One year ago, it was pretty easy to draw a map of power and influence in Ottawa.

All you needed was a pencil and a ruler, and neat, straight lines pointing up and down from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

But the new occupants of that office are making some big changes to the road map of power in Canada. If you are trying to navigate your way through policy-making in the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, your journey will take you down many more winding roads.

It’s all a bit of an adjustment for those inside and outside the halls of power who are trying to come up with policy for a government with activist aspirations, and those who are trying to influence policy decisions.

“I tell people who want to see me: have you talked to the minister yet?” says one of Trudeau’s top policy advisers, who prefers to talk off the record. “There’s no sense coming to me unless you’ve seen the minister first.”

“My job lately with clients is to say, point blank: ‘Why do you need to be in front of the PMO?’” says André Albinati, a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group and head of the Government Relations Institute of Canada.

The word is getting around, says Albinati, that policy-making in the new Liberal government neither starts or ends at the PMO. “Absolutely that’s out there…For people interacting with the government, what I’ve been saying is: get ready for that,” says Albinati, who was a political staffer during the Jean Chrétien years.

The switch from Stephen Harper’s strong, central command to Trudeau’s “cabinet government,” which is how insiders ask you to describe it, is still very much a work in progress. The cabinet has heard multiple times from Sir Michael Barber — a veteran of the old Tony Blair government — including at the cabinet retreat in Kananaskis, Alberta, this week. Barber is an expert on what’s called “deliverology” – giving citizens results they can see and measure from their governments on well-defined priorities. The policy branches across government are busy these days adapting to the new normal, reporting regularly to the Privy Council Office (PCO) on now more granular policy objectives. (Matthew Mendelsohn, a former Ontario deputy minister and ex-director of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, is now leading the PCO’s results and delivery unit.)

One question that remains is can any government deliver results without governing from the centre? Centralization in the federal government didn’t happen by accident. As the world got more complicated and demands for accountability grew, politicians responded with sharper, simpler lines of authority and action.

People may have bristled under Harper’s management approach, but it was simple to follow — all power flowed to and from the top. A vivid glimpse of that leadership style was provided in the trial of Senator Mike Duffy and the verdict, as well as the scathing ruling from Justice Charles Vaillancourt. Trudeau has promised to govern very differently. So things are getting a bit more complicated in the new Liberal Ottawa — policy-making is effectively being crowd-sourced. Everyone — from ministers to Commons committees to public servants, even people outside government — is being asked to come up with policy options.

Everyone — from ministers to Commons committees to public servants, even outsiders to government — is being asked to come up with policy options.

The full cabinet meets at least two to three times a month, and ministers are being asked to arrive bearing memorandums to cabinet that outline the options to be thrown on the table for discussion. This month’s unfolding tragedy in Attawapiskat, a remote First Nations community where there have been about 40 suicide attempts since March, is an example. The ministers of health and of Indigenous affairs were asked to come up with solutions in the past few weeks and present them to cabinet. “It’s not like PMO is driving this and using the ministers for a photo op here and there. The ministers are driving our response,” one PMO source said.

To complicate things further, ministers have been told to collaborate with the provinces and all kinds of stakeholders — the marching orders are right there in the mandate letters. So, as often as not, when lobbyists do try to press the new government on issues, says Albinati, the ministers will pointedly ask where things stand with people affected by the proposed policy. “In that kind of activist environment, you better engage,” says Albinati. “You better have a view and talk about that, and let that view be known, because, absent that, others will.”

As well, the Trudeau government’s first budget, released in March, was filled with “to be continued” items — a clear signal, PMO sources say, that this government is only just getting started on some big policy decisions. The big-ticket stuff in the budget, such as the new child-benefit program, they add, only landed fully formed in the budget because the Liberals had spent two years working out the details while they were in opposition. Other matters, such as defence policy and health care, are going to be negotiated in the months and years ahead.

Reportedly, when Finance Minister Bill Morneau drew up his budget drafts he deliberately left blanks in areas for full cabinet to debate and discuss. “There was more cabinet in this budget than people expected,” one PMO source said.

Commons committees are also taking policy into their own hands. Health Minister Jane Philpott was reminded when she appeared before the Health Committee earlier in April that the MPs have decided, on their own steam, to launch a study into whether pharmacare is feasible for Canada. Philpott gently reminded the MPs, “it’s not part of my current mandate,” but she also said she “really, genuinely” looked forward to what the committee might propose.

Still, there’s no guarantee that cabinet will go along with committee suggestions. Take a look, for instance, at the glaring differences between the report from the Special Joint Committee on Assisted Dying and the proposed legislation, Bill C-14. While the committee called for a broad, expansive view on who would be allowed to end their lives with medical assistance, the legislation was far more specific, limiting the right to those who are terminally ill and rejecting the idea of advance consent. Committee chair Rob Oliphant has said he was not consulted in the drafting of the Bill, which shows that there is still a big gap between listening to parliamentarians and acting on their advice

Rob Fonberg spent decades in the public service, serving as deputy minister of defence and international trade, and with Treasury Board and the PCO. For a half year before he left government, he worked on a paper about the challenges facing policy development in the public service.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Fonberg agrees with others still in government that this culture switch demands that public servants rediscover some reflexes that may have atrophied over the past decade. The new Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, told the Ottawa Citizen bluntly that the current public service is “a bit of a fixer-upper,” and that big reforms would be needed to implement Trudeau’s agenda.

That’s in no small part a legacy of the previous decade. Veterans of Harper’s years in power say that there was less interest in having the bureaucracy come up with arrays of options and more emphasis on the PMO or PCO shaping policy around one preferred course of action. Crackdowns on lobbying and conflict made ministers and officials risk-averse to holding discussions with business people and other stakeholders.

Veterans of Harper’s years in power say that there was less interest in having the bureaucracy come up with arrays of options.

Fonberg says that the public service can’t “own” the market on policy advice or evidence as some perhaps once believed it did back in the good old days. The world has moved on. In his paper, presented to the PCO in 2014, he noted that “just about anyone with a smart device can participate in a policy dialogue,” and that those dialogues can be informed by what’s going on in other countries. “Structured networks and network effects provide real-time gateways to a much larger pool of policy knowledge and ideas than has ever been available before, and at a very low cost,” Fonberg wrote.

PMO insiders acknowledge they’re still grappling with these realities. “This is a nut we have to figure out how to crack,” says one. “We’re going to continue to try and figure out how we engage with outside sources of expertise so it’s not just Ottawa-driven policy.”

The rap against all this loose, wide-open “cabinet government” is that it becomes less nimble. Advocates of Harper’s approach argue that it may have been strict and disciplinarian, but it also avoided getting bogged down in process.

Policy-makers in this PMO argue that the opposite is true – you can only be nimble if you delegate tasks widely throughout government. Harper may have been able to keep his hand on all files because he believed in minimalist government, but the Liberals came to power with a broad, wide-ranging platform.

“If everything (in that agenda) is waiting for the centre to make a decision, waiting for the Prime Minister’s personal involvement, you just will not be able to get enough stuff done and we will not be able to respond rapidly enough to events,” one PMO source said.

They acknowledge that there’s still some big skepticism within the public service about “deliverology,” but they insist that simply turning attention to results has already changed thinking within the bureaucracy. Right now, though, it’s probably fair to say that “deliverology” is still more a state of mind than a new way of doing things. The big work on results-based governance, for instance, is mainly happening in two places — in Treasury Board and in the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communication.

That committee is expected to have more to say soon about a few focused goals for the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the minister in charge of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, is in the midst of a complete overhaul of how departments report on their plans, priorities and past performance. Rather than have departments focus on how many dollars or public-service hours are invested in government initiatives, these reports will measure according to the tangible goals achieved. Through this perspective, for instance, a budget announcement of $8.4-billion for Indigenous issues is less significant than the goal of ending boil-water advisories on reserves (also announced in the budget). One is an abstract figure, the other is a measurable target.

The last government was often accused of coming up with policies for purely political reasons to court future voters. On this score, the new government won’t be that different (though the voters they’re courting probably are). Dan Arnold, the polling expert who worked in the Liberal Party for two years up to the recent campaign, is now installed at PMO as the head of research and advertising, constantly analyzing how proposed policies are landing with Canadians. So yes, ultimately public opinion is going to be driving policy.

“It should matter, and policy-makers on the political side should be thinking about that constantly — how will our actions be judged by the electorate in a few years’ time?” said one PMO source.

One straight, clear road remains, then, on the more complicated map being drawn by the new Liberal government – the road to 2019 and the next election. Power may be spread out more widely throughout the corridors of government, but staying in power is still the ultimate goal.

This article is part of the Policy-Making in the Trudeau Government special feature.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ?  Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Susan Delacourt
Susan Delacourt is a political columnist with the Toronto Star and Ipolitics, and teaches journalism and communication at Carleton University. She is the author of four books, the latest, Shopping For Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, was a finalist for the Hilary Weston-Writers Trust prize in nonfiction in 2014. The recently released paperback version includes details of the 2015 Liberal election victory. She was awarded the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy reporting in 2014 and the Charles Lynch Award for career-long reporting on Parliament Hill in 2011.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this