It is often tempting to refer to public policy as being whatever government chooses to do or not to do. This description is of limited informational value, but it does serve to direct attention to the unlimited range of public policies through which government may interact with the population. To a large extent, public policy is about the role of government in society, the extent of government involvement, and how it is done.
For ease of presentation, if for no other reason, it is common for scholars to identify a public-policy cycle. This cycle consists of separate stages, such as agenda setting, policy formulation, decision making, policy implementation, policy evaluation, and policy change. In reality, the public policy process is not always ordered or linear.
Within this context of public policy, we can next observe the main policy options pursued in Canada. Much depends upon the government’s fiscal situation, whether there is a budget deficit or surplus, or whether there is need for an economic stimulus, as well as the size of the public debt, among other factors. At the same time, there are ideological differences between left-wing and right-wing orientations toward financial management issues.
Central agencies, line departments, and ABCs (agencies, boards, and corporations) make up a large part of the bureaucracy. Partisan agencies such as the Prime Minister’s Office provide direct support to the prime minister, while non-partisan institutions such as the Privy Council Office provide a different kind of non-partisan support to the political executive. The Treasury Board and Department of Finance are assigned key roles in respect to the government’s task of financial management, and each government unit must prepare annually for parliamentary approval of its estimated expenditures. Governments raise their revenues mainly through different types of taxes with varying taxation provisions. Similarly, government spending programs vary in content and impact different segments of the population.
To ensure good government in respect to the implementation of public policy in the modern administrative state, the hiring and promotion of public sector personnel is usually (but not always) based on the merit principle as opposed to patronage. In addition, there are several provisions and monitoring bodies to curb unethical behaviour by public officials.
This chapter’s professor profile profiles Jennifer Robson who researches social and tax policies and public administration. Professor Robson has also had first-hand experience working in government and has held numerous roles such as director of policy for non-profit organizations and political staff roles in the Chrétien government. This chapter’s discussion centres on the value of government jobs and whether it should be based on merit or patronage.
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:
- identify and distinguish between the key concepts of public policy, governance, public administration, and bureaucracy;
- grasp the major budgeting, taxation, and spending considerations of Canadian government; and
- be aware of the main program components of Canada’s social safety net.