Who’s in charge here? Examining Governments as Actors

An understanding of the role and actions of government is obviously important when researching public issues. However, the answers to basic questions like “who is responsible for X program?”, “how was Y decision made?”, or even, “is there a policy on Z issue?” are not always obvious. Governmental decision-making processes are often opaque, and organisational structures and relationships between units of government can be complex. This chapter presents some background to government decision-making and identifies hurdles to researchers in the area, provides definitions of relevant concepts, and offers a guide to conducting research into government decision-making. The approach suggested is designed to manage the difficulties inherent in this kind of research and ensure that the outcome is as accurate and helpful as possible.

This chapter focuses on government, with governance discussed more fully in Chapters Ten (Institutions) and Thirteen (Globalisation). Everything in this section applies only to governments that are democratic – that is, all have elections and some degree of official accountability. This discussion will address broader issues of government and governance but only insofar as relevant to research. Relationships between and among departments will be discussed only in terms of the ways that governments generally operate. Those who lack background knowledge about a specific government are referred to encyclopedias, textbooks and newspapers to fill in the blanks.

1. Definitions

Units of government any and all bodies within government that carry out deliberations and/or make decisions about public issues.
Mandates for governance what a unit of government is mandated or empowered by legislation to do.
Jurisdiction the rights conferred by law upon governments to make decisions or undertake activities.
Central departments and agencies units of government with overall responsibility for the conduct of government.
Line departments bodies that carry out activities relating to specific sectors or actions of government.
Law here law only refers to documents labelled as law.
Policy here policy refers only to decisions that are labelled as such by government.
Program here programs are understood to be inclusive of all initiatives of government (i.e. what units of government actually do other than pass laws, issue policies and develop regulations).
Hybrid organizations government-private sector organizations that carry out governmental functions.
Devolution an assignment of responsibility for fulfilling what otherwise would be a government function to a private sector body.
Regulation a function of government, carried out by governmental agencies, or by departmental officials, or by a hybrid body or by private sector organizations.
Regulations formal rules (dealt with in Chapter Eleven).
Constituent interest group any group that has regular, routine relationships with government. It is any group that is consulted as a matter of course whenever specific laws, regulation, regulations, policies or programs are contemplated (see also Chapter Ten).
Stakeholders, user and advocacy groups advocacy group is the general term. Stakeholder (user) groups are one kind of advocacy group. Stakeholders are understood here to have a financial or legal interest in the decision to be made (see also Chapters Eight and Nine).
Political ethos worldview, discourse, political perspective, ideology and the approach taken by those with power in government (see also Chapter Fourteen).

2. Researching Government Decision-Making

A. Background

  • It is very unlikely that you will find a complete record of government activities.
  • The lack of available records of government decision-making can present a barrier to research.
  • Not every government policy is formally announced or designated as such, and changes to the names and mandates of government departments may pass unnoticed. You need to search the available record carefully to identify the information relevant for your research.
  • The background preparation and negotiations that precede a meeting, or the underlying rationales that shape a formal policy or decision are seldom made explicit. You may be able to glean this information from interviews, but participants are often reluctant to share these details with journalists and researchers.


The records of certain interdepartmental committee meetings would be very helpful for my research, but these are not published. Shouldn’t government be transparent? Are they trying to hide something?


The fact that records are not available does not necessarily indicate that a unit of government is being deliberately obstructive or is trying to hide something. Although most people want governments to be more transparent or accountable, there are sound reasons for not making all records of government decision-making publicly available.

The official reasoning behind the closed-door approach is that nothing would be accomplished if all deliberations and decision-making had to be undertaken in the harsh light of general scrutiny. Compromise could not be fashioned among those with different interests if all involved had to speak with an eye towards the press and public opinion. Given that many public issues are inherently controversial, agreements about how to proceed with them would be difficult if not impossible. Deliberation and decision-making would proceed at the proverbial snail’s pace. Nothing could or would get done.

Whilst transparency is desirable, and the absence of records can in some circumstances be problematic, there can also be good public policy reasons for not publishing records of all deliberations. Governments balance needs for transparency and accountability against needs for efficiency when deciding whether to make records available.

B. The locus of decision-making

  • To know where to concentrate efforts, you need to focus on the primary locus of decision-making. The crucial question is: Where, and in which units of government, are government decisions actually made?
  • There are three principal branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial.
  • On some matters and on many governments, the bureaucracy (executive branch) is the primary locus of decision-making despite the existence of an active legislature.
  • Ask: Is there a religious or ideological council or political party or a small unit within the executive that operates as the power behind the throne? Is there a unit of government that issues directives to all other units of government about what they must and what they are allowed to say?
  • Alternative places to focus to identify the locus of decision-making:
    • Records and transcripts of legislative bodies, political parties, elections, lobbying and the media
    • Line and central departments, expert and other committees
    • Regulatory bodies
    • Ministers’ press releases and journalists’ commentaries (where governments are heavily beholden to ideological or religious councils).


The government activity I am investigating seems to have very limited legislative oversight, and decision-making is left to a handful of officials. Why does the unelected bureaucracy have so much power in a democracy?


The extent of legislative oversight can depend on the context. For example, the City of Metropolitan Toronto has a legislatively-driven government, and most substantive debate and decision-making takes place in its legislative body. However, at a provincial level, the departments and agencies play a central role in deliberation and decision-making, and legislative proceedings are less interesting. Many governmental policies, some governmental programs, and all regulations originate within a department or agency, and are likely implemented by officials of departments or agencies often without any legislative oversight at all. Many governmental actions require no legislative action except inclusion in the government’s budget.

There are two main pragmatic reasons for the importance of the bureaucracy: someone has to prepare materials, consult with constituent interest groups, respond to queries from members of the public, and perform other functions – officials from various departments and agencies carry most of the load here; and all decisions about public issues involve not only debate but also negotiation and compromise. Therefore, you should never assume that all relevant deliberation will be contained in records of legislative proceedings.

Constituent interest groups

  • The term ‘constituent interest groups’ refers to more than stakeholders, but to any group consulted as a matter of course in government decision-making.
  • Not all units of government make provision for the inclusion of constituent interest groups, or at least those that are not stakeholder. They also do not deal with members of the public except if such people have legal and economic interests.

D. Power and influence within and among units of government

  • Not all units of government are equally important actors.
  • Central departments are especially important because they not only generate their own laws, policies, programs and regulations but also they have control over what other units of government do.
  • Central departments control budgets, access to funding and staffing for example. They assess the risk to government of proposed laws and policies, and control to a large extent what can and will be done.
  • The distinction between line and central departments and agencies is not always straightforward.
    • Central agencies themselves often have relationships with specific sectors (and so can be both a central and a line department).
    • Many line departments aspire to being central departments. That is they seek a mandate to assess and filter activities of other departments with respect to their own mandate.
  • There is a hierarchy of power and influence between and among units of government, including departments and central agencies. To some extent the hierarchy reflects the power and influence of the constituent groups involved in each case.
  • Ideas for governmental initiatives can be introduced almost anywhere in the governmental process, including by Cabinet members, by the party in power or the opposition parties, or by any unit of government.
  • Because governments receive many recommendations for action, some proposals for laws, policies, programs or regulations are combined with other ideas and can lose much of their specificity.


Governments receive a broad range of proposals and suggested courses of action from a variety of different actors. How do they fairly decide how to proceed, and make sure they are not beholden to the group or institution initiating the proposal?


All ideas that are deemed to be worth follow up by the party in power are discussed with constituent interest groups before they are fully developed or approved. The constituent interest groups act as a filter, alerting all to the interests and implications involved in proceeding. Constituent interest groups are always involved when new initiatives are being considered. Very often, they generate ideas for new laws, policies, regulations and programs. This does not mean that the mining industry, for example, has the final say on new mining legislation, or that all groups consulted must agree among themselves before government proceeds with an initiative.

3. Steps in Research

A. Conduct a renewed news media search

  • Major governmental decisions, activities, programs, conflicts and controversies, all party platforms and much of politics are considered to be news.
  • Proposals, decisions, or activities are also almost always discussed in media, so that governments can test the waters.

B. Conduct a renewed documents survey

  • You need to determine in advance of detailed scrutiny which kinds of government documents are likely to be available, and how useful the available information will be.
  • Make decisions about the best way to proceed to keep the research manageable.
  • Search for names and descriptions of units of government, reports, task forces and committees that have been missed earlier.
  • Identify blogs that deal with government (written by journalists, politicians, and advocate and stakeholder groups).

C. Conduct a subject search on web

  • Laws, policies, regulations and programs are often formally enunciated and documents are made public, available on the web.
  • Be careful – some laws, policies, regulations and programs go by titles that do not map well onto your concerns.
  • Remember that these formal laws, policies, regulations and programs are not all that governments do, and it is necessary to dig deeper using the steps that follow.

D. Identify the jurisdiction and relevant relationships between jurisdictions

  • You need to identify not only the jurisdiction of interest but its relationship to other jurisdictions.
  • The key question is: who is legally in charge?
  • Remember: you are only interested in other jurisdictions to the extent that decisions or actions in these other jurisdictions affect the jurisdiction of interest and the public issue of concern to you.


Where do I look to find out who is legally in charge?


The answer to this question is not always straightforward. Basic answers may be found in textbooks and by asking professors, students, or fellow researchers. More detailed, up-to-date and sophisticated analyses are found in policy, public administration and political science journals where relationships between and among jurisdictions are often discussed. Clues about the jurisdictional relationships also come from looking closely at the sources of funding for each activity that a government undertakes. You can find about these funding arrangements by checking the various websites on transfers of monies and, in the Canadian case, equalization payments. Do not assume you know who is controlling decision-making in a particular area until you have checked at least these information sources. In some cases, to find out who is in charge, interviews are needed.

E. Conduct a study of legislative action

  • Assuming you have decided that the important deliberations and decision making take place in legislative forums, you need to collect and scrutinize their agendas, lists of speakers, proceedings, decisions and any public record of their proceedings.
  • Remember to include all of the various committees of legislators (including Senate committees).
  • Concentrate on the issues and arguments raised, the conflicts and controversies, the participants and the contributors as well as decisions.

 F. Map the relevant units of government

  • Now focus on the bureaucracy. Begin by creating a map of all the units of government that could possibly be involved with your issue.
  • Create the map by locating organisational charts and directories of the government of interest.
  • The map begins as a graphic version of a list. Later, you can erase some units of government if it becomes evident that they are not involved, and can start to draw lines to represent relationships between and among units of government.
  • Go to the websites of each unit of government on your map to search for evidence of its involvement and its connections to other units of government. Look also for mention of inquiries, task forces, committees, expert groups, and environmental assessments. 


How do I decide which units of government to include on my map? Many departments are potentially involved and they each have their own complex organisational chart.


In looking at the organisational charts, ask yourself whether each unit of government identified might possibly be involved in your public issue. Involvement in this case means not only direct involvement, say, in funding hospitals. It also means indirect involvement, everything from setting the general framework for regulation or determining the resources likely to be available. Start by including every unit that could conceivably be involved; you can remove some units at a later time once you have checked their involvement.

G. Identify outcomes (formal policies and regulations)

  • Identify the formal outcomes of decision-making – policies and regulations.
  • Many government publications will contain a summary of who is involved and perhaps a history of this involvement in any decision.
  • Press releases can also provide a useful but limited source of information.
  • Freedom of information provisions may allow researchers to find specific information (though these are less useful than they may seem).


Where can I find evidence of formal outcomes?


In Canada, there is a document called the Canada Gazette, where notice is given of governmental decisions or proposals for decision. This is the best list of formal policies and regulations that exists. There are equivalents to the Gazette in most countries. 

H. Assess involvement of units of government

  • Here you should assess the units of government that one would have expected to be involved but for which no evidence of involvement is found.
  • Before erasing their names from the map, a quick perusal of news indexes is helpful.
  • It can also be helpful to speculate about why these units of government are not involved.

I. Legal research

  • Now conduct legal research as discussed in Chapter Eleven. 

I. Examine institutions

  • Look closely at institutions, using Chapter Ten as your guide.
  • Look especially for forums for deliberation in government departments, especially those that permit public and/or stakeholder participation.
  • Also look at government-related bodies that are formally independent of government. Many operate with a government mandate and funding.

J. Examine central departments and agencies

  • Shift your focus to the central departments and agencies of government.
  • The government’s budget estimates and records of spending are an important source of information especially if they are compared year after year.
  • Detailed records of all these departments need to be scrutinized. Academic publications are especially useful here for background information.
  • Now look more closely at the corporate constituent interest groups using Chapter Eight as your guide.

K. Renewed media search and documents survey

  • Now it is time to return to the media search and documents survey yet again for mention of more useful material.

Case study

 Parliamentary and Senate committees

My research involved looking at parliamentary committee proceedings.  I was interested in the initial discussions about self-government for and by First Nations and more specifically the testimony of First Nations leaders before parliamentary committees in the 1970s  I knew that “proceedings” refers to the record of evidence and discussion in a parliamentary committee.  Debates or Hansard refers to the debates in either Chamber.  These terms appeared on the cover of each day’s record.  “Parliamentary committees” referred to committees of both or either House and Senate.

I quickly found out that contemporary popular media frequently refer to a “Senate study” rather than a study by a Senate Committee, e.g., the Senate Committee on cross-border pricingThe difference can seem largely pedantic until I wanted to check out the committee report or check the primary source. There is a definite and fairly logical order to the classification and cataloguing of committee proceedings.

Before I delved into the “how” of parliamentary committee research I want to say something about “why”.  When I began my doctoral research on testimony of First Nations leaders before parliamentary committees in the 1970s, a number of the bound volumes of evidence felt like their spines had never before been cracked.  I, on the other hand, had chosen to write about a continuing event that required me to delve deeply into the work of the committees.  I had also been tracking the work of a handful of special committees over a very long time.

I knew that parliamentary committees is one of the main sites in which First Nations leaders express their views and the views of their assemblies before a public audience, even if it was one with limited authority.  I think my observation holds on a much broader basis.  For example, since coming to office, the current Canadian government has introduced a number of “get tough on crime” bills.  These bills have attracted testimony from very diverse groups:  an association of Crown attorneys; an association of defence counsel; victims’ groups; John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society.  Committee proceedings are the one place where views of currently proposed legislation can be found together with responses of a cross-section of parliamentarians.

Secondly, I found the statements of ministers sponsoring legislation or with responsibility for a legislative field under study by a special committee often to be more instructive than their speeches in the House of Commons.  Commons speeches are often more formal, set pieces, and sometimes more partisan.  Not always, but fairly often, ministers will speak to a committee in a much more conversational tone; and, thereby offer insights into their thinking and the thinking of their senior officials that is not readily found elsewhere.  Thirdly, I found that the questions of Senators and MPs are often instructive about that person’s interest in understanding the issues of concern to a given witness group.

Finally, resources were available. The world of parliamentary research underwent a tectonic shift in 1996, when “parliamentary papers” (bills, debates, journals, committee proceedings and minutes) became available on line at the parliamentary web site, http://www.parl.gc.ca.

I already knew that both houses of the Canadian Parliament have committees. The Commons has three types of committees:  standing committees; special committees and legislative committees.  The Senate has only special committees and standing committees.  Historically, bills (proposed legislation) were referred to standing committees while mandates to study broad areas, e.g., poverty, mass media, Indian self-government went to special committees.[1]  Senate committees have, in recent years, been given the authority (by  Senate) to initiate broad studies on their own initiative.  Their doing so sidesteps the need for a Senate resolution; if most of the expertise is already on a committee mandated to study legislation in a given field, scheduling is simpler that one committee studies legislation, There are also a few joint committees, the most interesting of which can be treated as special studies, e.g., the Joint Committee on the Constitution, 1970-72.

If an Act was passed in a certain year, I would go to the Debates (Hansard) where there was usually a motion to send the bill to a particular committee.  (The year a bill was passed can be found in the annual statute book.) If there was a “special study” by a standing committee, my first step to finding it is to browse through the stacks of parliamentary materials.  (Usually, all the committee proceedings for a given parliamentary session are grouped together with the Debates for that session.

Browsing before and after the legislative session I thought would be my primary target was very rewarding.  For example, the Government may introduce an omnibus criminal law bill that combines a series of more specific bills and rely on the evidence of earlier legislative sessions.  I needed to be prepared to work in reverse chronological order in gathering  parliamentary research materials.  If there was a study in a previous session it was very likely referred to both in the Debates and in the abbreviated study of the repeated bill.

I checked out the orders of reference (mandate) of the standing committees, at least those that were of interest.  Obviously it is safe to start with the committee to which the bill would most logically belong.  The same can be said of special studies. But I learned not stop there: Just because a bill logically belongs to a certain committee does not mean that  it will go to that committee.  In Canada, I knew that the study of “on reserve matrimonial property” had been sent to the Senate Committee on Human Rights at a time when the Aboriginal Peoples Committee was already studying a suite of other bills.  (The Government of the time also wanted to bypass the Aboriginal Peoples Committee.)  When the Government finally crafted a bill, it too was sent to the Human Rights Committee because, it was argued at the time, that committee now was seen to have the expertise.

For me, an important lesson was that asking for help is perfectly legitimate.  If I had made a real effort to locate materials, I sent an email either to the clerk of the committee, the chair of the committee (who will give it to an aide to answer) or a senator or member who has been on the committee for a number of sessions.  Any of these could and most did point me to the place to start my search.

As late as the 1960s in Canada, the chairmen of Senate committees were required to go back to the Senate to ask that their proceedings be printed.  So, I knew not to take for granted that the study of every bill in committees of both houses resulted in printed proceedings.  If a study of the bill cannot be found in the committee’s proceeds for that session, and if there is no motion for authority to print the proceedings by the chair, then there probably is no record.

If a bill had been given second reading in a previous session of the same Parliament and was reintroduced in a later session without any changes in the text, it would be allowed to proceed in the new session from where it left off. Learning this meant my having an increased appreciation for the numbering of parliaments and sessions.  When I was doing my study, we were in the 1st session of the 41st Parliament (often written 41:1).  Committee proceedings are issued for each day, or sometimes a series of two or three days’ hearings.  The proceedings published in a stapled booklet format is called an “issue” and each issue is numbered.  So numbering can include (a) the Parliament; (b) the session; (c) the issue; and, (d) the page.  Occasionally a special study will extend over a number of sessions. The numerical reference is handy, especially because it  always appears on the cover of the issue.

Each of the steps discussed above apply both to the “hard copy” proceedings from earlier periods and the more contemporary digitized versions.  I did my browsing from the comfort of my own computer but I found that I also needed to browse hard copies to find the real nuggets.  (Some university libraries print out the digitized copies and place them on the shelves in the same manner as earlier parliaments.) One of the major differences between hard copy and digitalized documents is of benefit primarily to research on a current session of the legislature.  In Canada, a simple email to the clerk of the committee will get a person onto a subscription list for “the blues,” an early draft version of the proceedings.  “Blues” subscribers are asked not to rely on the “blues” because they are necessarily sent out before committee members and witnesses have an opportunity to correct the statements attributed to them.

Another difference between hard and digitalized documents searching is indexing.  Although the indexing of Canadian parliamentary debates has been quite thorough for many years, the indexing of committee proceedings as late as the 1970s was uneven.  When I wanted to identify all the testimony of Indigenous leaders I went through the entire index and copied into a word processing program all the names and the dates of their appearances.  I then re-arranged this list from an alphabetical list of names to a chronological list of proceedings to check out.  Indexing can (and should) have a great deal of repetition:  In Canada, all the speakers on a certain bill will be listed under that bill; the same information can be gleaned under the individual parliamentarian’s name where a list of all his/her interventions will occur.  Sometimes there will be a third heading under the subject matter.

The parliamentary web site lists all the committees of both houses and the debates of both houses.  There is an Advanced Search window in which a person can enter the subject matter, or a bill number and then indicate (1) which Parliament and session; (2) which Chamber (In Canada, Commons or Senate); (3) whether you want committee proceedings, minutes, debates or   journals.  (The items are available in five minute bites; or, you can download the entire day’s proceedings in either html or pdf.  The short bites tell you if you are on the right path.  The pdf allows you to cite a reference.  In using the Advanced Search, unless you know the time frame and committee I found it important to cast a broad net for starters.  I would then download each item, assigning a title useful to my research that would also place the files in chronological order.  This let me download in a largely backward process, and then do my reading and note making from beginning to end.

Once you have read this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Understand some of the difficulties inherent in researching government decision-making, and develop strategies to manage them.
  2. Understand key terms relating to government decision-making.
  3. Map the field of government decision-making as it relates to your research.
  4. Identify and explain relationships of power and influence between units of government.
  5. Locate and analyse sources of information regarding government decision-making.

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