Decision-making processes and central agencies in Canada : Federal, Provincial and Territorial Practices - Canada

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While the executive functions of Canada’s parliamentary system of responsible government are vested in the Crown by the Canadian Constitution, in practice these functions are carried out by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as long as they enjoy the confidence of Parliament. These two fundamental institutions of parliamentary government are not defined in either the formal Constitution or in law.

I. Decision-Making Process

The formation of the Ministry and the structure of Cabinet decision-making are among the Prime Minister’s most important prerogatives. However, not all members of the Ministry are members of the Cabinet: there are currently 28 Cabinet Ministers (including the Prime Minister) and nine Secretaries of State. The position of Secretary of State was created in November 1993, to provide additional support to Cabinet Ministers and the government in meeting the objectives set out by the Prime Minister.

As First Minister, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to organize Cabinet and Cabinet committee decision-making, establish the agenda for Cabinet business, and designate committee chairpersons to act on his behalf. There are currently four Cabinet committees:

- the Cabinet Committee for the Economic Union (17);*

- the Cabinet Committee for the Social Union (12);

- the Special Committee of Council (9); and

- the Treasury Board (6).

The Prime Minister may also choose to constitute ad hoc Cabinet committees whenever it is necessary.

Cabinet decision-making is led by certain key statements on government policy and priorities: the Speech from the Throne provides Cabinet with a policy framework, and the Budget exercise, culminating in the tabling of the Estimates, establishes the fiscal framework. These frameworks provide for the overall direction of the government and shape the work of Cabinet committees.

In the longstanding tradition of Cabinet government, only Ministers among the members of the Government caucus attend meetings of the Cabinet and its committees. Secretaries of State are sworn as Privy Councillors, as are Ministers, and may be invited to accompany their portfolio Minister to a Cabinet or Cabinet committee meeting. Parliamentary Secretaries may not do so as they are not members of the Ministry and are not sworn to the Privy Council. The Prime Minister decides whether exceptions are to be made to these conventions. The Secretary to Cabinet attends Cabinet meetings and other officials attend as required.

Generally, Cabinet business consists of proposed actions aimed at implementing the government’s agenda, items of special urgency, parliamentary business, political issues, the review of senior appointments, and any other matter of general concern to Canadians or the government.

Issues are normally brought forth by a Minister in the form of a memorandum to Cabinet which is tendered to the appropriate Cabinet committee after it has been circulated to all Ministers. The Prime Minister expects issues to be dealt with at the committee stage: Cabinet is not used to air introductory or preliminary factors to the issue at hand. It is the Deputy Ministers’ responsibility to ensure that affected departments are adequately informed in advance of the issues before Cabinet. In other words, the bulk of collective ministerial deliberations take place in committee; the Cabinet committee reports are subject to confirmation by Cabinet. This allows Cabinet to concentrate on priority issues and broad policy and political concerns. Ministers are not asked to vote on the various items; once discussions have taken place and Ministers have expressed their views, the Prime Minister calls for consensus. Once a decision has been reached, it is recorded and communicated throughout the government.

II The Prime Minister's Office

The Prime Minister is supported directly by two organizations within his portfolio. The Prime Minister’s Office, is comprised of the Prime Minister’s personal and political staff. The Privy Council Office, serves as the Prime Minister’s public service department and as secretariat to the Cabinet and its committees. While these two organizations differ greatly in their respective roles and mandates, they are sensitive to the need for consultation and coordination in their efforts to best serve the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

The precise role of the Prime Minister’s Office varies according to the personal style and preferences of the Prime Minister in office, and its organization is left entirely to his discretion. The present Prime Minister’s Office, under the direction of the Chief of Staff, is composed of politically-oriented staff members; they are not public servants.

The Prime Minister’s Office provides advice and support to the Prime Minister, as leader of the political party forming the government, on priorities, political strategy and tactics, and political dimensions of policy initiatives. It is organized to ensure national political liaison with Ministers, caucus and the party in general. The Prime Minister’s Office supports the Prime Minister in his role as a Member of Parliament and handles all constituency matters. A team of advisers is also responsible for briefing the Prime Minister on the main affairs concerning the development of Canadian society and the international community.

The support functions of the Prime Minister’s Office include budgeting the Prime Minister’s time, coordinating the Prime Minister’s agenda and travel, and preparing correspondence.

III Central Agencies

In the exercise of their authority, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are supported both by line departments and by central agencies. These central agencies play a key role in the successful formulation and implementation of government policies and programs by overseeing interdepartmental mechanisms of information-sharing, consultation and coordination. They are expected to provide integrated advice and support to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on government-wide issues and concerns.

1. Privy Council Office

The Privy Council Office directly supports the Prime Minister across the full range of his responsibilities as head of government. Under the leadership of the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, the Privy Council Office serves as the Prime Minister’s public service department and secretariat to the Cabinet and its committees.

In support of the Prime Minister’s responsibility to ensure the proper and effective functioning of government, the Privy Council Office provides advice on such matters as the broad organization of government, the appointment of individuals to key positions and the mandates of these senior office holders.

As Cabinet secretariat, a role formalized by Order in Council in 1940, the Privy Council Office is responsible for the smooth operation of the Cabinet. This responsibility entails not only providing secretariat support to the Cabinet and the Cabinet committees, but also providing advice to the Prime Minister on the general structure of the decision-making process. The Privy Council Office provides Cabinet and its committees with the support required to prepare for and conduct meetings: it arranges meetings, circulates agendas, distributes documents, provides advice to the chairperson of each committee on agenda items, and records Cabinet minutes and decisions. The Privy Council Office manages the flow of business to ensure that the decision-making process functions according to the standards set by the Prime Minister.

The Privy Council Office plays a key role in the elaboration of government policy, supporting the Prime Minister in providing leadership and direction to the Government. This role also involves coordination. The Privy Council Office must work closely with line departments, as well as with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Department of Finance to ensure that new proposals are consistent with the Government’s overall objectives and policies, and that all affected interests have been consulted. Once a decision is reached by Cabinet, the Privy Council Office ensures that it is communicated to the affected departments and oversees its effective implementation.

The Privy Council Office also provides leadership and coordination in the federal government’s relations with the provincial and territorial governments. These responsibilities include undertaking liaison with provincial and territorial governments, providing advice on constitutional issues and policy initiatives in light of federal-provincial relations.

The amendments to the Public Service Employment Act passed in December, 1992, confirmed in law the responsibility of the Clerk of the Privy Council as "head of the public service". In that capacity, the Clerk is responsible for the quality of expert, professional and non-partisan advice and service provided by the public service to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. As the most senior Deputy Minister, the Clerk of the Privy Council communicates a vision and a strategic direction for the public service through leadership in the Deputy Minister community. Deputy Minister weekly meetings, Deputy Minister Task Forces, the Coordinating Committee of Deputy Ministers (CCDM) and the Committee of Senior Officials (COSO) are used by the Clerk as means to lead the planning process and to reflect the values of a renewed public service.

The Clerk of the Privy Council is also responsible for conducting performance evaluations of the Deputy Ministers. The Clerk first meets with the Deputy Ministers to discuss their objectives for the upcoming period, at the end of which, Deputy Ministers must prepare a self-assessment of their performance. They are asked to comment on specific areas such as the results they have achieved against the objectives and priorities they had previously identified, the key elements contributing to their success (e.g., their leadership style), and their contribution to the corporate agenda. The Clerk meets with the Minister to seek feedback on the performance of the Deputy, the department and the management team overall. The Committee of Senior Officials (COSO) then meets to discuss and assess the performance of the Deputies based on all the collected input. COSO is composed of the Deputy Ministers of all central agencies, as well as certain Deputy Ministers of line departments who serve on a rotational basis. The final performance ratings are approved by the Prime Minister.

Officers of the Privy Council Office are frequently recruited from line departments and serve within the Privy Council Office for a time, following which they undertake new responsibilities elsewhere in the public service. This type of recruitment allows for the professional development of the public service. Recruited officers bring their unique experience and expertise to the work they perform within the Privy Council Office. When these officers leave the Privy Council Office, it is with a better appreciation of the workings of the central decision-making process and the vital inter-relations that must be considered when developing programs or administering operations.

As described in 1971 by Gordon Robertson, then Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet: "The Prime Minister’s Office is partisan, politically oriented, yet operationally sensitive. The Privy Council Office is non-partisan, operationally oriented, yet politically sensitive. What is known in each office is provided freely and openly to the other if it is relevant or needed for its work, but each acts from a perspective and in a role quite different from the other." Mr. Robertson’s appraisal of the relations between these two organizations remains an accurate assessment of their daily interactions. Despite the important differences in their mandates, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office work in close collaboration to provide the Prime Minister and the Cabinet with high quality advice that takes into account both political and operational considerations.

Consultation mechanisms are in place to facilitate the coordination of advice that is provided to the Prime Minister by the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. The Prime Minister has daily meetings with his Chief of Staff and the Clerk of the Privy Council. During these meetings, the Prime Minister is apprised of the issues of the day that must command his attention; he also raises issues and provides direction. These meetings provide the Chief of Staff and the Clerk with the opportunity to assess both the political and operational considerations that underpin these issues.

2. Treasury Board

The Treasury Board is a committee of Cabinet established by law and composed of six Ministers responsible for the management of government expenditure and human resources in the public service. The Treasury Board is supported in these responsibilities by the Treasury Board Secretariat. While the Department of Finance is responsible for establishing general policy on government revenues and expenditures, the Treasury Board oversees the management of the budget and credits. It also plays a coordinating role in the preparation of the expenditure budget. According to the Financial Administration Act, the Treasury Board can deal with any question concerning financial management, giving it authority over departmental budgets, expenditure, financial commitments, revenue, accounts, personnel management, and all the principles governing the administration of the public service. In sum, the Treasury Board is the employer and general manager of the public service.

3. Department of Finance

The Department of Finance is the second central agency with a coordinating role to play within the decision-making process. The Minister of Finance is responsible for the government’s macroeconomic policy, including tax policy and tax expenditures. It is through the Budget exercise that the Minister of Finance establishes a fiscal framework within which the government’s expenditure management system can operate effectively.

Through close collaboration and consultation, the Department of Finance and the Treasury Board Secretariat ensure the cohesion and effectiveness of the decision-making process. These two agencies, through the Privy Council Office, provide the Prime Minister and Cabinet committees with advice on policy, related funding issues, and the economic impact of proposals before Cabinet. The Department of Finance, in supporting its Minister, maintains a broad socioeconomic analytical capacity.

IV Expenditure Management System (EMS)

The Treasury Board Secretariat and the Department of Finance are the front runners in the implementation of the Government’s Expenditure Management System (EMS). The EMS effects an ongoing review of spending patterns designed to identify opportunities for reallocation of resources to higher priority programs. It allows for better long-term strategic planning and the adjustment of programs and services to available resources through the implementation of departmental Business Plans. The EMS fosters more fiscal responsibility by departments and other government agencies.

In developing the Budget, the Department of Finance will draw upon the results of the Budget consultation process and the advice from policy committees of Cabinet on government priorities and new initiatives. The Minister of Finance will advise on fiscal and expenditure targets, and, working in close concert with the President of the Treasury Board, on expenditure reallocation and reduction options.

The departmental Business Plan is also an important feature of the EMS. In their respective Business Plans, departments are responsible for determining how existing programs must change in order to meet expenditure targets and new government priorities. The Business Plans are intended to extend beyond the traditional review and approval of expenditure authorities to an integrated, strategic view of department-wide resource management that encompasses the human, financial and technological implications of operating current and future programs.

V Staffing of the Federal Public Service

1. Public Service Commission

The Public Service Commission is responsible for the administration of the Public Service Employment Act. The Commission ensures that staffing in the public service is carried out in accordance with merit and fairness, and without discrimination. In carrying out its role in ensuring that qualified candidates are appointed, the Public Service Commission reports to Parliament. The Public Service Commission consists of a President and two other members appointed by the Governor in Council.

The Commission is responsible for the recruitment, selection and appointment of qualified persons to and within the public service. In order to meet the personnel needs of government departments and agencies, the Commission maintains active recruitment programs across Canada. The Commission conducts cyclical reviews of departments acting under delegated authority to ensure that staffing policies are implemented. The Commission provides impartial means of recourse for challenging appointments and for dealing with employee complaints. It is also responsible for delivering some staff training and development programs.

On June 4, 1998, the Prime Minister announced the creation of The Leadership Network, a new horizontal organization within the Prime Minister’s portfolio. It will support the collective management of Assistant Deputy Ministers and assist leaders at all levels of the public service to meet the ongoing challenge of renewal.

2. Governor in Council Appointments

Governor in Council appointments are made to a wide range of positions, including the most senior level of the Public Service. Many of these are very demanding, requiring extensive work and difficult decisions.

Appointments by the Governor in Council are those made by the Governor General on the advice of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada represented by Cabinet and are handled through a distinct process which recognizes the Prime Minister’s prerogative to coordinate or determine all appointments. The Prime Minister is supported by the Director of Appointments within the Prime Minister’s Office who, in consultation with Ministers’ offices, is responsible for identifying high calibre candidates who could be considered for such an appointment. For certain appointments, including Deputy Ministers and Associate Deputy Ministers, the Prime Minister is advised by the Clerk of the Privy Council.

The Privy Council Office plays a supporting role to both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Clerk of the Privy Council on Governor in Council appointments, and works cooperatively with the Director of Appointments in identifying vacancies and interviewing potential candidates. The Privy Council Office ensures that statutory and procedural requirements are met, and advises on issues of feasibility, remuneration and conditions of appointment.

Annex 1 - How Issues Move Through Cabinet

Annex 2 - The Structure of the Federal Government

Annex 3 - Structure of Cabinet Committees

Annex 4 - Privy Council Office - Organizational Chart


* The figure appearing in parentheses indicates the number of Cabinet Ministers who are members of the committee.


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