The Liberal government is about to enter the first full parliamentary year of its mandate, and the policy machinery is already in full motion. Because the House of Commons normally sits for nine months per year – far more often than provincial legislatures – the parliamentary calendar determines the pace and content of the political agenda in Ottawa. This means that to a large extent the policy process also revolves around the parliamentary calendar.

So what exactly are senior policy staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) doing at this time of year, and what are their interactions with political staff and government officials?

There are three primary government “policy streams” that are attended to each fall: (1) the legislative agenda in the House of Commons; (2) cabinet meetings, which resume in earnest with the start of session; and (3) budget meetings, which start to prepare for the tabling in the spring of the government’s budget.

The legislative agenda

The government’s legislative agenda serves to implement policy decisions that have already been finalized. Since House time is limited, a government with an ambitious legislative agenda must prioritize Bills and plan its calendar in advance (of course, the agenda can be adjusted to accommodate urgent matters). Policy staff from the government house leader’s office work with their counterparts in other ministers’ offices and the PMO to determine before the House returns which Bills will be given priority.

While Bills can be amended in response to parliamentary review or even public reaction, policy direction is considered “fully baked,” and the wholesale reversal or withdrawal of legislation is extremely rare. Consequently, while policy staff will review bills before they are introduced to ensure they accurately reflect the government’s intent, once the calendar is finalized, most of the preparation for an upcoming legislative session is focused on communications and managing limited House time.

The cabinet agenda

While the legislative agenda deals with “fully baked” policy decisions, cabinet committees are where the baking begins. These committees of ministers consider new or “in-process” policy proposals, and it is not uncommon for government policy initiatives to pay multiple visits to cabinet, as proposals are amended and refined. Moreover, there are multiple cabinet committees, each with a particular policy focus. Preparation for these meetings will absorb a large proportion of time, for political and bureaucratic staff alike.

Going into the fall session, policy staff in the PMO will meet with their counterparts in the Privy Council Office (PCO) to map out cabinet meetings for the fall. This exercise includes everything from confirming cabinet committee membership (in order to ensure workload is evenly balanced among ministers and that ministers are positioned to consider initiatives of relevance to their portfolios and/or of particular interest to them) to notionally scheduling agenda items (depending on their state of preparedness). Cabinet agendas should ideally focus on initiatives that are stated priorities for the elected government, but there are always other “regular business of government” items that must be dealt with (for example, concluding treaty negotiations).

While cabinet agenda planning continues through the fall, it is crucial that the government has a clear map in place before the parliamentary session begins. Notional cabinet dates spur the “government system” to complete the necessary work; otherwise, the temptation for the bureaucracy is to continually refine it or concentrate on other issues, until time has run out. A preset agenda also seeks to avoid — at least in theory — a “pile-up” of agenda items in the final few meetings of a parliamentary session (though despite best efforts, such pile-ups almost invariably occur, to the great frustration of committee ministers).

Political policy staff will also begin meeting with officials to review the “cabinet readiness” of initiatives within their ministers’ portfolios. Cabinet documents will go through many drafts before they are finalized. At the central level, these readiness reviews can take the form of “four corners” meetings held at the PMO or the PCO, involving the PMO, PCO, relevant departmental officials and ministerial staff. Four corners meetings are normally convened to work through especially complex and difficult files, those involving multiple departments, or items of particular interest to the PMO.

Other cabinet-related meetings in preparation for the return of the House include those held between the PMO, PCO and Treasury Board Secretariat to review the agenda for future spending, based on commitments made in the budget. It’s then up to the Treasury Board cabinet committee to approve specific spending initiatives, which are later tabled in Parliament as part of the supplementary estimates B and C.

Budget meetings

The start of a fall session also signals the beginning of planning for the spring budget. Even before the House returns, policy staff in the finance minister’s office and the PMO will prepare for pre-budget consultation with Canadians (through the finance committee, ministers and caucus), for regular meetings between the finance minister and his/her officials, and for budget meetings with the prime minister. It remains to be seen how closely the current PMO will be involved with budget deliberations; under the previous Conservative government, the shape and content of the annual budget was determined in detailed consultation with the prime minister, his staff and officials from the PCO.

Due to the size and significance of the annual budget, the substance is largely final by January, though refinement work and the writing of the text itself continue into the New Year. Consequently, budget preparations in the fall invariably consume a large proportion of a policy staffer’s time if she or he works in Finance or the PMO/PCO.

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Outside the three primary policy streams, policy staffers will also be holding a number of other meetings in preparation for the upcoming session.

Non-cabinet-related meetings

One of the major parts of any prime minister’s agenda is foreign travel. Fall is often a packed “summit season,” with the G-7/G-20 meetings, among others, on the calendar. While the utility of most international summits is debatable, they do offer an opportunity for the prime minister to meet with other leaders on the margins (an activity that is typically far more beneficial in the long term than the work of the summit itself). In preparation for the prime minister’s fall travel, policy staff and others in the PMO will meet with officials from the PCO to map out Canada’s objectives and coordinate foreign visits with the House calendar, to the extent possible.

Another important but underrated seasonal exercise is the policy review of the regulatory agenda. At the central level, this review is undertaken by the PMO and PCO, using information provided by the Treasury Board Secretariat and individual departments. By way of context, all departments are busy “doing stuff,” into which the political level has very little insight. While much of that work is normal and necessary, regulatory ambitions by a department can catch stakeholders and political staffers by (unpleasant) surprise if they are not paying careful attention. One well-publicized example would have required mandatory registration of canoes and kayaks with the federal government. Much of the ongoing regulatory work has an indeterminate timeframe; however, a portion of it will appear on the Treasury Board agenda for ministerial approval when the House resumes.

Finally, policy staff in the PMO and the minister of justice’s office will normally review the government’s litigation calendar in advance of the fall session. At any one time, the federal government is involved in hundreds of lawsuits covering a broad range of matters. Many of these cases lie dormant over the summer and resume activity in the autumn. Again, without careful monitoring, the arguments put forth by government lawyers or the issues raised in court can come as an unexpected surprise to the executive branch. The current government has wisely established a separate cabinet committee to oversee litigation files, in recognition of the importance of political involvement and direction.

Meetings with other political staff

As the fall session approaches, one of the key preparation events undertaken by political staff in the policy and issues management areas will be “defensive” policy meetings. Events – both anticipated and unanticipated – are the biggest risk to a government’s agenda. It is critically important therefore for policy staff to try to foresee what issues are likely to arise, and to figure out whether they can be addressed through pre-emptive policy responses. The current government’s inclination to consult widely on its policy proposals means that policy staff will be preparing to receive and respond to a raft of reports this fall, on matters such as environmental and electoral reform, economic growth and pipeline construction.

Policy staff at the political and bureaucratic levels will also be busy reviewing and helping prepare materials for significant announcements scheduled for the fall, to ensure that they proceed smoothly. While policy and communications staff have very different jobs, the reality is that they are closely interlinked. Good policy cannot assist a government’s electoral fortunes without successful communication efforts, and successful communications events are much more difficult in the absence of a solid policy foundation. Part of the preparation for the fall session, then, will be a coordinated effort by political staff in policy and communications to ensure the government appears in as positive a light as possible.

Meetings with stakeholders

Last, but certainly not least, as the fall session approaches, policy staff in government will be preparing to meet with the many stakeholder groups who arrive in Ottawa to attend conferences and lobby days or to present budget proposals. Ideally, before the House returns, staff will proactively identify stakeholders who need to be consulted in advance of the budget, or they’ll point out particular initiatives that need to be considered at cabinet. More often, however, preparation simply involves blocking off enough time to try to address a small fraction of the meeting requests that flow in.

Even a majority mandate passes quickly, and if a government hopes to achieve what it has pledged to do, it must exercise enormous discipline. The policy process cannot be left to its own devices, in the hope that it will eventually produce favourable outcomes. As the House of Commons prepares to sit again this month, policy staff will be working daily with officials to take stock of where the government stands vis-Ă -vis its promises, to track and refine proposals, to work through problems and anticipate issues, and to present viable options to ministers for decision. As cumbersome as it may appear from within and without, as long as the parties are truly committed to it, the process can and does work in the end to effect better government for Canadians.

Photo: Natalia Pushchina /


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Rachel Curran
Rachel Curran is a lawyer by training, and she has nearly 15 years of experience in public affairs, including extensive experience providing strategic and policy advice to the Prime Minister of Canada and federal and provincial cabinet ministers. As director of policy to former prime minister Stephen Harper, she oversaw all major governmental initiatives including the preparation of the annual $280-billion federal budget.

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