People caught a glimpse of the work of partisan advisers in ministerial offices in 2013 when an email sent from the PMO to ministers’ offices was leaked. The email requested that political staff prepare a transition binder in advance of an impending cabinet shuffle. This was hardly a new practice—it is a common instrument to help orient new ministers to their new departments and files. It was the tone and nature of the requests that surprised many. Binders were to include “sword” and “shield” issues: a list of weapons ministers could use to promote the government agenda or attack opponents. Also included in the kit were tools to deflect criticisms and defend the government. Not least in the package was a list of department-specific policy “to do” lists. The full checklist included:
1. What to say at Question Period
2. What to expect soon, hot issues, legal actions, complaints.
3. What to expect later, longer-term forecast.
4. What to do, status of mandate items, off-mandate items.
5. What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects.
6. Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer
7. What to attend: upcoming events, meetings and Federal/Provincial/Territorial meetings.
8. Who to appoint: outstanding Governor in Council [appointments] and hot prospects.
9. Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders
10. Private Members Bills – lines and Caucus packages
It was items 5,6 and 9 that were striking. The alerts to ministers on who their friends and enemies were, in a policy and political sense, were frank. The list revealed the adversarial nature and tensions inherent in the political-administrative nexus. It showed that ministers should guard not only against stakeholders—the paid and unpaid advocates and lobbyists from various organizations and policy sectors outside of government—but also the public service who could potentially be ‘enemies’ of the government with particular policy preferences or “pet projects” of their own.
The memo also shed’s light on the extended range of functions performed by the policy advisers who work in the PMO or in ministerial offices. Debate on the purpose and utility of Canadian federal ministerial “exempt” staff has endured for forty years with some calling for a reduced role for advisers while others suggest more capacity is needed.
My research in this field shows that, in most instances, partisan advisers are now active policy workers. We thus need more complete categorizing of how partisan advisers, as components of the political arm of government, engage in policy work and of what impact that work has. I argue that advisers perform four principles policy functions serving as buffers, bridges, movers, and shapers.
I interviewed ministers, their partisan advisers, and senior officials in Ottawa, Victoria and Fredericton. In all three cases, the evidence was clear that advisers often exercise policy influence but in different ways. As “buffers” partisan advisers are direct sources of policy advice. As “bridges,” they are key mechanisms for the integration of policy advice from various sources inside and outside of government. Their buffering and bridging strengthen political control by increasing the contestability of policy advice that makes its way to decision makers. They add value to policy analysis. “Buffering” and “bridging” are typical policy advisory functions. In this sense partisan advisers are among many participants in the advisory system who supply and exchange views in relation to any number of policy issues.
The “moving” and “shaping” functions are newer, and illustrate the unique access of partisan advisers in the policy process. Advisers are often involved in multiple facets of the development of policy, contributing to: definition of policy problems, elaboration of policy options, and working hand in glove with ministers, colleagues, and public servants to shape and shepherd policy through the system.
As privileged actors at the apex of power they “move” and “shape” policy throughout its formulation. In doing so, advisers systemically engaged in policy work that provided political perspective and oversight by way of their involvement in coordination, process management, content-based alignment and calibration. This work is a key vehicle by which partisan advisers can increase public service “responsiveness” and ensure the policy agenda of government materialized.
Premier’s and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) staff were uniquely placed to undertake important horizontal administrative/technical and “front-end” formulation activities. In all cases this set of actors was found to benefit public service policy-making instruments and participate in formal policy-making processes. This is unsurprising as PMO and premier’s office staffs have long been noted as influential policy actors. However what was surprising were differences in how they undertook that work, who they interacted with in doing it, and differences in what they emphasized as important in their policy functions.
Comparatively, ministers’ offices were however not all created the same. Ottawa’s ministerial offices were larger, more sophisticated, and were clearly active policy workers who served important functions vis-à-vis their departments, and also as sources of policy capacity for the PMO to draw upon. Victoria advisers too were quite clearly engaging in moving and shaping in policy development but did not benefit from the capacity or instruments available to their Ottawa counterparts. In Fredericton ministers’ offices were more active on the advisory front and far less engaged in formal policy development.
In all three jurisdictions ministerial advisers often serve as important bridges to officials and facilitate important resource exchanges. They are often at the table, for example, when the initial appraisal of what is politically feasible is debated. They are also present when formal and informal stakeholder consultations on specific pieces of legislation are undertaken. Most characterized them as conduits for the transmission of pertinent policy or political information and pointed to their usefulness in lubricating the circulation of policy advice in and around the core executive of government.
On content or substantive grounds, “shaping” has clear and direct linkages with attempts to “align” governmental policy formulation with the substantive policy direction or preferences of ministers/government. For example, it may involve administrative-technical calibration or refinement of options being developed by officials based on evidentiary or consistency preferences. Alternatively, partisan-political shaping served to increase political control through improved alignment of government’s policy objectives with stated partisan-political preferences communicated during elections, in platforms, or with key political “stakeholders.”
Partisan advisers are engaged in the integration of external advisory policy feedback and input. They attend meetings, witness parliamentary committee hearings, conduct formal and informal consultations and interact with the policy environment. In all three capitals a broad spectrum of respondents to my interviews were clear that their roles extended far beyond their minister’s office.
It is clear that while the public service remains the primary source of much of the advice that goes to ministers, partisan advisers were at times considered subject matter experts, and always engaged in advisory activity that served to contest or supplement policy advice coming from elsewhere. The priority for partisan advisers is to ensure that a political lens had been applied to any advice, and that sufficient options and sources of advice were made available to decision-makers.
These findings help us gain a better understanding of the politics of policy work. They suggest a contemporary political-administrative relationship where partisan advisers and public servants work separate spheres but also engage regularly in overlapping activities. The collective aim being to help the ministers get to the optimal decision. Likewise, how partisan advisers go about giving or brokering advice, how they engage in the substance and processes of formal policy development, and with whom they interact along the way can differ in important ways. This helps gain an improved and more accurate picture of if and how they exercise influence in policymaking.
Jonathan Craft is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. This article is based on findings published in Backrooms and Beyond Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work published by the University of Toronto Press this month.