Paul Thomas on Political Staff and Communications

… an Atlas resource page in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Click and go to p. 77

Click and go to p. 77

Concept description

Paul Thomas’s study for the Oliphant Commission, entitled Who Is Getting the Message? Communications at the Centre of Government (referenced below, pdf to right) analyzes the role of political staff and organizational climate in Canada. It drew a formal response from the Prime Minister’s Office of the day (reference below).

Accountability, communications, and organizational climate

Thomas writes (p. 84-85):

“The new ‘accountability industry’ that has recently emerged in Ottawa sends a very clear message to the public service: do not screw up, and be prepared to pay a serious price when abuses or blunders are uncovered. The FAA adopted the ‘accounting officer’ model for deputy ministers, which makes them directly and personally answerable before the Public Accounts and other committees of Parliament for the prudent financial management of their departments. This innovation was adopted without any formal modification to the constitutional conventions of ministerial responsibility. The resulting ambiguity about where ministerial responsibility ends and administrative accountability begins has no doubt led to concern within the public service that blame shifting will occur when something goes wrong and that individual public servants will be named and blamed in the parliamentary process and in the media.”

“A psychological climate of fear and a risk-averse culture could be the result. Public servants could become reluctant to ‘speak truth to power,’ especially those senior officials who owe their appointment to the prime minister. Put somewhat dramatically, the clerk of the privy council and the roster of deputy ministerial level appointees could begin to see themselves less as semi-independent professional partners with political leaders engaged in the co-production of ‘good government,’ and more as ‘fixers’ who help their political masters manage agendas and fix political problems – including communications activities intended to present the government’s performance in the best possible light.”

Communications and plausible deniability

Thomas writes (p. 88-89):

“‘Plausible deniability’ is a phrase used to describe situations in which higher-level public officials, usually elected politicians and their political staff but also public servants, seek to avoid blame and accountability for illegal, unethical, ill-conceived, or unpopular actions by denying prior knowledge, involvement, or approval. The concept has been around for a  long time, but the precise phrase ‘plausible denial’ was first used publicly by Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States (1953–61).

“… It is possible to think of a number of circumstances and reasons that could give rise to a condition of plausible deniability. Either by design or inadvertently, the authority structures of direction and control, the reporting requirements for lower-level employees, and the routines of communication may mean that sensitive information does not reach the top of the organization either because of breakdowns caused by hierarchy (as discussed above) or because employees do not want to cause trouble. Rivalries among ministers and their departments, and even between divisions within a particular department, can lead to information hoarding or the provision of less-than-complete information. The crux of the problem with large, specialized information-gathering organizations like departments is that structures, processes, and guidelines are not often designed to channel information both vertically and horizontally to the appropriate locations without overloading the leadership with too much information and advice.

“As indicated above, culture and climate can both reflect and reinforce the impacts of hierarchy. Creating psychologically safe places for honest and frank dialogues is difficult when there is a lack of external trust and confidence, when ministers mistrust the bureaucracy, when there are legal requirements for openness and disclosure, when there are numerous oversight bodies, and when a parliamentary culture of blaming leads to an insistence by ministers on ‘error free’ government. A fearful and defensive climate may encourage people to cover up mistakes and manipulate information to avoid negative consequences.”

Political staff and plausible deniability

Thomas writes (p. 90):

“In thinking about the potential for a condition of plausible deniability, we should not underestimate the importance of incompetence, mistakes, and accidents. The knowledge and experience of the people acting as gatekeepers of access to ministers can be a factor. For example, if more junior exempt staff do not fully understand the constitutional foundations of the political system, lack deep knowledge of the machinery of government, lack intimate knowledge of the values and ethical norms of the public sector, and do not have the training or experience to judge the importance and sensitivity of  communications, they may not deal with matters appropriately. Strategic, fast-paced, and highly pressurized locations like the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office are not good locations for on-the-job training when there is so much pressure to avoid public mistakes. Life in such locations is frenetic. Issues come and go daily, ministers make demands, the information available to guide decisions is incomplete, and communication takes place with great speed. There are corridor conversations, meetings interrupted by telephone calls and BlackBerry messages, constantly changing priorities, and long hours, yet little time is available to pause and reflect on the right course of action. There is also little time to compile notes and to maintain records. As a result, reconstructing events before a parliamentary committee or a commission of inquiry becomes difficult and problematic.”

Political staff and ethical norms

Thomas writes (p. 104) about the merits of trying to regulate the “new group of players who occupy a ‘twilight zone’ in our constitutional order that officially divides ‘the universe’ into elected, responsible, and accountable ministers and appointed, professional, and impartial public servants who answer primarily to the ministers they support.” However, he believes that:

“Rules help to shape behaviour, but even more important are the embedded values and beliefs that represent the foundations of an organization’s culture. In addition to its role and location in the policy process, the culture of the PMO is shaped mainly by the character, philosophy, and leadership style of the prime minister. Also highly influential in shaping the culture and interpersonal climate of the PMO are the career backgrounds and leadership styles of the chief of staff / principal secretary and other senior officials. People recruited to these positions usually have advanced educational qualifications and significant accomplishments in fields such as law, business, the public service, and elected public office. They understand the importance of competence and integrity in the performance of the various roles of supporting the prime minister. It is the chief of staff or principal secretary (depending on the preferred terminology at the time) who oversees the operation of the PMO on a daily basis, supervises PMO employees, and is responsible for communicating the importance of competence and integrity in the performance of duties to support the prime minister.

“In terms of the focus of this study – the handling of sensitive communications directed to the prime minister – the concern is that political staff are too zealous in their loyalty to the prime minister and too inclined to see governing as a permanent campaign in which protecting ‘the boss’ and the reputation of the government is the number one priority. A former deputy minister interviewed for this study described PMO staff as ‘political warriors’ and ‘spear-carriers for the prime minister.’ This unflattering portrait is probably unfair to most political staff who work at the centre of government and in ministerial offices. It is likely more appropriate to assume that a broad spectrum of people and behaviours is found in these influential roles.”

Thomas concludes his report (p. 120-121) with:

“To date, governments have not adopted a code of values and ethics for exempt staff and ministerial advisers on contracts. There is, however, a zone of behaviour where the issues are less legal, organizational, and procedural and more ethical and cultural in nature. A capacity for deep understanding and sophisticated reasoning about ethical dilemmas when the facts are in dispute and fundamental values clash cannot be acquired on the basis of a short-term course. Breadth and depth of education and experience, together with encouragement and support for reflection and dialogue, are seen by many experts as requirements for the creation of ethically competent organizations. In Australia, education and training have been introduced for political staff to ensure that they have some understanding of the constitutional principles of cabinet-parliamentary government, that there is greater clarity in the definition of their role in relation to the public service, and that the values and ethical norms which should guide their behaviour are better understood. Public officials – elected politicians and their personal staff, as well as career public servants – who demonstrate a commitment to high ethical standards will do more to restore public trust and confidence in government as an institution than will more rules and accountability mechanisms.”

Click for pdf

Click for pdf

PMO response to the Thomas report

The Prime Minister’s Office released a formal response to an earlier draft of the report (reference below, pdf on right), with an executive summary that reads:

“The Thomas Report is a heavily flawed document that contains numerous errors. It is not based on input from anyone with actual knowledge of how the current PMO works and operates. A study of prime ministerial communication would be useful and worthwhile, but the many shortcomings of the Thomas Report hardly make it a basis on which the Commission should found recommendations.”

In his paper, In Defence of Political Staff, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Harper, Ian Brodie (reference below, see also Political Aide) states:

“The Prime Minister’s Office filed an official response. It was prepared after I left the Office and I was not involved in preparing it, but I agree with it entirely.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Institutional Dynamics within Government (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Paul Thomas (2010), Who Is Getting the Message? Communications at the Centre of Government, in Public Policy Issues and the Oliphant Commission, Independent Research Studies, prepared for the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Allegations Respecting Business and Financial Dealings Between Karlheinz Schreiber and the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, available from the Government of Canada at, and uploaded to the Atlas at

Prime Minster’s Office (2009), Response to the Thomas Report, at, uploaded to the Atlas at

Ian Brodie (2012), In Defence of Political Staff, Canadian Parliamentary Review (Autumn): 33-39, at, accessed 28 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 30 August 2016.

Image: Page 77 of Public Policy Issues and the Oliphant Commission, at, accessed 28 August 2016.