International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 1

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview

CABINET GOVERNMENT. A form of collective government in which the leader of government and a team of ministers, meeting in cabinet, determine policy as a group; they are collectively responsible to the legislature and reliant on continuing support there; that support is usually guaranteed by party discipline.In 1884, Woodrow Wilson looked enviously at the system of cabinet government in Britain, wishing that the cohesion and discipline he saw there might be grafted onto the dispersed American system of government. His description ( Wilson, 1884) and his diagnosis of what amendments might be required to transform U.S. government remain largely accurate, although the system he was describing has sometimes mutated as it was transferred to different countries. It remains, however, the antithesis to the separation of powers found in the United States.Cabinet government now has many variations. In the Netherlands and Germany, for instance, proportional representation has led to the formation of coalition governments that have reduced the power of the leader to select or dismiss ministers. In the Netherlands, ministers are responsible to, but not members of, parliament. In Australia, Labor Party ministers are elected by the parliamentary party, and thus the leader, although significant in the selection of colleagues, is not the only person whose priorities are considered. In Canada demands for regional representation meant that the number of ministers in Cabinet once reached 40, a size too large for effective decisionmaking.Yet, all these systems of cabinet government have as core requirements some basic factors: collective responsibility and reliance for survival on the continued support of the party in the legislature, guaranteed by the discipline imposed by party membership. The leader of the government is regarded as the head of a team whose opinions must be sought, and individual ministerial responsibilities must be given due scope for action.Cabinet government has a number of advantages that can in part explain its longevity and popularity. It is infinitely flexible. The cabinet will include the senior members of the governing parties, but that does not preclude a range of formats to arrange the process of governing. In Germany and the Netherlands, tradition and even the German Basic Law require that ministers have full scope for action in their designated portfolios; the cabinet is therefore more inclined to consider broad strategic decisions or general directions. In those countries that have developed from the British model, the prime minister is ceded greater authority and is able to determine the rules and procedures by which Cabinet will be run and who will be involved in selected committees that may intrude on the activities of individual portfolios. To say that cabinet government exists is not to define how government will be organized. Cabinet government refers not merely to the meetings of the full Cabinet but also to the substructure of committees and conventions that make it work. In practice, decisions may be made by ministers, by discussions between the minister and the prime minister, by decision of a cabinet committee, or after deliberation by the Cabinet itself.Cabinet will play several functions at the same time. As the link between the administrative and political worlds, it may
• act as a clearing house for decisions made elsewhere and then reported to Cabinet as a fait accompli;
• act as an information exchange where information papers and memoranda keep colleagues informed of government activity in other portfolios;
• act as arbiter between ministers disputing over policy turf or between the treasurer and ministers over spending priorities; only Cabinet can decide who wins or loses;
• impose political priorities on the technical proposals presented by the nonpartisan career officials who support most cabinet governments. The elected representatives may put the partisan spin on the policies or proposals that may be electorally insensitive, even if operationally attractive;
• co-ordinate government to prevent the diverse functions of government, often expressed as ministerial ambitions, from too obviously overlapping or contradicting one another;
• manage crises when events are out of control, and it needs the most powerful and legitimate leaders of the government to put events back on track;
• behave as guardian of the strategy or party platform; government is broken into manageable policy arenasonly the Cabinet has the prestige to relate the particular to the general.

Cabinet does not consciously play each of these roles separately; and it may play some much better than others. Many critics complain that the Cabinet is not adequately fulfilling the function that they regard as crucial, whether it be setting strategy or making technically correct decisions, yet they are all essentially interlinked, demanding the attention of the most powerful people to determine issues that cannot be settled elsewhere. In practice, a Cabinet tends to consider items sequentially, as it settles the pressing issues of the day, and seldom considers the middle- or long-range issues; crises or immediate demands dominate. But the great benefit of a forum that brings together the leading figures of a government is that they will consider a number of angles of a proposal and will fulfill several of those listed functions at the same time. Several minds will come to better decisions than one.

Cabinet government also makes all the members of the government collectively responsible for the actions of


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International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 1
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Editorial Board ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Table of Contents v
  • Contributors xv
  • Foreword xxix
  • Preface xxxi
  • A 1
  • B 165
  • C 319


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