Political Executive vs. Civil Service

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Lorne Sossin (reference below, p. 4) notes that one of the key dynamics in a Westminster system is between the political executive and the civil service.

He writes:

“The political executive directs the ‘government of the day,’ while the civil service, like the Crown itself, enjoys continuity through transitions of government. Under this approach, the political executive and the civil service may be seen as at once interdependent and independent entities within government.”

Click for CBC story

Click for CBC News story and leaked email

Jonathan Craft (reference below, p. 4-5) comments on the extent of the tension that can develop between the political executive and the civil service in his description of a leaked email sent by Stephen Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office to minsters’ offices in 2013 (CBC News, reference below, and link to right):

“The email requested that political staff prepare a transition binder in advance of an impending Cabinet shuffle, to help orient new ministers to their new departments and files. … Binders were to include “sword” and “shield” issues – those that would equip ministers with policy issues they could use to  promote the government agenda and attack opponents, along with those useful to deflect criticisms and defend the government. Also to be included, an update on departmental specific policy “to-do” lists, called a mandate letter, along with a lay of the land of what new ministers should know, and advice on with whom they should interact or avoid. The full checklist included:

  1. What to say at Question Period
  2. What to expect soon, hot issues, legal actions, complaints
  3. What to expect later, longer-term forecast
  4. What to do, status of mandate items, off-mandate items
  5. What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects
  6. Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer
  7. What to attend: upcoming events, meetings and Federal/Provincial/Territorial meetings
  8. Who to appoint: outstanding Governor in Council [appointments] and hot prospects
  9. Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders
  10. Private Members Bills – lines and Caucus packages

“It provides a sense of the breadth of what political staff do and who the players are who are involved in governing, but also alerts ministers to who their friends and enemies are in a policy and political sense. This last feature is telling in that it openly reveals the tensions that can exist at the political-administrative nexus. It is striking in that it details that ministers should guard against not only stakeholders – the paid and unpaid advocates and lobbyists from organizations and policy sectors outside of government – but also the public service. As this checklist makes plain, they can all be perceived enemies of the government with particular policy preferences or pet projects of their own. The email attracted significant attention and consternation from various circles and provides a rare snapshot into the functions of political staffs during times of ministerial transitions, but also their day-to-day policy work.”

See Atlas entries for Constitutional Convention of a Politically Neutral Civil Service; Political Aide; and Paul Thomas on Political Staff and Communications.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

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


Lorne Sossin (2005), “Speaking Truth to Power? The Search for Bureaucratic Independence in Canada.” University of Toronto Law Journal 55(1): 1-59.

Jonathan Craft (2016), Backrooms and Beyond – Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

CBC News (2013), PMO asked staff to supply ‘enemy’ lists to new ministers, 16 July 2013, at http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/pmo-asked-staff-to-supply-enemy-lists-to-new-ministers-1.1361102, accessed 5 September 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 5 September 2016.