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.

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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