Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics


in Books and literature, Canada, Economics, Geek stuff, Law, Politics

Donald Savoie’s 1999 book is the single-best account I have read of the functioning of Canada’s federal government. It focuses on the growth of the strength of ‘the centre’ of government over the previous thirty years, meaning the prime minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Privy Council Office, Department of Finance, and Treasury Board Secretariat. It discusses every important actor in Canada’s federal government, with specific attention paid to the prime minister, cabinet, deputy ministers, the Clerk of the Privy Council, line departments, the Public Service Commission, and so on.

The overwhelming message is about the new dominance of the Prime Minister: over cabinet colleagues, the central agencies, and over parliament itself, which Savoie argues has a diminished capacity to hold the government to account. Savoie devotes considerable attention to the internal structures and machinery of the civil service, as well as the incentives experienced by individuals within it.

I strongly recommend the book for civil servants (especially those who deal with the central agencies or aspire to join them) and for anyone with a strong interest in how Canada’s government functions.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan August 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm

My comp notes on the book:

Focused on the machinery of government. The central agencies “shape policy, government decisions, government operations, and federal-provincial relations to a far greater extent than has been generally assumed.” (ix) The centre is defined here as the PM, PMO, cabinet, and the central agencies (including the Public Service Commission and Intergovernmental Affairs secretariat). These are the gatekeepers of the cabinet decision process. Trudeau created the modern PMO, and subsequent PMs have stuck with the same basic approach. The centre is an “early warning system” for the PM. (336)

The PM “towers above his cabinet colleagues.” (73) Constraints on the PM are – most importantly – time, and also the need to have a balanced cabinet and maintain the perception of mastery over it. MPs have high turnover, so there is a relatively shallow pool of experience for the PM to draw on in choosing a cabinet. (324) Exacerbated by need for regional balance, etc.

The media has become more demanding and intrusive. Now an important political actor, to which the centre is very sensitive.

“The bottom line is PCO is into risk management” (134) PCO is “the nerve centre of the federal public service.” Oka crisis urgently managed by them. Prepares mandate letters for ministers. (137)

Finance monopolizes economic policy. (156) Now very pro-market. Controls the budget process.

TBS central to efforts to reform the public service. The Treasury Board is the only cabinet committee supported by its own secretariat. “Finance’s poor cousin” (195)

Deputy ministers play a special role. (277) Appointed by PM on the clerk’s advice. One priority: keeping their ministers out of trouble.

The extent of the power of the centre signals institutional change and failure: “Parliament is increasingly failing to hold the government to account.” (339) “Opposition members of Parliament, perhaps because they have such limited access to policy advice, are free to walk in the unconstrained world of make-believe.” (341)

Decks introduced in 1983. (153) “Largely empty of analysis.” ATIP has made officials wary of writing things down (290) The centre only trusts itself to oversee overall management, especially when it comes to national unity and federal-provincial relations.

. August 21, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Notes on: Savoie, Donald. Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom. 2008:

Largely similar in theme to “Governing from the Centre” – though it highlights how trends in the UK have been similar. Focuses on “the relationship between elected politicians, bureaucracy, and citizens”. (3) “An uneasy alliance, a kind of love-hate relationship, from the very beginning.” (7) Skills of politicians and senior civil servants are converging. (19)

The civil service has ceased to be appealing to many of the best and brightest – lack of clarity about whether you can actually accomplish anything there. “Serious morale problem” in both Canada and UK. (x) “I have come to the conclusion that our national, political, and administrative institutions are in urgent need of some rethinking. They are beyond repair.” (xi)

Powerful new “voices” have emerged, and access to information rules have changed the operation of government. (71, 160) Time of difficulty largely began in 1970s. Growth in the power of the media. (157) Expectations and procedures relating to loyalty in government have changed. (192) Loss of institutional memory, with commensurate loss of ability to speak truth to power. (254)

“The policy role of civil servants now is less about having an intimate knowledge of a relevant sector and being able to offer policy options and more about finding empirical justifications for what the elected politicians have decided to do… These skills are much more akin to the political world than those found in Weber’s bureaucratic model.” (228-9)

. August 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm
anon August 21, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Harper has centralized communications and decision-making within the PMO (an ongoing trend since the 1970s) to an unprecedented degree, according to commentators familiar with the public service and Conservative insiders. “The Center” (PMO and Privy Council Office) is clearly the arbiter of even the most routine decisions.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: