Ten things to know about central agencies in Canada

From time to time, voluntary sector leaders—and advocates in general—come up with ideas for new spending and new social programs.  When they do this, they often focus too much on influencing elected officials, and too little on influencing senior public servants.  What’s more, it’s important that their proposals be supported by good research, in part because exaggerated claims about the benefits of their proposals may hurt them in the end.  With all of this in mind, here are 10 things to know about central agencies in Canada.

1. Even after a minister tells you they support your idea, there will often be further government approvals required.[1] At the federal level, this process is run by three central agencies; they are Privy Council Office (PCO), Finance Canada and Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS). Their respective roles will be discussed below. There are broadly similar functions for provincial and territorial governments (but details may vary).

2. For your idea to become a new program, cabinet will need to give “policy authority” and PCO supports this cabinet decision-making process. PCO coordinates the meetings of cabinet and cabinet committees, provides advice to the prime minister on cabinet business and briefs the chair of committees on agenda items. During this process, PCO analysts play a “challenge function role” (this will be a recurring theme), meaning they critically assess and examine proposals as they come forward. Questions that might get asked by PCO officials in Ottawa include: Is this an area of federal jurisdiction?  Does this initiative have intergovernmental implications?  Have you consulted on this with other departments within the federal government? (If no such consultation has taken place, PCO officials will coordinate a meeting among staff from various federal departments.)  PCO officials might call into question the rationale or evidence used to support the proposal and if a similar program exists elsewhere, PCO officials will point this out.  PCO will also ensure that the political implications are spelled out.

3. Once you have policy authority from cabinet, a new program will still need budgetary approval through Finance if it involves new money. Finance provides funding authority or a “source of funds” for new proposals through the budget process. Departments and Ministers generally make a request to the Minister of Finance and it gets assessed by public servants in the Department of Finance, who also play a challenge function. The underlying question asked by Finance officials is “Does this initiative really require new money?” My sources in Ottawa have three unofficial mottos that Finance officials can almost always be expected to say.  The first is “How much will that cost?” The second is “Why can’t you do that from your existing budgetary allotment?” And the third is “No” (hopefully, the last one is not so consistent).  It’s also important to note that the budget process doesn’t just assess the merit of spending money on your idea on a yes-or-no basis, but also the comparative merit of different proposals. You’re competing against other ideas for scarce resources.  Finance officials are suspicious of lofty promises that a proposal will save large sums of money somewhere else; they hear this often.  If the proposal has the potential to save money elsewhere, be prepared to demonstrate this with precision and nuance.

4. Treasury Board, a committee of cabinet, provides implementation authority for proposals and this approval process gets into the details of how the program will be run. Cabinet policy authority is sometimes thought of as “agreement in principle”, while Treasury Board is where the details get discussed. TBS officials play a challenge function that is focused on how the proposal will be implemented rather than challenging the basic idea. They will want to know the risks inherent in the proposed initiative and how they are addressed. They’ll also want to know if the proposal is compliant with other federal policies and they’ll want to know if the details of the proposal are logistically sound and realistic.  For example, if a complex program is proposed with a plan for three staff persons to run it, TBS officials will call this into question.  In Ottawa these days, treasury board officials are also very focused on the measurement of outcomes.

5. There is typically some overlap between what the different central agencies do. For example, in Ottawa, PCO officials might ask how results for a new program might be measured (even though that’s more typically thought of as a question asked by TBS officials). Likewise, PCO officials might also scrutinize a cost-benefit analysis that is supporting a pitch (even though similar scrutiny might be provided by finance officials). And the central agencies work closely together.

6. At the end of the day, if cabinet really wants a new program or new spending, central agencies won’t stop the initiative. An inherent principle underlying representative, executive government is that ministers are ultimately the decision-makers. Public servants, meanwhile, operate with the principle of “fearless advice, faithful implementation.”

7. In Ottawa, even the Minister typically has to wait until Budget Day to know if each proposal has been accepted. That’s because the final decision on every budget item is made between the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, and their decision is usually kept secret—even from the rest of cabinet—until the budget is released. (In Ottawa, proposals for a new program or new spending are typically made months before.)

8. A key take-away from all of this is that, when voluntary sector organizations advocate for a new program or new spending, they should think about both elected officials and senior public servants. Indeed, it’s important to engage senior public servants early and often. If an elected official likes your proposal, do not assume that members of the senior public service won’t eventually give it the third degree.  Ideally, as many senior public servants as possible should hear about your proposal directly from your organization before it arrives to them via official channels.

9. New proposals should be supported by sound research. Just because an elected official doesn’t scrutinize your cost-benefit analysis or your long-term savings calculations, doesn’t mean senior public servants won’t. Staff in both central agencies and line departments will appreciate intellectually honest analysis, the humble presentation of information and well-referenced propositions. The challenge function at the central agencies will involve dozens of very smart people reviewing and assessing the proposal; your proposal (sponsored by the department and minister) will stand up much better if it has a strong problem definition (a.k.a. the rationale for why action is needed) and recommendations supported by evidence.

10. Exaggerated claims about your proposal will probably burn you in the end. Consider a statement such as: “This proposed program will revolutionize this sector because nothing this great has ever been done before.” That might get you traction in the media and with some elected officials; but always consider the roles of central agencies discussed above. Senior public servants have heard such statements before and will likely scrutinize every aspect of such a claim.

Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale.  Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @nicholas_falvo.

The author wishes to thank Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Darcy Halber, Kayle Hatt, Alex Himelfarb, Kevin McNichol, Michael Mendelson, Leslie Pal, John Stapleton, Katherine White and one anonymous reviewer for invaluable assistance with this.  Any errors are his.  This post was originally published by the Calgary Homeless Foundation

[1] An important exception is in the case where your idea happens to be within the minister’s existing authority and, more importantly, within the existing department/ministry budget and not especially politically contentious.

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