Cabinet Decision-Making System

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


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Concept description

The Cabinet decision-making system is the set of procedures and processes used to produce formal, written, Cabinet decisions.

Mark Schacter (reference below and pdf to right) produced a well-researched paper on the on Cabinet decision-making in Canada based on an Institute on Governance project for the World Bank.

Rules and realities

Schacter notes (p. 2) an observation from Arnold Heeney, Canada’s first Cabinet Secretary, in 1945:

“… the practices and procedures of which I give some account are by no means immutable; the functions and composition of the committees, which I shall describe, are by no means rigid. Quite the contrary. These are rules and forms honoured frequently in the breach. They are always subordinate to the circumstances of the case and the conveniences and necessities of the Prime Minister and his colleagues.”

Schacter reinforces the contextual nature of Cabinet decision-making with a quote from former deputy minister, Arthur Kroeger, describing the processes he observed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s:

“… ways in which policy has been developed and decisions made in any particular period has depended, to an extraordinary degree, on who was the head of government … The perfect decision-making system is a chimera. What every government has to undertake … is to seek such balance as may be possible among the complicated and diverse factors that bear upon decision-making”

Schacter concludes, drawing on Clark (1985):

“The Canadian experience shows that there is as much art as science to crafting Cabinet’s decision-making systems. Their design and operation have varied according to the working styles of prime ministers and broad environmental factors such as economic conditions and attitudes toward the public sector (the “temper of the times”). There have been no “ideal models” existing independently from the people who use the system, and the circumstances in which they work. The undisputed constant is that Cabinet, and its related structures are above all the Prime Minister’s own instruments for achieving his government’s goals. They must be both functional and comfortable for him, as well as for his Cabinet colleagues and the officials who serve them.

“Does this mean that all is relative? That there are no firm principles on which Canadian heads of government have based the details of their decision-making systems? The answer is mixed.

“On the one hand, experience has produced broad agreement on principles concerning the functions served by the Cabinet system and, very broadly, the means by which the functions should be accomplished.

“The acknowledged key functions of the Canadian Cabinet system include:

  • securing agreement among ministers on the government’s priorities and on “horizontal” actions extending across individual ministerial portfolios;
  • securing agreement on steps for passage in Parliament of the government’s program;
  • providing a forum for ministerial debate on issues of general interest;
  • providing a forum for expression of diverse regional interests.

“As for the means by which the cabinet system should deliver these results, there is strong consensus that the primary consideration relates to generating and managing the flow of information and ideas. A guiding principle after 50 years of experience with a Cabinet office in Canada is that the quality of a Cabinet decision-making system may be measured by the degree to which:

  • it meets Cabinet’s needs for information and ideas, and
  • it meets needs for information and ideas efficiently, i.e. participation in the system is not so time-consuming and process-laden as to draw Cabinet ministers away from their substantive functions.

“On the other hand, there is no consensus on the details of system design. As a former senior PCO official observed, Cabinet’s functions could be equally well performed with “more or less paper at the Cabinet table, with more or less frequent meetings of Cabinet and its committees, and with more or less reliance on formal procedures.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

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


Mark Schacter with Phillip Haid (1999), Cabinet Decision-Making in Canada: Lessons and Practices, Institute on Governance, at and uploaded to the Atlas at on 26 August 2016.

Schacter’s citation for Heeney quote is Clark (1985) and for Kroeger quote is Kroeger, Arthur (1996). “A Retrospective on Policy Development in Ottawa,” Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 39, No. 4, p. 457.

Schacter’s references to Clark are from Clark, Ian D. (1985). “Recent Changes in the Cabinet Decision-making System in Ottawa,” Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 185.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 26 August 2016.