Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government spends $50-million to $60-million annually on ministerial staff, including $8-million on the PMO, and ministers who are on the powerful Cabinet Priorities and Planning Committee spend $1.3-million more annually on staff than others who don’t make it to the “inner” Cabinet, says Jennifer Robson, a former staffer now teaching at Carleton University who recently concluded an analysis of ministerial staff spending based on the government’s public accounts. “The PMO is indeed mammoth compared to staffing afforded to other members of the ministry. It is also clear that more privileged members of the ministry have significantly larger budgets for their personal staff, whether they have large or small departmental budgets or many or few public servants in their portfolio to work with,” said Ms. Robson in her analysis, which she’s presenting this week at the annual Canadian Political Science Association Conference at Brock University. Titled Spending on Political Staffers and the Revealed Preferences of Cabinet: Examining a New Data Source on Federal Political Staff in Canada, the 21-page paper is the result of an estimated 200 hours of research and analysis to explore the expenditure data on ministerial staff spending published in the public accounts, which have included information on political staff spending since 2007. Ms. Robson examined the federal government’s public accounts over five fiscal years, from 2007-2012. Using membership on Cabinet’s Priorities and Planning Committee as a marker of influence and proximity, Ms. Robson found that ministers closest to Prime Minister Harper (Calgary Southeast, Alta.) seem to be rewarded with notably larger budgets for staff, with a year sitting on Cabinet’s Priorities and Planning Committee resulting in an average of $1.3-million more being spent on ministerial staff, and a month resulting in about $110,116 more spent on staff. “At least in this particular government, that’s the one committee of Cabinet that is chaired by the Prime Minister, that is the one committee of Cabinet that reviews all major policy decisions of the government. It’s a big ministry, 39-odd ministers now, but not every minister gets to sit on . It’s the inner-circle of the ministry so it’s a proxy measure for figuring out something about privilege within the ministry, a privileged position,” said Ms. Robson in an interview with The Hill Times last week. Ms. Robson, currently a faculty member in Carleton’s political management master’s program, which is focused on professionalizing the political staff ranks, is also a former Liberal staffer who worked for a number of ministers under the previous Liberal government, including as a staffer to former PM Jean Chrétien. She’s also part of a relatively small community of researchers in Canada who have examined the role political staff play in governing the country. In her paper, Ms. Robson notes, “public and objective data on this shadowed population is by no means easy to come across.” Intrigued by the ministerial staff spending information that started being publicized in 2007 through the public accounts as a result of the Federal Accountability Act, Ms. Robson said she wanted to explore what conclusions could be drawn from the new numbers. “The numbers are what they are. I’m sure you’ve heard the concept of revealed preferences, from either economics, or they have a similar idea in psychology, that if you’re spending money in a certain way or you’re acting in a certain way, chances are there’s a reason for it, and particularly if you start to see patterns over time,” Ms. Robson told The Hill Times. Out of a $270-billion annual federal fiscal framework, Ms. Robson found that between $50-million to $60-million is spent each year on political staff working for ministers and in the Prime Minister’s Office. Over the five years examined, a total of about $270-million was spent on political staff, at an average $53.9-million each year. Of that, Ms. Robson found an average of $8-million was spent annually on political staff in the Prime Minister’s Office alone—accounting for 15 per cent of total exempt staff spending and around double the highest amount spent on ministerial staff in any other portfolio during all of the years examined. “That’s one office out of 39 in total,” said Ms. Robson. Ms. Robson said $8-million is about as much as the U.K. government traditionally spends on special advisers (their version of exempt staff) for the entire ministry, including the Prime Minister’s Office. The highest spending outside the PMO was a tie at $4.05-million for political staff for Foreign Affairs and for International Trade in 2008-09. Ms. Robson began with three hypotheses for what the numbers on ministerial staff spending could indicate: first, a “principal agent” model whereby minister’s with bigger departments would be spending more money on political staff; second, a “hub and spoke” model whereby the centre (the Prime Minister’s Office) and ministers farthest from it would have the most spent on staff; and third, a “to the victor go the spoils” model whereby ministers with more influence are given more money to spend on staff. “The spoils system is the one that kind of bore out the best in the data. There’s a possibility that it’s kind of mediated by some kind of principle agent model, where the bigger the department, either by staff in the department or by departmental spending, that might mediate that relationship in terms of that position of privilege, but the spoils model was the one that really bore out best,” said Ms. Robson. In her paper, Ms. Robson also noted that while some portfolios “flow on and off” the committee, there exists “some subpopulation of the ministry that never has a representative,” and another subpopulation where the minister is always on the committee. Departments with “any” representation on Priorities and Planning spent an annual average of about $2.1-million on ministerial staff, almost double the average of $1.1-million spent on staff by departments without representation on the committee, Ms. Robson writes in her paper. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska-Restigouche, N.B.), Defence Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.), Justice Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.), Health Minister Rona Ambrose (Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta.), Public Works Minister Diane Finley (Haldimand-Norfolk, Ont.), Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.), Treasury Board President Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southeast, Alta.), Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.), International Cooperation Minister Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Érable, Que.), Industry Minister James Moore (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, B.C.), Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel (Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.), Trade Minister Ed Fast (Abbotsford, B.C.), and Heritage Minister Shelly Glover (Saint Boniface, Man.) are all currently on Cabinet’s Priorities and Planning Committee, chaired by Mr. Harper. Political staffers, also known as exempt staff because they’re exempt from regular hiring processes, are considered public office holders. Through the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), ministers are provided with a budget, and guidelines, to hire exempt staff. While TBS does set out job descriptions and pay ranges for various ministerial staff positions, ministers have individual leeway to shape their offices as they like. “Unlike permanent public servants, political staffers are ‘exempt’ from expectations of non-partisanship in their work. In fact, they are selected and appointed, at least in part, based on partisan affiliation and serve at the pleasure of the minister or Prime Minister,” writes Ms. Robson in her paper. Ms. Robson also notes in her paper that ministerial staff appointments are “generally” subject to vetting by the PMO. “Expenditure data reveal something about the preferences and priorities of governments, particularly on items over which it has total control—such as investments in human resources in ministerial offices and the Prime Minister’s Office,” she writes. Ms. Robson analyzed figures reported in the public accounts using a linear regression model. As she was examining a five-year time period, and as ministers move in an out of portfolios and portfolios themselves can change over time, Ms. Robson said she chose to examine staff spending by department, comparing spending levels over the years. Next, she matched up membership on the Priorities and Planning Committee to the departments. “If you were to draw a line that takes into account how long a minister, or any minister within that departmental portfolio was on P&P in that fiscal year, how big the department is, in terms of spending, how big the department is in time of full-time equivalent employees, if you were to take into account all of those factors and try and draw a relationship to how much was spent on staffers in that fiscal year … what does that line look like? And that’s what I did,” Ms. Robson explained. To give an idea of current ministerial staff spending in the most recent public accounts from 2012-13—which weren’t part of Ms. Robson’s examination—during that fiscal year then Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) spent about $2.015-million on staff, while then-Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) spent about $1.28-million. Ms. Robson said she was “surprised” at the difference in staffing resources given to those departments where the minister has been a member of the P&P Committee. “I just sort of thought, ‘Okay, big, complicated, beefy departments with either lots of money flowing out or lots at stake or lots of public servants that you’ve got to kind of oversee and be accountable to Parliament for,’ I would have thought that that would have been the explanatory variable for having differences in staff size. It didn’t pan out that way. It really did seem to be about membership on P&P. It did surprise me,” said Ms. Robson. The PMO sent a paragraph statement in response to questions emailed by The Hill Times about Ms. Robson’s findings. “Our government treats taxpayers’ money with the utmost respect and we require that government business be done at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers. Through the Federal Accountability Act, this government brought in the required reporting of spending on ministers’ offices. Over the last years, expenditures on PMO and ministers’ offices salaries have dropped,” stated the PMO. Ms. Robson said there’s no way of accurately knowing how ministers allocate these ministerial staff budgets between “different functional areas in their office,” whether they’re spending more on communications staff or more on policy staff. For this reason, she said we should hold off on recommendations about the “right level” of staffing for ministers until more is known about the roles staff play. Ms. Robson’s paper also raises a number of questions over what role political staffers play in ministerial offices, as well as noting how the number of political staff federally in Canada has changed over the years. As part of her research, Ms. Robson examined historic staffing levels in Canada. Ms. Robson found it was estimated that in the 1950s, a typical minister’s office had two or three staff, but by the mid 1960s that grew to an average of 11. Ms. Robson found that in 1993, then PM Brian Mulroney’s 35-member governing Cabinet employed 392 political staff, an average of 11 staff each, and under prime minister Jean Chrétien it was an average of 13 staff per office. She concluded that “major increases” to ministerial office sizes happened 50 years ago. Citing a 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development covering 27 countries, Ms. Robson noted that the ratio of political advisers to civil servants has globally increased “slightly” in the last 10 years. She also noted that in a 2011 report to Parliament by the Public Service Commission, political staffers more frequently reported they had a role in “managing” public servants (five times more likely to report this than civil servants, who emphasized the media relations work of political staff). “The traditional relationship between elected officials and the public service has been deeply changed by the emergence of influential ministerial staff,” reads a quote from the report in Ms. Robson’s paper. Ms. Robson told The Hill Times her paper isn’t meant as comment on how political staffers are being used by government, but she said that’s a wider conversation that needs to take place. “The amount of transparency and disclosure that we should expect of staffers as public office holders—we need to think about that really carefully. I think it should really be driven by what do we expect them to do, what do we expect their roles to be, their functions to be, how do we want them to sit within our Westminster system and we haven’t really figured that out. We’ve had them for a long time in this country and I still don’t think we’ve grappled with it,” said Ms. Robson. “We’ve got tons of rules in terms of how much can you spend, your travel’s got to be disclosed, what job titles you can have, what jobs you can have when you leave the Hill, tons of stuff like that, do we necessarily equip staffers to understand what their roles and responsibilities are?” The Hill Times Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Jennifer Robson as discussing "real preferences." The proper quote refers to "revealed preferences."