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date: 20 January 2020

Central Agencies and Control in Public Administration

Summary and Keywords

The concentration of power at the center of government transcends both political systems and geography. Heads of government everywhere are dealing with powerful forces from permanent election campaigns, social media, 24-hour news channels, the requirement to provide a government-wide perspective on virtually all policy issues, and the need to manage the blame game at a time when transparency requirements are becoming more demanding. They need help to deal with these powerful forces, to manage the policy process, and to direct the work of their government. They can turn to both partisan political advisors and central agencies to assist them in governing from the center.

Central agencies stand at the apex of power linking the political with the administrative. They have grown in size and influence in both parliamentary and presidential systems and, in the process, helped heads of government to concentrate more and more power in their own hands. They have grown in size and influence because heads of government have allowed it, if not encouraged it. Central agencies play a leading role in generating policy advice, in allocating financial and human resources, in shaping human resources policies, in monitoring the performance of line departments and agencies, and in establishing regulatory policies that apply both inside and outside government. They have proven to be helpful in helping heads of government to define new measures, to coordinate activities to pursue overarching goals and to make certain that line departments and agencies run on their tracks. It is necessary to explore the capacity of the center of government from several different national settings and from several perspectives to exercise direction on policy and control over the rest of government.

Keywords: public administration, public administration and policy, central agencies, machinery of government, governance, bureaucracy

There are things common to all Western representative democracies. All have tried their hand at pursuing New Public Management-inspired measures, albeit with varying degrees of success, and all have at the same time considerably strengthened central agencies both in terms of size and influence (Savoie, 1994). The center now rules in all things. It not only sets the government’s broad political and policy agenda, the center is involved in all things, large and small if the center so wishes, and it often does.

The concentration of power at the center transcends political systems and geography. It is particularly evident in Westminster-inspired parliamentary systems. However, we are also seeing a shift towards the center in presidential systems, including the United States, and semi-presidential, including France. The shift is also evident in other countries whether or not they are home to parliamentary or presidential systems. Prime ministers and presidents, together with their close advisors, are looking to locate more and more power in their offices and in central agencies, not only because they can but also because they believe that they deal with new political and economic forces that require a strong capacity at the center of government. In response, central agencies are, in some instances, pushing the envelope as far as constitutions allow them. A recent collection of essays from 10 countries reveal that governing from the center is evident in different political systems (Dahlström, Peters, & Pierre, 2011).

The 10-country survey reports that, no matter the country and no matter the political system, heads of government overshadow everyone else in and around government. Francesco Stolfi makes the case, for example, that personification of politics in Italy is now complete (Stolfi, 2011). The survey also reveals that New Public Management (NPM) has been far more evident and successful in Westminster-inspired parliamentary systems than in other systems. NPM measures, it will be recalled, were designed to “decenter” government operations (Halligan, 2011). And yet central agencies have only grown in size and influence in Westminster-inspired parliamentary systems since the arrival of NPM. However, the arrival of NPM is only one of several forces that have strengthened central agencies in their dealings with line departments and agencies. When it comes to locating where power actually lies in the machinery of government, we are witnessing parliamentary systems becoming presidential and presidential systems become more parliamentary.

Central agencies sit at the apex of power and influence in government. They bridge the political and analytical elements of policymaking (Campbell & Szablowski, 1979). They help the heads of government to pursue their agenda and to ensure democratic control of bureaucracies. Central agencies are there to assist presidents, prime ministers, and their cabinets to spend their energy in a productive manner, determine priorities, ensure policy coordination, and look to line departments and agencies to assess progress and how best to allocate resources.

Parliamentary Systems Becoming Presidential and Presidential Systems Becoming Parliamentary

No matter the political system and no matter the country, it seems, central agencies are getting larger and stronger than they were 20 years ago. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that the financial and fiscal crisis of 2008 led governments in its 28 member countries to take decisive actions and to mobilize government departments and agencies to support those actions. They did this by strengthening their central agencies. They perform a variety of functions from preparing Cabinet meetings, to leading strategic planning exercises, to monitoring how well departments are implementing policies. As the OECD suggests, there are “strong similarities” emerging regarding the functions central agencies perform even though governments are “a product of diverse historical, cultural and political forces” (OECD, 2015).

Different countries have different political institutions and machinery of government. In the United States, for example, the Cabinet is a creature of the president, and presidents “are at liberty to make considerable use of it as a source of advice, or they are free to neglect it completely” (Hart, 1987, p. 126). Though a number of presidents have chosen to neglect it, some have not. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, made use of the Cabinet as an instrument of collective policymaking. He insisted on regular Cabinet meetings and on taking all major issues before Cabinet. Other presidents began their days in office intending to use Cabinet as a source of collective policy advice, if not policymaking, but subsequently played havoc with their Cabinets (Hart, 1987, p. 120). Ronald Reagan established a number of Cabinet councils or committees to deal with specific issues and accordingly relied less on full Cabinet for advice than may have otherwise been the case. Still, Reagan is reported to have enjoyed the “spectacle of Cabinet meetings” (Hart, 1987, p. 123). President Donald Trump, as is well known, has had difficult relations with members of his Cabinet, admitting that he made several mistakes with his Cabinet appointments. He too appears to enjoy, on occasions, the spectacle of Cabinet meetings but there is little evidence to suggest that he pays much attention to the views of his Cabinet. The Washington Post reports that Trump listens more to his “gut” than to his advisors or Cabinet (Nakamura & Paletta, 2018). In short, presidents are free to make use of their Cabinets as they see fit.

Prime ministers are increasingly acting like presidents, albeit without the checks and balances usually found in presidential systems, notably when they hold a majority mandate. Presidents, meanwhile, are increasingly acting like prime ministers, albeit with some checks and balances, particularly when a different party controls Congress. Prime ministers, like the U.S. president, now appear to be at liberty to make use of Cabinet as a source of advice or to neglect it. The Cabinet in Westminster-inspired parliamentary systems has also become a “creature” of the prime minister.

Presidents, like prime ministers, now appear to take the legislative branch for granted, especially when their parties hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Leaving aside the odd voices, one could assume that the Executive and Legislative branches were fused in Trump’s first two years in office, much like they are in Westminster-inspired parliamentary systems (e.g., Goldsmith, 2017; Mounk, 2017).

Lowell Murray, a senior minister in the Brian Mulroney Cabinet, writes about Canada’s parliamentary system becoming presidential. He writes: “Cabinet government—by way of a far from atypical illustration, two key decisions regarding Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan—one by a Liberal government, one by a Conservative government—were made in the Prime Minister’s Office with the help of political advisors and civilian and military officials. The relevant ministers—of National Defense and Foreign Affairs—were not even in the room” (Murray, 2013, p. 27). The Cabinet was later informed of the decision. This is more akin to a presidential system where most decisions are made by presidents or bilaterally by presidents and a Cabinet secretary than by full Cabinet.

Canada is not alone in moving away from Cabinet government (e.g., Poguntke & Webb, 2005). Mark Bevir and R. A. W. Rhodes reviewed a series of media articles that document the rise of the “Blair Presidency” in Britain between 1997 and 2005. They also consulted a number of practitioners who offered observations suggesting that “more and more decisions were being taken at No. 10 without consultation with the relevant minister or secretary of state,” that there was a “lack of inclusiveness of the Cabinet,” and that the “Cabinet Office now serves the prime minister rather than the Cabinet collectively” (Bevir & Rhodes, 2000). Practitioners also report a series of important decisions that were “never even reported to Cabinet,” including “independence for the Bank of England, postponement of joining the Euro, cuts in lone-parent benefit and the future of hereditary peers” (Bevir & Rhodes, 2000).

Our purpose is to answer three questions: (a) Why is the center of government gaining more power? (b) How has the center of government been able to secure more power and control the work of departments and agencies? (c) How have central agencies contributed to these developments? These three questions are particularly relevant to public administration, given that they go to the heart of the workings of the machinery of government.


There are powerful forces at play that are pushing central agencies to grow and to exert greater control over both policy and government operations. Permanent election campaigns are an important factor and they are here to stay. Parliament and Congress are no longer the prime theater where adversarial politics play out, with the media taking on that role (e.g., Smith, 2013). Partisan spin specialists slug it out on 24-hour cable news channels and on social media on a continuing basis, forcing the hand of heads of government to campaign on an ongoing basis.

If anyone doubts that permanent election campaigns are here, one only has to look to Trump. He completed the paperwork establishing his 2020 re-election committee the very day he took office and immediately started fundraising efforts. He soon turned traditional non-political events into political ones, as he did when he spoke to the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree (BBC, 2017). Jesper Strömbäck sums it up: “Campaigns are permanent, although with varying intensity” (Strömbäck, 2008). Paul Thomas adds: “The techniques for winning power have been transferred increasingly to the processes of government” (Thomas, 2013). This is where central agencies come in.

Blurring the line between campaigning and governing holds far-reaching implications for government officials. For one thing, blending political campaigning with governance changes the relationship between politicians and career officials and the heads of government and their Cabinet ministers or secretaries. For another, it requires a capacity at the center of government to ensure that line government departments and agencies run on their tracks to avoid fueling the blame game.

Career officials know it is best to put things on autopilot to avoid making important decisions or launch new initiatives during election campaigns. Best to keep your head below the parapet, while politicians or their surrogates slug it out on the campaign trail. The sure way for a career official to derail a promising career is to be drawn into a partisan political debate (Savoie, 2003). Permanent election campaigns have made this an ongoing process with career officials becoming more tentative, more cautious in bringing forward bold policy advice or recommendations to overhaul government programs.

It is not a coincidence that permanent election campaigns arrived at about the same time as did the 24-hour cable news channels and access to information legislation. Prime ministers and presidents value government officials who avoid negative publicity, can manage a real-time or emerging crisis, and are willing to fall on hand grenades on their behalf. A blame-avoidance culture has now set in in government throughout the Western world. What heads of government value are government departments and agencies that do not create political problems or controversies. To be sure, there is never a shortage of crises or potential crises in large government departments operating in the highly charged political environment of permanent election campaigns.

Christopher Hood writes that both politicians and public servants have turned to a blame-avoidance culture in response to the new media and the emphasis on transparency (Hood, 2010). To be sure, there is no shortage of blame generators to fuel the blame game from auditors, opposition political parties, the media, and interest groups. This, at a time when Western governments continue to strengthen accountability and transparency requirements that have opened up government operations.

The blame game, the new media, and the need to promote a political leader’s brand have all combined to encourage presidents and prime ministers to concentrate more and more power in their hands, in those of their closest advisors, and in central agencies. There is little room for political missteps in this increasingly politically volatile environment. Presidents and prime ministers made it to the top and they invariably trust their own political instincts better than those of their Cabinet secretaries or ministers. In the United States, the Trump brand matters more to Donald Trump than the Republican Party brand, and the same can now be said in Canada regarding the Trudeau versus the Liberal Party brand.1 Promoting one’s brand requires a capacity in central agencies to ensure that all departments and agencies walk in lockstep to promote the brand.

NPM measures, as is well known, were designed to empower front-line managers. NPM also arrived at the same time that politicians became convinced that public servants had gained too much influence in shaping policy and in government (e.g., Savoie, 1994). NPM measures, it will be recalled, were designed in part to do away with some centrally prescribed rules and requirements. The goal was to liberate government managers to enable them to manage like their private sector counterparts. Line managers gained new authorities to hire staff, to reclassify positions, and to commit to new spending once the overall budget was struck.

The measures came at a price, however, at least for line departments. They are expected to produce numerous evaluation and performance reports for central agencies. This enables central agencies to keep a read on what departments and agencies are doing, how well they are doing it, and what new measures they are planning. The reports are much more demanding, more complex, and more revealing for central agencies than documents that departments submitted when governments operated under the line-item budget process (e.g., Savoie, 1990).

The shift away from line-item budgeting has not prevented Western democracies from having to deal with stubborn deficits. Central agencies have always played a key role in preparing expenditure budgets. John Wanna explains: “Control over resources makes central budget agencies powerful institutions … Their power is expressed in the name of collective decision-making principally through the non-market allocation of public resources to authorized purposes of government” (Wanna, 2003, p. xxiii). Aaron Wildavsky defined how students of government viewed government budgeting over 50 years ago. He saw it as the outcome of an interplay between “guardians” and “spenders” (Wildavsky, 1974). The argument was that the spenders, notably line departments and agencies, would push as hard as they could for new funding, while protecting their existing spending levels against guardians or central agencies pushing back as hard as they could against new spending proposals and in order to find spending reductions.

Guardians have taken various forms. At one point, attempts were made to downplay the role of central agencies by turning spenders into guardians. The objective was to make budgeting a collective decision-making exercise, forcing the hand of all spenders to account for their decisions in shaping the government’s expenditure budget. The efforts failed (Good, 2007). Spenders never made the transition to play a guardian role. The result is that central agencies now rule with a firmer hand in striking budgets than at any time in the past. Prime ministers in parliamentary systems, together with their ministers of finance or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, now strike virtually all budget decisions, large and small. They package these decisions and at times other decisions that have weak ties to the budget into omnibus bills. Parliament does not have the capacity to review in any detail these omnibus bills, giving central agencies the ability to load them up with various measures, some with uncertain ties to the budget (Massicotte, 2013).

The problem is not limited to parliamentary systems. Donald Trump served notice in 2018 that he was unhappy with omnibus bills and asked for a line-item veto to give him more control over the federal budget (Rudalevige, 2018). He told Congress that he would never sign an all-encompassing omnibus bill again: “I say to Congress that I will never sign another bill like this again. I’m not going to do it again” (quoted in Le Miere, 2018). Prime ministers have also been critical of omnibus bills when in opposition. However, they soon have a change of heart when they come to power (e.g., Savoie, 2015). I note that prime ministers in Westminster-styled parliamentary systems with a majority mandate essentially have a line-item veto over the budget.

The point is that prime ministers and presidents, together with their key advisors and central agencies, no longer trust others to shape the government’s most important document and policy statement—the budget. The result is that governments are drifting more and more towards one-person rule, with prime ministers and presidents relying on a few carefully selected courtiers and central agencies to assist them in striking important spending decisions and avoiding others exercising greater control over the machinery of government (Savoie, 1999).

While heads of government are increasingly concentrating power in their own hands and in central agencies, there is also less power to go around for national governments. Students of government have been asking for some time if globalization is undermining the sovereignty of nation-states (Wolf, 2001). We have seen in recent years a growing number of powerful international organizations established to deal with a myriad of public policy issues including climate change, terrorism, and the economy. Nation-states have had to adjust.

The global economy is also putting pressure on national governments to coordinate better their policies and programs. Regional trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement push national governments to harmonize a wide variety of laws and policies from one nation-state to another. This requires an ability to promote a government-wide capacity to review regulations and programs, strengthening the hand of central agencies. There are precious few policy choices available to national governments that have no international implications, and only central agencies are in a position to bring a government-wide perspective to emerging policy issues.

National governments have also come to recognize that, for their countries to be competitive in the international marketplace, they need to be proactive in coordinating key economic and social policies, and in particular their labor market and social programs. In short, no longer can government permit policies and even departments to operate in relative isolation. While it may have been appropriate 60 years ago to establish sectoral line departments to deal with problems in agriculture, transportation, and industry in relative isolation, this is no longer the case. In brief, nothing now belongs to a single government department or agency. This, too, strengthens the hand of central agencies in dealing with line departments and agencies (Savoie, 1999).

Presidents and prime ministers may also be moving to grab more power for themselves and their offices because of the amorphous nature of political power. They see more and more political power being exercised by both the market and transnational institutions. They may well think that since power is increasingly fragmented, best to centralize whatever “loose” political power that is available.

We have also witnessed ambitious privatization programs since the early 1980s in many Western countries. It will be recalled that privatization first came into fashion in the United Kingdom, spreading to other countries shortly thereafter. No one has since tried to turn back the clock (e.g., BBC, 2002). Doing away with crown or state corporations also does away with some of the power available to heads of government. Presidents and prime ministers could look to crown and state corporations to shape economic policies and to make appointments to reward partisans.

“Make or buy policies” and privatization initiatives make the point that national governments no longer command the respect and influence that they once did. This, in turn, explains the rise of public–private partnership arrangements and contracting out government activities. This, too, leaves national governments with less power to steer the ship of state. Less power available to national governments means less power available for presidents and prime ministers.


The media have also forced the hand of presidents and prime ministers to govern from the center. Presidents and prime ministers invariably dominate the news cycle. The media will focus on them, not on Cabinet members, and this begins in election campaigns. This has always been the case in presidential systems and it is now increasingly the case in parliamentary systems. In brief, they are the only political actors that truly matter at all times, given the shift to permanent election campaigning. Heads of government, contrary to Cabinet secretaries or ministers, do not have to seek media attention.

The electronic media, given the need for the 20-second video clip and sound bites, will also focus on party leaders rather than on selected party candidates, even those that may enjoy a high media profile. Journalists buy seats on the chartered aircraft of party leaders and follow them everywhere. The media and, by extension, the public, will focus on the clash of party leaders. How well a party leader does in the televised debates can have an important impact, or at least be perceived to have an important impact, on the election campaign, if not the election itself (e.g., Johnston, Blais, Brady, & Crête, 1992, p. 244). Think of Donald Trump in the United States, Justin Trudeau in Canada, and Emmanuel Macron in France and their performance in televised debates during election campaigns and their impact on election outcomes.

Presidents and prime ministers have pollsters to help them get a feel for their political standing and how party or government policies are being received. They no longer have to turn to Cabinet secretaries, ministers, and line departments or senior members of their political parties to know where voters stand on any given issue or the merit of a government program. Public opinion surveys are more reliable, more objective, more to the point, and easier to deal with than Cabinet secretaries and ministers or senior party members. Surveys also enable heads of government to challenge the views of Cabinet members—after all, how can the most senior Cabinet member dispute what public opinion surveys report (Savoie, 1999)?

Central Agencies

Heads of government look to central agencies not just for policy advice but also to ensure that line departments and agencies run on their tracks. This has made government thicker and pushed line departments and agencies further away from presidents and prime ministers (Light, 1995). As already noted, line departments and agencies, particularly in Anglo-American democracies, are being asked to submit, on a regular basis, numerous audit and performance reports. Canadian public servants in line departments, for example, are increasingly complaining about the level and frequency of information that they are being asked to provide to central agencies, labeling the process “feeding the beast” (e.g., Savoie, 2013). One Canadian deputy minister—the department’s most senior career official—reports that about 40% of the staff now work on various reports to “feed the beast.”2 Central agencies now work for presidents and prime ministers, rarely for Cabinet secretaries or even ministers.

The beast has grown in size. In the case of Canada, in 1969, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO) employed 260 employees, the Department of Finance 372, and the Treasury Board 444 (Canada, 1969). Today, PMO-PCO employ over 727 employees, Finance 750, and Treasury Board Secretariat 1,761 (Canada, 2018). In Britain, the center of government has also grown notwithstanding the fact that the size of government is smaller today than it was in the 1970s. George Jones and Andrew Blick document the growing influence and size of central agencies under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and there is no sign that anyone is willing to turn back the clock (Blick & Jones, 2010). The U.S. government website outlines the role, size, and growing mandate of the “Executive Office of the President.” It is home to the powerful Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Executive Office itself has also carved out an important role for itself on national security, science and technology policies, the environment, drug control, and economic policy (United States, 2018). Central agencies increasingly mirror the structure of government, which enables them to monitor and control better line departments and agencies.

This makes the point that heads of government have everything they need in their immediate offices and central agencies to strike key policy decisions as well as a capacity to control line departments and agencies to ensure that they do as they are told. Many government officials welcome the opportunity to work at the center of government, in central agencies, where the action is and effective political power lies. It is also often a fast track for promotions.

Working at the center of government for heads of government, however, puts pressure on line departments to respond to political pressure from the government of the day. Peter Aucoin writes about the pressure on senior public servants in Westminster countries to become “promiscuously partisan.” He sees a new approach to governance shaped by the rise in numbers and influence of partisan political staffers tied to prime ministers. He adds that prime ministers and their close partisan advisors are increasingly interpreting “public service loyalty” as “support for the government.” More to the point, he sees senior public servants becoming “promiscuously partisan for the government of the day.” Aucoin argues that the most trusted courtiers to the prime minister “can be as influential, or even more influential, as senior ministers or senior public servants, given the growing influence of central agencies.”

Aucoin’s focus on the public service was on a cadre of senior public service executives that numbers about 80 at the deputy minister and associate deputy minister levels, all appointed by the prime minister (Aucoin, 2012). Permanent secretaries and deputy ministers have become part of the center, associated with central agencies in all but name. He could have added many at lower levels, or those aspiring to be appointed at the two most senior levels. Michael Keating, former secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister in Australia, put it succinctly when he observed that there is a tendency among senior public servants looking for a promotion to be “excessively eager to please” (quoted in Aucoin, 2012, p. 189). The eagerness to please is toward heads of government rather than Cabinet ministers or secretaries, because heads of government hold the power of appointment.

The point is that a small layer of the most senior levels of the public service has been integrated with continuous election campaigns. The layer has become much more visible both inside and outside of government. The most senior public servants are now expected to deal with stakeholders, the media, and parliamentarians and participate in public forums and public consultation exercises. Prime ministers and their most senior ministers “sometimes explicitly, usually implicitly, expect these public servants who are seen and heard in countless public forums to support government policy, to go beyond mere description and explanation” (Aucoin, 2012, p. 191). In an era of highly charged and volatile political environments of permanent election campaigns, one ought not be surprised that presidents, prime ministers, and their courtiers will view the most senior public servants from the perspective—are they with us or against us?

As noted, presidents and prime ministers do not need to seek media attention. The 24-hour news channels are invariably focused on them, on their movements, and on their tweets. The media expect answers to their questions and there is only one person who can provide definite answers, no matter the issue. This requires central agencies to be on top of most issues and to be able to anticipate questions. This gives them or their senior political advisors quick and direct access to public servants down the line in government departments and agencies to secure answers.

Central Agencies and Their Six Sectors

The work of central agencies covers the waterfront. They link the head of government and Cabinet to the whole of the machinery of government; they are the buckle that links politics to public administration. Central agencies make their presence felt in all policy fields and they intervene regularly in six sectors: policy advice, appointments, coordinating policies, monitoring and evaluating performance, and regulating activities. Central agencies have strengthened their capacity in all six sectors. The goal is, in part, to assist heads of government to have a stronger say in directing the ship of state but also to ensure that line departments and agencies run on their tracks.

Central agencies dominate the policy advice sector more than at any time in the past. In their 10-country survey on steering from the center, Dahlström et al. (2011) report a power struggle between central agencies and line departments in both parliamentary and presidential systems. They and other students of government point out that central agencies have, in recent years, gained the upper hand (e.g., Peters, Rhodes, & Wright, 2000). Given the rise of the new media and permanent election campaigns, only heads of government can give definite answers to questions. Presidents and prime ministers will look to their immediate political advisors and central agencies for advice and answers rather than to their Cabinet members and line departments.

Heads of government can also turn to appointments of senior government officials to direct and control the machinery of government. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney summed up the importance of the appointment process. He wrote that a Canadian prime minister “leading a majority government is the most powerful elected figure in any democracy, as he enjoys complete authority over both the executive and the legislative branches of the government and personally appoints and dismisses Cabinet ministers and senior public servants” (Mulroney, 2016, p. 1).3 In the United States, the president holds, in his own hands, the power to appoint Cabinet secretaries and a number of senior public servants. An incoming president can appoint about 4,000 government officials with only about 1,200 requiring Senate confirmation. In France, particularly when his party holds power in the National Assembly, the President holds power to appoint the key actors in the administration including Cabinet ministers.

We have noted that nothing belongs to a single government department or agency anymore. There was a time when a government department of, say, agriculture was clearly responsible for agriculture. No more. Several departments now have a role in agriculture, from departments responsible for the environment to labor. This is true for all other line government departments. Only central agencies can rise above the fray to provide a full picture and knock heads together to pursue a government-wide objective (e.g., Støstad, 2000).

Central agencies have also considerably strengthened their capacity to monitor and evaluate performance. New Public Management measures did remove a number of centrally prescribed rules in the financial and human management sector. Line departments and agencies were given a freer hand to staff positions, to reclassify positions, and to reallocate financial resources within their budgets. In exchange, however, central agencies have substantially strengthened their capacity to monitor and to assess the work of departments and agencies in these areas. This has made government thicker and slowed down decision-making processes.

Governments have launched various efforts to deregulate economies to make them more efficient. The Brookings Institution reports that the shift to “deregulation” began in the United States in the 1970s, later spreading to other Western countries (Crandall, 2008). The efforts are ongoing. At the same time, governments have added new regulations and processes internally to assess potential risks and to avoid fueling the blame game (e.g., Hood, 2010). Indeed, New Public Management measures were hardly the final word on regulations within government. There is an ebb and flow to internal government regulations. Deregulation is usually in fashion until a scandal or bureaucratic miscues make it to the front pages of national newspapers. Central agencies then rush in to fix the problem with new rules to ensure that such miscues will not occur in future (e.g., Savoie, 2013).

The forces that have moved heads of government in Anglo-American democracies to concentrate more power in their hands by strengthening the role of central agencies are no less evident in other countries. Governments everywhere are dealing with the requirements of a more integrated global economy, trying to make their machinery of government more enterprising, coping with difficult fiscal challenges, and assessing the performance of line departments. As noted, the OECD reviewed the efforts of its member countries in enhancing public sector performance and strengthening accountability and control requirements by looking to the work of central agencies. It reports that central agencies from Spain, to Italy, to Sweden played a key role in these efforts (OECD, 2005, chaps. 3, 4, 7). The 10-country survey by Dahlström et al. (2011) came to the same conclusion. Lotte Jensen reports that Denmark has turned to “steering from the centre” to secure a stronger “control of the government narrative and content” (Jensen, 2011, p. 236). Carl Dahlström and Jon Pierre write that in Sweden, “changes in the political (coalition governments), administrative (administrative reforms), international (EU), policy (mainstreaming) and medial (growing media pressure) environments created a growing need to beef up and reassert the political centre to coordinate processes within the government offices (horizontal coordination), and even more importantly with other external actors such as the Parliament, the media, and interest organizations (vertical coordination)” (Dahlström & Pierre, 2011, p. 208). In brief, various forces are leading governments everywhere to steer from the center and they are looking to central agencies for help. Central agencies, in turn, have extended the scope of their work under all six sectors for which they are responsible.

It is important to note, however, that the arrival of conservative populism in parts of the Western world is not without far-reaching implications for central agencies. Populism holds a negative view of elites and central agency officials sit at the top in the machinery of government. They are the elites in government. Most heads of government may well wish to continue to rely on central agencies to assist them in governing from the center, in managing the blame game, the requirements of the global economy, and fiscal challenges (Saulnier, 2017). It remains to be seen, however, how heads of government who embrace conservative populism will learn to work with government elites that they and their supporters resent. It also remains to be seen how central agency officials will adapt to the will and political and policy direction of their political masters that hold a resentment towards government elites.

Looking Back

Heads of government and their advisors see many advantages in governing or steering from the center with a firm hand. They can shape the government’s policy agenda, ensure that departments and agencies run on their tracks, and better manage permanent election campaigns and the blame game. As former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien observed, prime ministers are the “boss” and Cabinet ministers are “advisors” (Chrétien, 2008). Presidents in the United States and France, for example, need not remind anyone that they are the boss. Cabinet ministers and Cabinet secretaries have been demoted to advisors and they are now lower in rank than chiefs of staff or senior policy advisors to presidents and prime ministers.

Heads of government in national governments are concentrating more and more power in their own hands through central agencies. They look to central agencies to help shape the government’s agenda, to monitor the performance of line departments, to allocate resources, to deny resources, to decide on all matters, large or small, or anything that matters to them, and to manage the blame game. To be sure, it helps to get things done and in managing permanent election campaigns.


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(1.) For an excellent study on the growing importance of political branding, see Marland (2017).

(2.) Paul LeBlanc, the head of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, told the author this in May 2016 in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.