flows in each case.
Communications staff, issues managers, stakeholder relations staff, regional affairs advisers and strategic planning staff are all also part-time policy advisers.
Given the thoroughness of his analysis, it’s easy to see why Craft decided to focus solely on policy advisers, rather than looking at the many different roles that exempt staff play in a minister’s or first minister’s office (Parliament Hill staffer Daniel Dickin recently described some of these roles). But isolating the role of policy advisers is like plotting the track of a single atom in Brownian motion: you can’t truly understand their work without considering all the surrounding forces. In their own way, communications staff, issues managers, stakeholder relations staff, regional affairs advisers and strategic planning staff are all also part-time policy advisers, though they don’t carry the title. Strong and well-grounded (or sometimes just vocal and insistent) interventions around a briefing table from any of those staffers can form, shape or kill a government policy. You cannot really understand the role of a policy adviser except in relation to these other actors.
Even with this limitation, Backrooms astutely identifies the factors that make political staff so important to both ministers and the public service. First, because of their physical proximity to ministers and prime ministers, political advisers have the ear of power more frequently than public servants. Even a junior policy adviser is likely to have much more personal contact — and longer and more candid discussions — than the most senior public servants. In accordance with George Ball’s Rule of Power, that “nothing propinks like propinquity,” this makes political advisers an effective informal conduit of information to and from politicians. Repeatedly, Craft quotes public servants describing how helpful it is to “signal check” with political staff to ensure their work is consistent with the (sometimes evolving) expectations of their ministers.
Craft’s second recurring insight, and the main reason why political advisers have become an essential part of government, is that having someone with one foot in the “technical-advisory” world and the other in the “partisan political” world allows public servants to focus on the former while being shielded from the latter. He finds ample and unanimous gratitude for this division of responsibilities. “It’s really important that theirs is a separate channel of political advice, and knowing that that’s happening does make it easier,” reported one “senior PCO official.”
While Craft’s interviews are impressively broad, his sample size is unfortunately too small to capture all the nuances of multiple governments at both federal and provincial levels over their full terms. Craft’s account of Harper’s PMO, for example, relies mostly on interviews conducted in 2011 and thus does not capture the experience of a majority government, which differs from the short-term focus of a minority government. It reflects a PMO advisory process still in development, undergoing a transition from mostly oral advice to a formal, written memorandum process. By the time I arrived in 2013, every decision, from tour scheduling to the decision to expand RCAF bombing into Syria, was meticulously documented, culminating in a signed directive to PMO or PCO, as applicable.
The Clerk asked Harper what he would miss most about the job. “Being prime minister,” he replied, gesturing at the stacks of paperwork on his desk.
This is probably the sort of system that Ottawa observers would expect from a policy-driven prime minister who relished the daily grind of reading, thinking and decision-making. I was in the room when Harper held his last formal meeting with the Clerk of the Privy Council after the 2015 election. The Clerk asked Harper what he would miss most about the job. “Being prime minister,” he replied and, gesturing at the stacks of paperwork on his desk, added, “Doing this.” By contrast, Craft describes the “mostly oral” policy process under Paul Martin as “fluid, chaotic, disjointed, and quite simply unorganized.”
The relationship between ministries and the PMO is also somewhat more complicated than Backrooms is able to capture through interviews. In my experience, it depended as much on personal experience as on structural dynamics. Ministers and ministerial office staff who had not worked in PMO (or at least Finance or Treasury Board, the other so-called central agencies) lacked a whole-of-government perspective, which sometimes led to resentment of the “Centre.” At least some of the perceived lack of respect that some ministers felt, and which they blamed on a hypercentralized government, was attributable to different perspectives: what seems urgent and pressing in a particular ministry may be only the 10th most important item on the overall government agenda that day. Like it or not, there are limited budget dollars and limited space on the legislative agenda. Ministers and their staff would often bridle when something that they considered a priority was bumped off the cabinet agenda or delayed, or when a favoured project of a minister did not survive the budget process, but someone had to make the difficult decisions and the most obvious person was the Prime Minister.
To be fair, the limitations of perspective worked both ways. Harper’s lack of experience as a cabinet minister often led to his frustration at the challenges of policy implementation. PMO staff without experience in a line ministry often displayed a similar lack of understanding, blaming ministerial staff for delays, diversions or unexpected costs that were a normal part of complex policy development within the constraints of a government bureaucracy.
Craft’s hypothesis that the role of political staff is becoming increasingly specialized is in part predictive, but appears well on the way to fulfilment. As political staff become more entrenched in the policy-making process, governments are increasingly hiring advisers with practical experience or specialized credentials. In the PMO policy group I joined, the six full-time policy advisers held between them three PhDs, two law degrees and two master’s degrees. Academically, at least, our team compared favourably with any public service policy team. Nor were we the exception; few directors of policy across government did not have at least one graduate degree. The new Liberal government has so far taken a similar approach, including hiring (for a curiously brief tenure) Roland Paris, a professor of international security and governance at the University of Ottawa, as the PMO foreign affairs adviser and, more recently, Grégoire Webber, a law professor from Queen’s University, to advise the Minister of Justice.
Specialization, however, will never be the absolute rule. Our Westminster model presumes that ministers will not usually be subject matter experts and, as they shuffle between portfolios, they will want some trusted and familiar faces to accompany them. There will always be a role for policy advisers who are simply smart young men and women able to develop on-the-job expertise quickly in successive portfolios.
Social media, Twitter in particular, has provided exempt staff an additional spotlight and a megaphone.
One new aspect of the job that Craft does not address, but that deserves consideration as a potential fourth stage in the development of political staff in Canada, is the public profile that comes with social media. Past advisers to prime ministers and premiers have sometimes been well-known figures within Ottawa or provincial capitals. Social media, Twitter in particular, has provided exempt staff an additional spotlight and a megaphone.
With rare exceptions, Harper’s senior advisers were unknown to the general public (this changed, by accident rather than design, during the Duffy imbroglio). Our mantra was “Staff are not the story,” and we believed, rightly in my view, that staff who drew attention to themselves drew attention away from the Prime Minister, cabinet, caucus and the government’s policies. By contrast, the new government seems happy to let its senior advisers assume the profile of elected politicians, a status usually associated with the American political system. In Washington, where future careers are cultivated via flattering political profiles, staff are expected to play the media game, to give self-aggrandizing personal interviews and pose for glossy photos by Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair. That is their political culture; it has not until now been ours.
Such immodesty carries risks in the real world. Political staff who seek the spotlight risk compromising themselves and their government. If you are thinking about how you look to the public, you are putting your id before your job; if you draw negative attention, you are a distraction and a potential liability; and, most basically, if you are engaging in a Twitter spat with an opposition MP, then you’re not working. Whenever I see non-communications staff posting political messages on social media, I wonder: what do the elected MPs in their party and the career public servants think?
If this new public role for partisan political advisers becomes entrenched, if the development Craft documents from institutionalization to expansion to specialization evolves further in the direction of self-promotion, then Canadian political staffers will truly have moved out of the backrooms and into the beyond.
This is a review of Jonathan Craft, Backrooms and Beyond: Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada (Institute of Public Administration of Canada and the University of Toronto Press, 2016).
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