Prime Minister’s Office of Canada: Responsibilities, Organization, and Issues

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Mar 2, 2010

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is comprised of the executive staff of the prime minister, and plays a central role in the governance of Canada. This highly partisan organization acts not only as a source of support and policy advice for the prime minister, but also as a mechanism for centralizing political power. This article provides an introduction to the PMO, with a focus on its responsibilities, organization, and key issues.

Prime Minister’s Office and Government

PMO as a central agency in Canadian government

Responsibilities of the Prime Minister’s Office

Mandate and key roles of the PMO

Organization of the Prime Minister’s Office

Leadership, staffing, and financial structures of the PMO

Issues Concerning the Prime Minister’s Office

Concentration of power, accountability, and quality of public administration

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Prime Minister’s Office and Government

PMO as a central agency in Canadian government

Prime Minister’s Office as a Central Agency

The PMO represents an important central agency in the Canadian government. The term “central agencies” refers to a group of government administrative bodies whose responsibilities extend across all policies areas. This is due to the Prime Minister’s position at the pinnacle of executive political power in the federal government, and the PMO’s role as the Prime Minister’s personal exempt staff. The PMO acts as an extension of the Prime Minister in his/her dealings with other parts of government and the parliamentary system as a whole and, in this context, plays an important role in political decision-making.

Other key central agencies include the Privy Council Office (PCO), the Department of Finance, the Treasury Board Secretariat, and the Public Service Commission.

Partisan and Exempt Staff of the Prime Minister

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is made up of a team of officials, partisan political advisors and administrators, which provides support to the Prime Minister. Three characteristics are important in this context. First, the PMO is intended to serve the Prime Minister exclusively. This is in contrast to other central agencies, such as the Privy Council Office, which serves the Prime Minister, and, more broadly, the federal cabinet.

Second, the PMO is a “partisan” organization. Personnel of the PMO are loyal to the prime minister, not as the head of government, but as the leader of a political party and as a politician who seeks to maintain his power in a democratic system. In this context, the PMO provides support and advice to help the Prime Minister govern in a manner that will maintain his control over his/her political party, maximize his/her influence in government and the House of Commons, and ensure future electoral success.

Finally, the PMO is comprised of “exempt staff.” These are government officials who exist outside the federal public service and are exempt from regular Public Service Commission staffing guidelines, controls, and protection (though, they are subject specific terms and conditions set out by the Treasury Board of Canada). The Prime Minister enjoys wide discretion in choosing the staff of the PMO, and often selects individuals who can be trusted to show strong personal loyalty.

Brief History of the Prime Minister’s Office

The modern PMO can trace its roots back to Confederation and the office of the Prime Minister’s private secretary. This early position was responsible for performing purely secretarial functions, such as helping to organize the prime minister’s correspondence and scheduling. The prime minister’s private secretary neither played a role in the development of public policy nor the administration of government.

The first significant evolution in the PMO’s history occurred in the early 1900s, with the development of new positions within the PMO beyond the office of the private secretary. In 1920, Prime Minister Robert Borden created the office of principle advisor for external affairs within the PMO; it’s purpose was to provide support and advice to the prime minister in the area of foreign affairs. This policy-orientated function of the PMO was developed further in the late 1930s, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King created the office of the principle secretary. Arnold Heeney, the first principal secretary, based the new office on the role of the British Secretary to Cabinet, whose purpose was to provide the prime minister with non-partisan support and advice. Over time, however, the office of principal secretary evolved into a highly partisan position.

While the PMO was expanded from a purely secretarial body to one which provided partisan policy advice and support, it nevertheless remained a minor agency with government. This, however, changed drastically in the1960s and 1970s under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who significantly increased the agency’s size and functions. Under Trudeau, the PMO was increased to approximately 100 officials. In addition, Trudeau re-organized the PMO to function as a mechanism by which the prime minister exercised centralized control over government. This modern version of the PMO has, to varying degrees, been continued by subsequent prime ministers.

In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced the position of chief of staff within the PMO. Under Mulroney, the chief of staff acted as a senior partisan advisor to the prime minister, as well as the administrative head of the PMO. All subsequent prime ministers have utilized a chief of staff in their offices, though their precise roles and responsibilities have differed from one prime minister to anther.

Responsibilities of the Prime Minister’s Office

Mandate and key roles of the PMO

Mandate of the Prime Minister’s Office

Unlike other central agencies, such as the Privy Council Office, the mandate and roles of the PMO are not established by statutory authority. Its particular responsibilities and level of influence are, instead, dictated by the leadership style and personality of the prime minister.

Generally speaking, however, the PMO operates as an important link between the partisan interests of the prime minister and the operation of government. In Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behaviour and Public Policy, Jackson and Jackson provide the following quote from a PMO official on the role played by PMO staff:

We are just a valve at the junction of the bureaucratic and the political. We add a little of the political ingredient when it appears that I has been overlooked. For instance, if I know that an official in the [Privy Council Office] us working on a briefing note to the [Prime Minister] on an issue which I am responsible for, I’ll go to him and express the political point of view – I guess we are sort of a Distant Early Warning System for things that are going to cause trouble politically.

Although the PMO is a highly partisan agency, this is not to suggest it is completely unconcerned with policy matters. Protecting the partisan interests of the prime minister necessarily requires PMO officials to be involved in issues of policy. Moreover, depending on the personality of the particular prime minister, the PMO may viewed as a more trustworthy and reliable source of policy advice than other central agencies, such as the Privy Council Office.

Specific Roles of the Prime Minister’s Office

While its specific duties may differ from one prime minister to another, generally speaking, several key responsibilities may be ascribed to the PMO. First, the PMO has staff members who perform secretarial duties for the prime minister. This includes answering the prime minister’s mail and coordinating his/her daily appointment schedule.

PMO staff also assist the prime minister in performing his/her official duties. This includes activities such as working with the prime minister to draft speech from the throne which set the government’s direction, as well as searching for and vetting candidates for government appointments, nominations, and awards.

The PMO takes a central role in managing the prime minister’s public relations. In this context, the PMO actively engages in gathering public opinion surveys on a prime minister’s popularity, as well as with specific policy initiatives that may be pursued by the prime minister and his or her government. In addition, PMO staff assist by preparing press conferences and facilitating dealings with the media on behalf of the prime minister.

Another common role of the PMO is to act as a monitoring agency for the prime minister. The PMO will track political developments and assess their implications against a prime minister`s political career. This includes analyzing developments within the prime minister’s own political party, the opposition parties, the various departments and agencies within the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments, as well as the Canadian electorate (voting population) in general.

Finally, the PMO often functions as a source of technical and practical policy advice. In this context, PMO staff provide the prime minster with options for dealing with important issues relating to public policy or government administration. Unlike the Privy Council Office, which provides non-partisan advice to the prime minister and cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office performs its policy function in a purely partisan manner. The PMO will provide advice that is oriented to protecting the political fortunes — both of the prime minister and his or her party.

Day-to-Day Activities of the Prime Minister’s Office

In performing these responsibilities, PMO staff prepare briefs to be given to the prime minister on a wide range of topics. The head of the PMO, commonly referred to as the chief of staff, meets with the prime minister daily to brief him/her on developments from a partisan perspective. In a typical day, other PMO officials will be engaged in research and communications activities, and in meeting with counterparts from other government departments and agencies to identify potential issues and to relay directions from the prime minister.

To gain greater insight into the daily activities of the PMO, it is useful to examine the PMO’s role in an important parliamentary process: Question Period. Under Canada’s parliamentary system, a prime minister is expected to regularly attend the House of Commons to field questions from opposition parties about his/her government’s policies and actions. Question Period is an important part of the media coverage of Parliament, and is televised nationally, and on a daily basis when the House is in session.

As such, preparing the prime minister and senior ministers for QP (as it is informally known) is crucial, with staff from the PMO taking the lead. PMO staffers and other party officers arrive early in the day to begin the process of examining the day’s media to identify possible issues that may be raised by the opposition parties. In addition, responses will be drafted to the anticipated questions, with the goal of minimizing any negative consequences for the prime minister and the government. This includes not only crafting strong defenses for the prime minister, but also developing tactics for “turning the tables” by putting the opposition on the defence or somehow embarrassing the questioner and his/her party. It is in this context, that the highly partisan role of the PMO is clearly evident.

Organization of the Prime Minister’s Office

Leadership, staffing and financial structures of the PMO

Organization of the Prime Minister’s Office

The precise organization of the PMO can vary considerably from one prime minister to another. Nevertheless, most modern PMOs exhibit the following basic form:

(Jackson & Jackson, 2006)

Closest to the prime minister are the private secretary, personal advisors and chief of staff. The remaining PMO ‘staffers’ usually report to the prime minister through the chief of staff (though this is not always the case). Moreover, they are usually organized into key areas, such as the party caucus, correspondence, operations, communications and press, appointments, and policy and research.

Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff

Central to the operations in the offices of most modern Canadian prime ministers is the chief of staff. Relatively speaking, this position is quite new, and was first introduced in 1987 by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Previously, the basic functions of the modern chief of staff were handled by the principal secretary or a senior PMO advisor/assistant.

While the precise responsibilities of a chief of staff can differ from one prime minister to another (and can even change over the course of a single prime minister’s tenure), the chief of staff usually acts as a senior executive assistant and administrator. The chief of staff works closely with the prime minister, providing daily briefs, attending important meetings with him/her, and acting a senior partisan advisor when called upon. In addition, the chief of staff usually oversees the PMO’s day-to-day administration, organizing its work and priorities. In so doing, he/she will take cues from the prime minister, as well as attempt to anticipate potential problems or issues for the prime minister. Finally, the chief of staff tends to be in regular contact with other senior members of the government, ensuring the prime minister’s views and interests are respected. This includes cabinet ministers and their executive assistants and senior public servants, such as the clerk of the privy council and deputy ministers.

Prime ministers have wide discretion in choosing their chiefs of staff. As exempt staff members (explained earlier in this article), appointment to this position is not governed by the normal rules of the public service. Some prime ministers will select close personal or party allies as their chief of staff, due to the importance of the position, the close working relationship with the prime minister, and the high value placed on trustworthiness and personal loyalty. As such, chiefs of staff can often have very little experience in government decision-making and administration, although they tend to be well schooled in partisan politics.

A chief of staff’s tenure is almost always precarious, owing to the highly political nature of the PMO. They are often held responsible for serious failures in protecting or promoting a prime minister’s interests. Moreover, a prime minister may decide to take a different direction following an election or significant downturn in public support, and will overhaul his senior staff accordingly. Brian Mulroney, for example, had five chiefs of staff over a six-year period (1987–1993).

Chiefs of Staff in the PMO (1987-2008)

Prime Minister




Stephen Harper

Guy Giorno

Lawyer/Conservative political activist

2008 –

Ian Brodie

Academic/Conservative political activist

2006 – 2008

Paul Martin

Tim Murphy


2003 – 2006

Jean Chrétien

Edward Goldberg

Lawyer/Liberal political advisor

2003 – 2003

Percy Downe

Political executive assistant

2001 – 2003

Jean Pelletier


1993 – 2001

Kim Campbell

Jodi White


1993 – 1993

Brian Mulroney

David McLaughlin

Political executive assistant

1993 – 1993

Hugh Segal

Political executive assistant

1992 – 1993

Norman Spector

Public servant

1990 – 1992

Stanley Hartt

Lawyer/political executive assistant

1989 – 1990

Derek Burney

Public servant

1987 – 1989

Staff and Finances of the Prime Minister’s Office

Prior to the 1970s, the PMO was a relatively minor organization, both in terms of staff and budget. Under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau the PMO was expanded to approximately 100 officials. Since then, the size of the prime minister’s staff has varied, between about 80 and 120 personnel. Compared to other executive staffs, such as those of other cabinet ministers, the PMO is very large — reflecting the prime minister’s central role in the political executive. Relative to other central agencies, however, the PMO is small, in terms of its size. The Pricy Council Office, for example, employs approximately 1,000 public servants.

In the fiscal year 2009–10, the PMO budget is estimated to be approximately $8.4 million (Parliament of Canada, 2009). The majority of this total, $7.1 million, is for salaries and wages, including employee benefit plans. An amount of $1.1 million is for operating costs, including travel, professional services, and costs related to the operation of the Prime Minister’s residences. Also included in this total is the prime minister’s salary ($159,400) and motor car allowance ($2,122). Again, while the PMO budget is far larger than that of other executive staffs, it is relatively minor compared to other central agencies in the federal government. For example, in the fiscal year 2007–08, the budget for the Privy Council Office totalled $151 million. (Costs for the PMO are paid out of the Privy Council Office’s annual budget).

Issues Concerning the Prime Minister’s Office

Concentration of power, accountability, and quality of public administration

Prime Minister’s Office and Centralization of Power

Today, a key issue of debate in Canadian politics is the increasingly important role of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the centralization of power around the prime minister. Over the years, the prime minister has come to dominate the exercise of executive political power in Canadian politics. Whereas political decision-making was once diffused generally among members of the cabinet, modern prime ministers tend to set general government policy in addition to playing a significant role in the political decisions of individual ministries. The modern prime minister’s considerable influence is due, in large part, to his/her power to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers and his/her position as leader of the governing political party.

With its exempt staff, the PMO is often used to expand and cement this centralized control over government and the party. The PMO will track political developments for the prime minister and assess their implications for his or her career. When necessary, the PMO will intervene in the government or party activities in order to ensure that the prime minister’s interests are protected, or that his/her directions are followed. As a single individual, the prime minister could not logistically exercise this sort of control alone. With the help of the PMO’s large, partisan staff, however, the prime minister can dominate the government and the party in a much more effective manner.

This can raise issues for those concerned over the centralization of political power in the hands of the prime minister. Some may argue, for example, that cabinet ministers should be free from excessive meddling from the PMO to run their departments. Moreover, that cabinet should operate in a more collegiate manner, in which decisions are arrived at through cabinet discussion and debate. Instead, with the PMO, the prime minister can make key decisions him/herself, relying on advisors within their office, and then use the PMO to ensure that their directives are followed by cabinet and the upper levels of the public service.

On the other hand, the PMO can also be viewed as a positive instrument of efficient government. With the PMO, as well as other central agencies, such as the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister can draw on a small group of loyal advisors to make immediate decisions, rather than relying on the slower cabinet decision making process. Moreover, the prime minister can use the PMO to ensure that once a decision is made, that it is fully carried through in a uniform manner throughout the upper levels of government. In this context, the PMO operates as a mechanism of efficient and coordinated decision making in the federal government.

Prime Minister’s Office and Accountability

Another criticism of the PMO is that, in some cases, it cab act as a barrier to holding the prime minister accountable for poor policy decisions and actions.

While the prime minister may provide general direction and priorities for his/her staff, it may be that the details are left for the chief of or another senior member of the PMO. Moreover, PMO officials may not to fully inform the prime minister of particular actions they have taken on his/her behalf. This, in turn, can allow the prime minister to deflect some public, media, or parliamentary criticisms. The prime minister can, for example, plead ignorance, asserting that s/he knew nothing of a given issue. The prime minister can also choose to ascribe blame to a member of his/her staff for the problem, and attempt to ‘wash over’ an issue by simply firing the person.

The federal Sponsorship Scandal is a recent, and highly publicized, example. This scandal centred on sponsorships granted by the federal government in Quebec during the tenure of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and allegations of corruption in the distribution of those funds. In the subsequent public inquiry, it was revealed the PMO played a central role in the Sponsorship Program’s operation. In the inquiry’s final report, however, the former prime minister was absolved of any legal wrongdoing, although he was accused of mismanaging his office. This was due, in large part, to the former prime minister’s testimony, which suggested that the day-to-day activities of the program were handled by his staff, and that he knew nothing of particular sponsorships.

The Sponsorship Scandal showed how the PMO can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, as a protective shield, diverting blame away from a prime minister. The scandal, however, also showed that the prime minister and governing party cannot completely hide behind the PMO. In subsequent elections, the Liberal Party saw its electoral support fall significantly, as voters held the party responsible for the allegations of wrongdoing.

Tension in Roles of the Prime Minister’s Office

Another important issue regarding the PMO is a structural tension in its mandate and roles. The PMO is meant to function as a purely partisan agency, protecting the political interests of the prime minister and the governing political party. Moreover, the PMO plays an important role in the formulation of public policy and the administration of government. This can give rise to a number of concerns.

Other central agencies, such as the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Department of Finance, fall within the formal bureaucracy. As such, they are staffed by professional public servants who possess strong expertise in public policy development and implementation. The PMO, by contrast, is staffed by officials who are chosen more for their loyalty to the prime minister and less for their credentials as public administrators. This can result in a deterioration of the quality of government, especially when the PMO attempts to overly manage the work of professional public servants.

Moreover, theoretically, the federal bureaucracy is intended to promote the general public interest in its work. Public servants (also known as civil servants) are to be just as their name states — servants of the public. The PMO, however, is explicitly meant to protect the interests of the prime minister and the governing political party. They approach public policy issues from the perspective of its implications for the political fortunes of their prime minister and his or her political party. Considering the influence of the PMO, this can be problematic insofar as it can tilt or direct — unintentionally or otherwise — government administration towards serving the partisan interests of the prime minister, rather than the general public interest.

These contradictory roles create a dilemma. On the one hand, the PMO can serve as a positive instrument for more effective government, helping to bring leadership and coordination to public policy administration. On the other hand, due to its lack of professional expertise or overt partisanship, the PMO can negatively impact the quality of public policy. Hence, if the PMO acts too strongly, it can be accused of trespassing on the ground of the professional bureaucracy and interfering in the proper administration of government. However, if the PMO does not act strongly enough, it may be perceived as weak and failing to provide appropriate leadership.

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