Seen and Heard: Politics & Policy in the PMO

Alexa Greig

“I’m here because we were fired by the voters,” noted Sean Speer, in his opening remarks. Beside him, Chaviva Hosek nodded knowingly. Later in the discussion, she matter-of-factly added: “All democratic governments lose elections, thank god. They have to.”

These quotes reflect the candid nature of a recent conservation with two people who have worked in the inner circles of the Prime Minister’s Office — where the political and the policy-oriented co-exist in a tenuous, but crucial, relationship.

On Friday, March 11, the School of Public Policy and Governance hosted Professor Chaviva Hosek and SPPG Fellow Sean Speer for an insightful seminar discussion on the relationship between political staffers and the public service in the federal government. Hosek served as Director of Policy and Research for the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, while Speer is a former special advisor to the Right Honourable Stephen Harper. The event was moderated by Professor Mel Cappe, a former Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the Cabinet, and Head of the Public Service in Ottawa.

Non-partisan public servants in the Privy Council Office (PCO), the primary central agency of the government, set the agenda for the Cabinet and Cabinet committees, and coordinate line department proposals submitted to Cabinet for consideration.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), on the other hand, houses the Prime Minister’s closest appointed political advisors, many of whom have worked for the Prime Minister for several years. On behalf of the Prime Minister, the PMO sets the political agenda and manages issues of all sorts as they arise.

Despite the stark difference in their constituent parts, there is an inherently close relationship between senior PCO and PMO staff, as they share levers to the main coordinating function of government. They rely on one another for expertise on the machinery of government and for the political judgment necessary to achieve success in government. They work in tandem.

A growing body of research and news articles have suggested that politically appointed partisan advisors, in the PMO and in Minister’s offices, act as influential policy actors in the executive branch of government. At this assertion, of course, the ears of policy people perk up.

Two policy wonks — a big-L Liberal and a big-C Conservative — spoke on the role of policy behind closed doors in the political Prime Minister’s Office. It goes without saying that the (equally wonky) audience of students, faculty, and politicos of all stripes were in for a treat.

On the PMO

When asked to speak about the PMO, Hosek posited that every PMO is a reflection of the Prime Minister of the day, in terms of where emphasis is placed and how its business is organized. Prime Minister Chrétien, she said, was a pragmatic man with several years of ministerial experience under his belt prior to stepping into the role as head of government. He had strong views about the way things should be run, and preferred simple approaches to complex ones. The positive and mutually-beneficial relationships he had developed with high-ranking public servants over his time in government informed his view of the public service as capable and able to produce quality policy analysis.

In contrast, Speer noted that, when the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) came into power in 2006, they did not have the luxury of Prime Minister Chrétien’s experience and knowledge of government. They were, in fact, a new party, founded only in 2003: the result of a merger between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Prime Minister Harper’s PMO went through a process of trial and error for some time, said Speer. He estimates that it took about two years to figure out how things would function, and how they, as PMO staffers, should interact with their counterparts in the PCO. Once that relationship was sorted, the PMO worked much better, he said.

Speer also shared that he had recently spent time working with the newly elected Liberal team managing the transition in the current PMO, confirming that, after nearly 10 years as an opposition party, the Liberals were not necessarily more equipped than Prime Minister Harper’s team had been, coming into that role back in 2006. For Speer, this showed that Prime Minister Chrétien’s experience was probably an anomaly.

On the Prime Minister

Both Hosek and Speer spoke of the important role that the Prime Minister played in setting the tone for the executive branch.

Prime Minister Chrétien had a particular view of the role of Cabinet Ministers, which Hosek articulated as the following:

“Do your job, and if you don’t do it well, you might have to go away.”

For the research and policy group in the PMO, he just wanted the things he most cared about to be taken care of, said Hosek.

“If something was going off the rails, you told him, but if not, he did not need to know,” said Hosek. “He was not a micro-manager.”

Speer’s analysis mirrored this to a certain extent. He explained that Prime Minister Harper cared about economic and foreign policy issues, so the PMO took an active role on those files, whereas on other matters, they tended to show deference to the advice of the public service and the PCO. Speer noted that the unwritten nature of the relationship between political staffers and the Prime Minister in the PMO made the work difficult to navigate at times. It was unclear when and how to seek advice from the Prime Minister, for example — there were no rules.

On PMO communications

“I would spend the whole day trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube on a day when the issues management team brought a matter to my attention in the morning,” recalled Speer.

Speer highlighted the importance of political staff to the role of communication in government, particularly because this aspect of executing the plan is beyond the scope of the public service. In fact, he said, political staffers play an essential role in the system in this regard, in large part to protect public service staff from partisan work that opposes their mandate.

Prime Minister Chrétien had strong views on the way to effectively manage the relationship between policy and communications, according to Hosek. He tended to see the PMO’s communicative function as a way to explain the solution to a problem to the public, rather than weaving a story or a narrative around the issue and the rationale for certain decisions. Hosek acknowledged that the news cycle has changed drastically since they were in government, which has introduced new and complex challenges for today’s PMOs.

Parting thoughts

In many ways, Hosek and Speer’s comments neatly lay out the basis for a deeper discussion and questions about the machinery of government in Canada: its strengths, its weaknesses, and its unwritten quirks.

It was an opportunity to hear from two people who have rubbed elbows with some of the most powerful and influential individuals in our country; in fact, many would argue that, given the role of the PMO, Hosek and Speer could be counted among the powerful and influential themselves.


Alexa Greig is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences with a Specialization in Political Science from the University of Ottawa. She has several years of experience working on Parliament Hill, including one year with the longstanding Parliamentary Internship Programme. A proud Hamiltonian, Alexa’s interests include government transformation, cross-country skiing, and all things #cdnpoli.

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