The Policy Process

Week 9

Class coordinators

Lewis MacPherson, Colin Marshall


Government has expanded its roles over the course of the 20th century, and the policy-making roles of government have become progressively more important. I think the best description of policy-making in Ottawa comes from Glen Milne, a veteran of the first Prime Minister Trudeau’s PCO. For more than 30 years he has been teaching civil servants in Ottawa how to navigate the policy market place. We’ll consider policy instruments and mechanisms for ensuring accountability. The shifting roles of the central agencies, especially PMO, PCO, and TBS, deserve exploration.

Learning objectives

Explain the policy market place in Ottawa and suggest means for navigating it.

Key terms: Public policy, Model (Initiation; Priority-Setting; Policy Formulation), Policy Instruments (Privatization; Symbolic response; Exhortation; Tax expenditures; Public expenditures; Regulation; Taxation; Public ownership; State of emergency), Evidence based policy, Deliverology

Required reading


Weekly activities can be adjusted by class coordinators in consultation with the professor
Week 9 checklist of material

[1] Introduction from class coordinator – time allocation
[2] Current events of political significance (domestic, international) [60s]
[3] Review/amend focus of learning objectives [5D]
[4] Key terms [5D, GLI]
[5] Critical Approaches and Studying Politics [5D, GLI]
[6] External resources [class coordinator]
[7] Exam questions [5D, GLI]
[8] Looking ahead: next week’s class coordinator introduces (last 15 minutes)

Suggested resources

Presentation – Public Administration, Policy Making, and Lobbying (75 slides)
I have arranged the suggested resources this week to form a sequence of enquiry for those who  wish to pursue the question of policy further.  I strongly recommend that you do so.  It is in four parts: organization and accountability, deliverology, nudging the public, and some big-picture policy questions that lead us into next week’s discussion of interests.

Organization and Accountability

Begin with Dyck, chapter 20, and the 1999 document, Organization and Accountability: Guidance for members of the CF and employees of DND. Recall that Organization and Accountability was written in the wake of the Report of the Somalia Commission of Enquiry. You should read at least the first two paragraphs of the executive summary at the link.  Organization and accountability aimed to fix the politicization of the armed forces by separating military responsibilities of the CDS from the political responsibilities of the DM.  This presentation summarizes the key points from organization and accountability and puts them in the context of material already covered in the course.

How the government interacts with the armed forces and how the armed forces interacts with both government and society are fundamental questions of policy for liberal democracies. But they are a special case of the more general question of how government and its servants interact with society. We have already addressed this in considering public servants appointed competitively by merit through the Public Service Commission, or by political appointment, through the Appointments Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office.


We have discussed central agencies, and their general role in supporting cabinet for making policy. But we should be aware that the institutions of government, including the relationship between government and public servants is changing. For nine years under Prime Minister Harper, cabinet mistrusted parts of a public service perceived to be too large, too prone to spend money, and probably too Liberal. The Conservative mandate was to reduce the size and cost of government to tax payers. Former Deputy Minister Ruth Hubbard and University of Ottawa political scientist Gilles Paquet have explored the evolving concept of “decentralized meta-governance” as a means of trying to get more out of the public service. But their exploration of what was actually going on by probing the minds of senior public servants helps to explain why many of the policy initiatives did not work quite as intended.


An earlier book by Donald Savoie, Breaking the Bargain, helps to explain the loss of trust and accountability between Ministers and their deputies. His more recent book, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Governments Decide and Why, helps to explain the relentless expansion of policy support at the expense of public services – a problem not reversed by the Harper reforms, partly because of the increasing centralization of decision-making in the executive, a subject dealt with in another Savoie book, Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the UK.  This takes us back to the role of the executive, which reinforces the point that the public service (last week’s topic) executes policy (this week’s topic) in response to the direction of the executive.


It has long been a problem of executives that it is difficult to get things done. This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to any place or field of human endeavor – the “fog of war” has analogues in every business, and in every aspect of government and governance. Sir Michael Barber ran the “delivery unit” of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in the UK, and has written the book, How to Run a Government So that Citizens Benefit and Tax Payers don’t go crazy. This takes the form of a practical guidebook, complete with 57 rules about setting priorities, organizing government, strategy, planning, routines, problem-solving, irreversibility, other people’s money, and some of the changes coming. It’s an impressive summary of some really serious thinking about the difficulty of turning policy in deliverable results in a fractious democracy.

Deliverology has the attention of the Trudeau government. One former Conservative senior policy advisor, Rachel Curran, has written that deliverology is not well suited to the Canadian political system, which limits what the Federal government can actually do. We should remember that the UK is a unitary system, and Westminster has greater power in comparison to Ottawa’s constitutional competition with ten provincial capitals on the key files of health, education, welfare, and infrastructure.


At least as important as the idea of structuring government to deliver results is the idea that public policy can be based on evidence of what works.  This is another idea we can attribute to the Blair government, which declared itself free of the crippling left-right ideological battles of Labour vs Conservatives.  They wouldn’t have a leftist or a rightist policy, they said, but one that collected evidence and adjusted according to the evidence to deliver results. Evidence-based policy is possible in areas where results can be measured, and both medicine and social policy have benefited from systematic measurement and analysis.


Delivering on policy may require large scale behaviour change.  Maybe people have to save more for the retirements in order for national pension plans to work. Maybe they need to choose healthier lifestyles for public health care to be affordable. We are being nudged, or more often blindsided and bulldozed, every day in thousands of ways by commercial interests that have no more noble motive than profit–pushed to take on debt, drink sugar, ingest carcinogens, and eat fat-sugar-and-salt fast food.  Free markets with powerful actors that fight public regulation are part of our public policy environment. Behavioural psychology has been at the disposal of corporate marketers for more than a century. Nudging for the public good is a new approach which promises serious payoffs, if it can be removed from the realm of the ideological and focused on evidence-based policy. An example of a nudge is the default to save 10 percent of a pay cheque in an RRSP, from which you would have to consciously opt out. See:

Thaler and Sunstein (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin.

Benjamin Friedman (2008) Guiding Forces New York Times

Big policy questions

Let’s think about some of the really big policy questions. Should we have free markets or should government step up and regulate oligopolies to create more competition, or redistribute incomes? Should government consistently balance its books, or should it be prepared to run a deficit to stimulate the economy? These cannot be addressed by evidence alone, because what is good for one group may be bad for another, or may be perceived as bad. Austerity and small government, with a low tax burden, is great if you have a high income, but if you depend on government services, or if you are a public sector worker, then it spells real hardship

Blyth (2013) Austerity: History of a Bad Idea (author on youtube)
Barber (2015) How to Run a Government
Canada Gazette

Next up

With the shift from policy to interests, we are moving from response to stimulus. Interest groups and social movements fall in the civil society bubble – the voices not under control of government, while all the policy and public service elements are available to respond to those pressures.  On the introductory diagram, we will begin with political parties (closest to getting their hands on the steering wheel of power) and move back to interest groups and movements, all of them operating in public space, using the hardware and software of political infrastructure. Again, there will be a class choice between wide and shallow and or narrow and deep coverage of several of the issues.