Privy Council Office of Canada: Responsibilities, Organization and Issues

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Dec 23, 2009

The Privy Council Office of Canada represents a key central agency in the federal government. As the pinnacle of the federal bureaucracy, officials in the Privy Council Office play an important role in the formulation and implementation of public policy at the highest levels of government. Even though the Privy Council Office plays a significant role in government decision making, the general public tends to know little about its operation and activities. The following article provides an introduction to the Privy Council Office, with a focus on its responsibilities, organization, and key issues.

The Privy Council Office: Its Function in Government

PCO as a central agency in Canadian government

Responsibilities of the Privy Council Office

Mandate and key roles of the PCO

Organization of the Privy Council Office

Leadership, staffing, and financial structures of the PCO

Issues Concerning the Privy Council Office

Democratic accountability, non-partisanship, and national security

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The Privy Council Office: Its Function in Government

PCO as a central agency in Canadian government

Queen’s Privy Council for Canada

The Privy Council Office is an administrative arm of a larger body, referred to as the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (or “Privy Council”). Established at Confederation under the Constitution Act, 1867 (later renamed the Constitution Act, 1982), the Privy Council is formal body which is intended to advise the Canadian monarchy on policy and government issues. Privy councillors are appointed for life by the Governor General of Canada on the advice of the prime minister, and include the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, provincial premiers, former and present cabinet ministers, speakers of the House of Commons and Senate, and distinguished public figures or public servants.

The Privy Council is primarily a ceremonial body. An important exception is the federal cabinet, which is a body of mainly elected representatives (referred to as “cabinet ministers”), led by the prime minister of Canada. The cabinet decides the policies and directions of the nation and administers the day-to-day operation of government. It is, in sum, the pinnacle of federal executive political power in Canada. It is important to note, however, that the cabinet is simply a committee of the larger Privy Council. Moreover, only those specific individuals that have been appointed to the cabinet by the Governor General, on the advice of the prime ministers, may exercise the power associated with it.

Privy Council Office as a Central Agency

The Privy Council Office (PCO) is an administrative agency of the Privy Council, and serves as the secretariat for the prime minister and the federal cabinet. It’s important not to confuse the “Privy Council” and the “Privy Council Office.” Whereas the former is primarily a ceremonial body, constituted by privy councillors for the purpose of advising the Canadian Monarch, the Privy Council Office is an administrative body, staffed by professional public servants, or bureaucrats, that is intended to provide non-partisan and expert support to the prime minister, cabinet, and government departments.

In its role, the PCO is often consider to be the most important and most senior of the central agencies of government. The term “central agencies” refers to a group of government administrative bodies whose responsibilities extend across all policies areas. Other key central agencies include the Department of Finance, the Treasury Board Secretariat, the Public Service Commission, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Brief History of the Privy Council Office

The PCO’s roots can be traced to the position of the clerk of the executive council for the Province of Canada. This was an administrative position which supported the executive council in the day-to-day operation of colonial government.

The modern PCO was created at the time of Confederation. Under the Constitution Act, 1867 (now referred to as the Constitution Act, 1982), the PCO was only responsible for preparing and registering orders-in-council. Over time, however, the mandate and responsibilities of the PCO have been greatly expanded. It is important to note, however, that there is no statutory basis for most of its contemporary functions. In fact, many PCO activities are conducted pursuant to the unwritten and conventional authority of the prime minister and cabinet.

In 1940, the mandate of the PCO was expanded when the agency became the secretariat not only for the full cabinet, but also for the numerous cabinet committees created in response to the mounting burdens on the executive branch of government. That said, one of the most important periods in PCO history, however, was in the 1970s under the tenure of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. During this period, Prime Minister Trudeau instituted a number of administrative reforms to bring greater central planning and control to the federal government. This included greatly expanding and strengthening the PCO and its other key central agencies, so they could better provide independent policy analysis to the prime minister and cabinet, and to ensure overall coordination within the federal government. As a result, the power and influence of the PCO, PMO, Treasury Board and the Department of Finance increased greatly, to the point that departmental bureaucrats often became subordinate to these central agencies rather than their own ministers.

Since then, over the years, subsequent prime ministers have decreased or increased the influence of the PCO, reflecting their respective management styles and preferences. Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, for example, tended to rely more heavily on the PMO and the offices of his cabinet ministers and underutilized the PCO (Aucoin, 1986). Under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, however, the PCO’s influence was stronger than ever (Dyck, 2000). Regardless, the centralizing reforms of the 1970s firmly solidified the PCO as a central agency in the planning and coordination of the federal government and its operations.

Also worth noting here is that there have been several instances in which the agency has been granted additional responsibilities in important areas of public policy. In 1992, the Clerk of the Privy Council (who is the head of the Privy Council Office) was recognized as the Head of the Public Service under the Public Service Employment Act. In 1993, the agency was also given the responsibility for federal-provincial relations, with the integration of the Federal-Provincial Relations Office into the Privy Council Office and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Affairs Branch. In 2004, the federal government appointed a new national security advisor to the prime minister within PCO. The office is responsible for security-related intelligence, threat assessment integration, and agency cooperation.

Responsibilities of the Privy Council Office

Mandate and key roles of the PCO

Mandate of the Privy Council Office

Broadly speaking, the Privy Council Office serves as the Prime Minister’s public service department and secretariat to the Cabinet. It provides support to the prime minister, ministers who are included under the prime minister’s portfolio, including the deputy prime minister, leader (and deputy leader) in the House of Commons and Senate, the cabinet as a whole, and the many smaller cabinet committees.

It is important to note that there exists some overlap between the PCO and another important central agency: the Prime Minister’s Office. However, whereas the PMO provides support specifically to the prime minister, the PCO also provides support to the cabinet. Moreover, the PCO is intended to operate as a professional bureaucratic agency, staffed by senior public servants appointed on the basis of merit, and which provides non-partisan, expert support to the government. The PMO, by contrast, is made up of personnel who are loyal to the prime minister, and provide the prime minister partisan support in his/her dealings with the media, the governing political party, and other government institutions (such as the cabinet, the legislative branch and provincial/territorial governments).

This is not to suggest the PCO is an independent agency, completely immune from partisan politics. As a support agency, the PCO is beholden to the priorities and points of views of the elected officials it serves. While the PCO exists to provide impartial and expert advice to the government, its officials must nevertheless develop approaches to the issues of the day that will be acceptable to their political masters. Moreover, the prime minister, on the advice of the head of the PCO (referred to as the “Clerk of the Privy Council”), appoints the senior staff of the agency. Generally, there is little emphasis on partisan politics in this appointment process. There have, however, been exceptions. Former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, for example, appointed his friend and personal advisor, Dalton Camp, as a senior policy advisor in the PCO.

Specific Roles of the Privy Council Office

Under its general area of responsibility in providing support to the prime minister and cabinet, the Privy Council Office performs a number of specific roles. These may be grouped into three broad categories: 1) logistic support to the prime minister and cabinet; 2) elaboration of government policy; and, 3) advising on the organization of government (Dyck, 2000).

First, PCO is tasked with the responsibility of providing logistical support for the prime minister and cabinet. This includes preparing agendas, organizing meetings, arranging the prime minister’s foreign travel and visits by heads of state to Canada, writing and distributing background material, taking and circulating minutes, and communicating cabinet decisions. The Privy Council Office provides this support not only for the cabinet as a whole, but for individual cabinet committees. In this regard, the PCO has specific secretariats which serve particular cabinet committees. For example, the Foreign and Defence Policy and the Security and Intelligence secretariats provide logistical support to the cabinet committees dealing with foreign affairs and defence issues.

In supporting the prime minister and the cabinet, PCO is also responsible for providing administrative and financial support to commissions of inquiry. In 2007-08, PCO supported numerous commissions, including the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182, and the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin.

The PCO also plays an important role in the elaboration of government policy. While the prime minister and cabinet are expect to make the final decisions on policy issues, they nevertheless rely on PCO as a source of expert policy advice on key issues in areas including the economy, federal-provincial relations, foreign affairs, national defence, and social policy. In this context, PCO will provide face-to-face advice to the government, and prepare reports to assist the prime minister and cabinet in policy decision-making. The extent that PCO plays this role as “policy advisor,” however, differs from one prime minister to another. Prime Minister Trudeau, for example, used PCO as a critical source of policy advice, independent of regular departments. Prime Minister Mulroney, by contrast, relied more heavily on individual departments and the PMO as his primary sources.

In addition to providing policy advice, PCO will work to facilitate policy coordination within the broader federal government structure. To this end, for example, PCO will monitor government departments and agencies to ensure new proposals and programs are consistent with the government’s overall priorities and directions. In so doing, PCO will work with other central agencies, such as the PMO and Treasury Board Secretariat, to exert centralized control over the operations of the government as a whole.

The third key role of PCO is advising on the organization of government. This role stems, in large part, from the Clerk of the Privy Council’s position as head of the public service. Accordingly, PCO is responsible for the quality of expert, professional advice and service provided by the bureaucracy to the government. As such, PCO advises on such matters as the machinery of government, the appointment and promotion of senior public servants, and the mandates of senior positions in the bureaucracy. Additionally, PCO, through its Intergovernmental Affairs office, is responsible for coordination in all aspects of federal-provincial relations.

Organization of the Privy Council Office

Leadership, staffing and financial structures of the PCO

Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretariat to the Cabinet

The Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet is the administrative head of the Privy Council Office and the most senior public servant. The prime minister has complete discretion in the appointment of the clerk, though appointees usually have significant and senior experience in the public service.

The clerk has three main responsibilities (Government of Canada, 2008). The first is to serve as deputy minister to the prime minister and, in this position, to provide professional, non-partisan advice and support to the prime minister in his/her role as head of the Canadian government. In carrying out this responsibility, the clerk chairs daily meetings with PCO officials to identify issues to raise with the prime minister. These meetings will cover all areas of public policy, from the general administration of government to social and economic issues and foreign policy. The clerk then meets with the prime minister to review these issues and offer non-partisan advice. The clerk and PCO officials also support the prime minister in his or her day-to-day activities, with detailed notes regarding important meetings and telephone calls.

The clerk’s second main responsibility is to serve as Secretary to the Cabinet. In this position, the clerk provides support and advice to federal ministers and oversees policy and secretariat support vis-à-vis the Cabinet and its committees. The clerk’s third main responsibility is to serve as head of the public service. As the most senior public servant, the clerk ensures the public service delivers professional and non-partisan service to the federal government and Canadians. As such, the clerk sets the strategic directions for the public service and oversees its implementation, in addition to advising on appointments to senior bureaucratic positions.

In sum, the clerk plays a very important role in the Canadian government. While the prime minister sits at the apex of the political hierarchy, the clerk sits atop the bureaucratic hierarchy. Together, the prime minister and clerk wield considerable power in the executive branch of government, and in all government decision making.

Privy Council Office Secretariats

In supporting the prime minister and cabinet, PCO includes a wide number of secretariats. These are groups of PCO officials which provide support in specific areas of public policy and government business. More specifically, these secretariats provide administrative and logistical support for the prime minister and cabinet committees, manage the flow of government business, and facilitate policy development. Secretariats are often headed by a deputy minister who reports to the clerk of the privy council, and work closely with cabinet ministers in their public policy areas.

Secretariats, and their areas of focus, can differ from one government to another depending, in large part, on the priorities and issues of the day. As of May 2009, there were 19 secretariats in PCO focusing on a wide range of policy fields, including economic policy, social policy, foreign affairs, national defence, Afghanistan, and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

Privy Council Secretariats (May 2009)

Counsel to the Clerk

Legislation and House Planning

Intergovernmental Affairs

Foreign and Defence Policy

Social Development Policy

Security and Intelligence


International Assessment Staff

Orders in Council

Senior Personnel and Public Service Renewal

Cabinet Papers

Corporate Services

Priorities and Planning

Economic and Regional Development Policy

Communications and Consultations

Afghanistan Task Force

Macroeconomic Policy

2010 Olympics and G8 Security

Machinery of Government


(PCO Secretariats, Privy Council Office, 2008)

Staff of the Privy Council Office

The PCO employs approximately 1,000 public servants who constantly monitor all facets of government policy and the machinery of government. Over the years, PCO has grown considerably; In 1969, PCO employed 209 people; in 1993 it employed 446;in 1997 it employed 662; and in 2006 it employed 1,100 (Commission of Inquiry, 2006). In 2007-08, PCO reported that it employed 922 full time equivalents (Treasury Board, 2007).

Overall, the PCO tends to be staffed by the best and brightest of the federal public service, from a broad range of policy backgrounds. .As such, the PCO team has the capacity to move into virtually any policy area, be it health care, federalism, national defence, the environment, or the economy, to name just a few.

Finances of the Privy Council Office

While PCO is small (relative to other government departments) and delivers no programs to Canadians, it nevertheless incurs significant annual expenses. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, for example, PCO expenses totalled almost $151 million (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2009).

As far as its mandated responsibilities, the most significant area of expense for PCO relates directly to advising the prime minister and cabinet ministers on issues, policies, government machinery, and appointments. This area accounted for $59 million, or 40 percent, of PCO’s total expenses for the period. In terms of specific expenses, employee salaries and benefits represent the largest costs, accounting for $92 million (or 61 percent) of total expenses.

PCO Expenses by Area of Responsibility (2007-08) (in thousands $)

Advice to the Prime Minister and ministers on issues, policies, machinery and appointments


Provide the Prime Minister’s Office and the offices of the portfolio ministers with financial and administrative support


Provide Cabinet with sound advice on the development, coordination, and implementation of the policy agenda


Provide commissions of inquiry with appropriate administrative support


Lead the public service in effectively supporting Cabinet and serving Canadians


Support for Cabinet decision making and the legislative agenda


Total Expenses


(Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2009)

PCO Expenses by Specific Category (2007-08) (in thousands $)

Salaries and employee benefits


Professional and special services




Transportation and telecommunications


Acquisition of machinery and equipment




Amortization of tangible capital assets


Utilities, materials and equipment


Transfer payments






Purchased repair and maintenance


Loss on disposal of tangible capital assets


Total Expenses


(Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2009)

Issues Concerning the Privy Council Office

Democratic accountability, non-partisanship, and national security

Privy Council Office and Democracy

A key issue centres on the increasingly important role of the Privy Council Office in government decision making and its consequences for Canadian democracy. Over the years, the prime minister has come to dominate the exercise of executive political power in Canadian politics. Where political decision-making was once diffused among members of the cabinet, modern prime ministers have tended to set general government policy and play significant roles in the political decisions of individual ministries.

This concentration of power around the prime minister has, in turn, heightened the significance of PCO and its clerk. With responsibility for providing advice to the prime minister in setting general government priorities, and addressing day-to-day issues regarding the machinery of government and specific policy fields, PCO and the clerk have a significant role — and potentially great influence — on the direction and policies of government. At a minimum, PCO and the clerk have prime minister’s ear, in terms of identifying government priorities and policy options. In this regard, the Privy Council Office and its clerk have become key actors in formulating policy for prime ministers and, in turn, the government.

Once government priorities and policies have been set, PCO and the clerk also play a critical role in facilitating policy coordination within the government as a whole. In this context, the Privy Council Office and the clerk function as an arm of centralized control, implementing the prime minister’s decisions within the machinery of government. As such, the PCO will monitor government departments and agencies to ensure their operations are consistent with the objectives of the prime minister and cabinet.

This heightened role — both of PCO and its clerk — is considered democratically problematic by some. While senior PCO officials can potentially exert great influence on government decision-making, they nevertheless operate largely in the absence of transparency and direct democratic accountability. PCO officials work behind the scenes and directly with the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and the public service. Accordingly, the Canadian public, media, and even parliamentarians are often largely unaware of its actions. This lack of transparency, in turn, is seen by some as severely limiting accountability, as members of the public, and parliament, cannot adequately assess the performance of PCO, raise concerns about its actions or influence, or hold PCO officials accountable for their conduct.

It’s important to note, however, that senior PCO officials do not operate in the complete absence of transparency and accountability. Ultimately, the clerk and deputy ministers are responsible to the prime minister. As such, there are mechanisms of indirect democratic accountability insofar as the prime minister and cabinet are accountable to the legislature and the general electorate for political decision-making and the administration of government.

Moreover, there are a number of mechanisms which are intended to bring some direct accountability to the deputy minister level. These officials are, for example, accountable to the Public Service Commission and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat for powers assigned to them relating to financial and human resource management. Furthermore, under the Federal Accountability Act, introduced in 2006, deputy ministers are required to regularly appear before parliamentary committees. These reviews, however, are limited to examining the effectiveness of the deputy minister’s management of his or her department vis-à-vis legislated obligations and the government’s general priorities and directions. It does not extend to a deputy minister’s participation in policy development.

Non-partisanship of the Privy Council Office

In its 2006 report, Restoring Accountability – Recommendations, the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities (better known as the “Gomery Commission,” helmed by Mr. Justice John Gomery) undertook an analysis of the federal government and the state of Canadian democracy. An element of the Commission’s report criticized the operation of the modern PCO and clerk.

Central to the Commission’s criticism was the principle that PCO should be as non-partisan as possible in fulfilling its mandate and responsibilities. Whereas the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is intended to be the face of the prime minister to government, and to represent the partisan interests of the prime minister and governing political party, in the Commission’s view, PCO should be significantly different. According to the Commission, the basic function of PCO and the clerk are to provide expert and impartial advice and support in government decision-making. As such, PCO and its clerk are to be the face of the public service — both to the prime minister and cabinet — representing the interests of individual departments and the general public interest, rather than a particular elected official or political party.

In examining the modern Privy Council Office, however, the Commission concluded that this non-partisanship had become significantly undercut. This was due, in large part, to the appointment process of senior PCO staff, such as the clerk and deputy ministers. Under the current process, the prime minister enjoys full discretion in appointing senior staff. This, in turn, the Commission argued, creates an environment in which the clerk and deputy ministers may become potentially beholden to partisan interests, as their careers depend largely on satisfying the expectations of the prime minister.

The Commission went on to argue that the Privy Council Office and its clerk were, at the minimum, divided in their roles. Instead of simply representing the face of the public service and the public interest to the prime minister and cabinet, they often acted as the face of the prime minister to the government as a whole. In this sense, PCO was becoming increasingly more like the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than an impartial and expert support body.

With this in mind, the Commission recommended several significant PCO reforms. The first was to adopt an open and competitive process for the selection of senior PCO staff, and deputy ministers in particular. The Commission argued that this reform would encourage non-partisanship at PCO by basing senior appointments on merit and open consultation, rather than the prime minister’s sole discretion.

Second, the Commission recommended that the function of PCO and its clerk be redefined and formalized through legislation. Further, the Commission recommended that the title of the head of PCO should be changed from “Clerk of the Privy Council” and “Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister” to simply “Secretary to the Cabinet.” Further, the Commission also recommended that this new position should no longer include stewardship over the public service; in the Commission’s view, creating such a role would mean a secretary would serve the cabinet as a whole, rather than the prime minister specifically. The Commission further contended that the main role of this official should be clearly defined as representing the “public interest” to the prime minister and cabinet. Again, the objective for the creation of such a position would be to ensure the position operated strictly in a non-partisan manner.

As of May 2009, the federal government had not instituted any of the Commission’s recommendations.

Privy Council Office and National Security

In 2004, the federal government created a new national security advisor to the prime minister inside PCO. This office is responsible for intelligence, threat assessment, and intra-agency cooperation on intelligence and security issues. In fulfilling this responsibility, the national security advisor provides daily briefs to the prime minister, advises the prime minister on what priorities the government should set in security and intelligence, and works with relevant government departments and agencies to ensure policy coordination.

The objective in creating the new office was to enable the federal government to address security concerns more effectively, particularly after terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and Canada’s subsequent involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Another impetus for the office’s creation was to ensure the security and intelligence community does not work in a compartmentalized manner, with little in the way of intra-agency communication and coordination.

Since its creation, however, the office has come under some criticism. In 2007, Reid Morden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) from 1988-92, publicly questioned the creation of the national security advisor within PCO in testifying before the the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence (Mayeda, 2007). According to Morden, PCO was effectively a bureaucratic arm of the prime minister and cabinet and, as such, would be beholden to partisan interests in developing and implementing security and intelligence policy. Morden criticized this situation, arguing that in a crisis-driven environment, security and intelligence decisions should be governed by independents and experts not beholden to political considerations. Moreover, Morden argued that PCO was a small secretariat dealing with a wide range of policy fields; consequently, he posited, PCO tends to minimize the importance of security and intelligence.

Morden advocated for the creation of a politically independent national security office — one that would be outside PCO. Moreover, he recommended that the national security advisor should be an expert in the field, with practical experience in the areas of security and intelligence — and a figure who is respected by the security community. In this context, Morden highlighted the examples of the United States’ Director of National Intelligence, as well as Britain’s Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

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