Cabinet (government)

Last updated

The cabinet table in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, official residence and office of the British Prime Minister in London The Cabinet table.jpg
The cabinet table in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, official residence and office of the British Prime Minister in London
Episcopal Summer Palace, the seat of the government of Slovakia in Bratislava Episcopal Summer Palace in Bratislava, in 2018.jpg
Episcopal Summer Palace, the seat of the government of Slovakia in Bratislava

A cabinet in governing is a group of people with the constitutional or legal task to rule a country or state, or advise a head of state, usually from the executive branch. [1] Their members are known as ministers and secretaries and they are often appointed by the head of state or prime minster. [2] Cabinets are typically the body responsible for the day-to-day management of the government and response to sudden events, whereas the legislative and judicial branches work in a measured pace, in sessions according to lengthy procedures.


The function of a cabinet varies: in some countries, it is a collegiate decision-making body with collective responsibility, while in others it may function either as a purely advisory body or an assisting institution to a decision-making head of state or head of government.

In some countries, particularly those that use a parliamentary system (e.g., the United Kingdom), the cabinet collectively decides the government's direction, especially in regard to legislation passed by the parliament. In countries with a presidential system, such as the United States, the cabinet does not function as a collective legislative influence; rather, their primary role is as an official advisory council to the head of government. In this way, the president obtains opinions and advice relating to forthcoming decisions.

Legally, under both types of system, the Westminster variant of a parliamentary system and the presidential system, the cabinet "advises" the head of state: the difference is that, in a parliamentary system, the monarch, viceroy, or ceremonial president will almost always follow this advice, whereas, in a presidential system, a president who is also head of government and political leader may depart from the cabinet's advice if they do not agree with it.

In practice, in nearly all parliamentary democracies that do not follow the Westminster system, and in three countries that do (Japan, Ireland, and Israel), very often the cabinet does not "advise" the head of state as they play only a ceremonial role. Instead, it is usually the head of government (usually called "prime minister") who holds all means of power in their hands (e.g. in Germany, Sweden, etc.) and to whom the cabinet reports.

In both presidential and parliamentary systems, cabinet officials administer executive branches, government agencies, or departments. Cabinets are also important originators for legislation. Cabinets and ministers are usually in charge of the preparation of proposed legislation in the ministries before it is passed to the parliament. Thus, often the majority of new legislation actually originates from the cabinet and its ministries.


In most governments, members of the cabinet are given the title of "minister", and each holds a different portfolio of government duties ("Minister of Foreign Affairs", "Minister of Health", etc.). In a few governments, as in the case of Mexico, the Philippines, the UK, and the U.S., the title of "secretary" is also used for some cabinet members ("Secretary of Education", or "Secretary of State for X" in the UK or the Netherlands). In many countries (e.g. Germany, Luxembourg, France, etc.), a secretary (of State) is a cabinet member with an inferior rank to a minister. In Finland, a secretary of state is a career official that serves the minister.

While almost all countries have an institution that is recognisably a cabinet, the name of this institution varies. In many countries, (such as Ireland, Sweden, and Vietnam) the term "government" refers to the body of executive ministers; the broader organs of state having another name. Others, such as Spain, Poland, and Cuba, refer to their cabinet as a council of ministers, or the similar council of state. Some German-speaking areas use the term "senate" (such as the Senate of Berlin) for their cabinet, rather than the more common meaning of a legislative upper house. However, a great many countries simply call their top executive body the cabinet, including Israel, the United States, Venezuela, and Singapore, among others.

The supranational European Union uses a different convention: the European Commission refers to its executive cabinet as a "college", with its top public officials referred to as "commissioners", whereas a "European Commission cabinet" is the personal office of a European Commissioner.

The term comes from the Italian gabinetto, which originated from the Latin capanna, which was used in the sixteenth century to denote a closet or small room. From it originated in the 1600s the English word cabinet or cabinett which was used to denote a small room, particularly in the houses of nobility or royalty. Around this time the use of cabinet associated with small councils arose both in England and other locations such as France and Italy. For example, Francis Bacon used the term Cabanet Counselles in 1607. [3]

Selection of members

In presidential systems such as the United States, members of the cabinet are chosen by the president, and may also have to be confirmed by one or both of the houses of the legislature (in the case of the U.S., it is the Senate that confirms members with a simple majority vote).

Depending on the country, cabinet members must, must not, or may be members of parliament. The following are examples of this variance:

Some countries that adopt a presidential system also place restrictions on who are eligible for nomination to cabinet based on electoral outcomes. For instance in the Philippines, candidates who have lost in any election in the country may not be appointed to cabinet positions within one (1) year of that election. [4]

The candidate prime minister and/or the president selects the individual ministers to be proposed to the parliament, which may accept or reject the proposed cabinet composition. Unlike in a presidential system, the cabinet in a parliamentary system must not only be confirmed, but enjoy the continuing confidence of the parliament: a parliament can pass a motion of no confidence to remove a government or individual ministers. Often, but not necessarily, these votes are taken across party lines.

In some countries (e.g. the U.S.) attorneys general also sit in the cabinet, while in many others this is strictly prohibited, as the attorneys general are considered to be part of the judicial branch of government. Instead, there is a Minister of Justice, separate from the attorney general. Furthermore, in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, the cabinet includes a Chancellor of Justice, a civil servant that acts as the legal counsel to the cabinet.

In multi-party systems, the formation of a government may require the support of multiple parties. Thus, a coalition government is formed. Continued cooperation between the participating political parties is necessary for the cabinet to retain the confidence of the parliament. For this, a government platform is negotiated, in order for the participating parties to toe the line and support their cabinet. However, this is not always successful: constituent parties of the coalition or members of parliament can still vote against the government, and the cabinet can break up from internal disagreement or be dismissed by a motion of no confidence.

The size of cabinets varies, although most contain around ten to twenty ministers. Researchers have found an inverse correlation between a country's level of development and cabinet size: on average, the more developed a country is, the smaller is its cabinet. [5]

Origins of cabinets

Queen Victoria convening her first Privy Council on the day of her accession in 1837 Victoria Privy Council (Wilke).jpg
Queen Victoria convening her first Privy Council on the day of her accession in 1837

A council of advisers of a head of state has been a common feature of government throughout history and around the world. In Ancient Egypt, priests assisted the pharaohs in administrative duties. [6] In Sparta, the Gerousia, or council of elders, normally sat with the two kings to deliberate on law or to judge cases. [7] The Maurya Empire under the emperor Ashoka was ruled by a royal council. [8] In Kievan Rus', the prince was obliged to accept the advice and receive the approval of the duma, or council, which was composed of boyars, or nobility. An inner circle of a few members of the duma formed a cabinet to attend and advise the prince constantly. [9] The ruins of Chichen Itza and Mayapan in the Maya civilisation suggest that political authority was held by a supreme council of elite lords. [10] In the Songhai Empire, the central government was composed of the top office holders of the imperial council. [11] In the Oyo Empire, the Oyo Mesi, or royal council, were members of the aristocracy who constrained the power of the Alaafin, or king. [12] During the Qing dynasty, the highest decision-making body was the Deliberative Council. [13]

In the United Kingdom and its colonies, cabinets began as smaller sub-groups of the English Privy Council. The term comes from the name for a relatively small and private room used as a study or retreat. Phrases such as "cabinet counsel", meaning advice given in private to the monarch, occur from the late 16th century, and, given the non-standardised spelling of the day, it is often hard to distinguish whether "council" or "counsel" is meant. [14]

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Francis Bacon in his Essays (1605) with the first use of "Cabinet council", where it is described as a foreign habit, of which he disapproves: "For which inconveniences, the doctrine of Italy, and practice of France, in some kings' times, hath introduced cabinet counsels; a remedy worse than the disease". [15]

Charles I began a formal "Cabinet Council" from his accession in 1625, as his Privy Council, or "private council", was evidently not private enough,[ citation needed ] and the first recorded use of "cabinet" by itself for such a body comes from 1644, and is again hostile and associates the term with dubious foreign practices. [14] The process has repeated itself in recent times, as leaders have felt the need to have a Kitchen Cabinet or "sofa government". [16]

Parliamentary cabinets

Countries with prime ministers (blue), those that formerly had that position (dark red), and those that never had that position (gray) Prime ministers.svg
Countries with prime ministers (blue), those that formerly had that position (dark red), and those that never had that position (gray)

Under the Westminster system, members of the cabinet are Ministers of the Crown who are collectively responsible for all government policy. All ministers, whether senior and in the cabinet or junior ministers, must publicly support the policy of the government, regardless of any private reservations. Although, in theory, all cabinet decisions are taken collectively by the cabinet, in practice many decisions are delegated to the various sub-committees of the cabinet, which report to the full cabinet on their findings and recommendations. As these recommendations have already been agreed upon by those in the cabinet who hold affected ministerial portfolios, the recommendations are usually agreed to by the full cabinet with little further discussion. The cabinet may also provide ideas on/if new laws were established, and what they include. Cabinet deliberations are secret and documents dealt with in cabinet are confidential. Most of the documentation associated with cabinet deliberations will only be publicly released a considerable period after the particular cabinet disbands, depending on provisions of a nation's freedom of information legislation.

In theory the prime minister or premier is first among equals. However, the prime minister is ultimately the person from whom the head of state will take advice (by constitutional convention) on the exercise of executive power, which may include the powers to declare war, use nuclear weapons, and appoint cabinet members. This results in the situation where the cabinet is de facto appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the prime minister. Thus, the cabinet is often strongly subordinate to the prime minister as they can be replaced at any time, or can be moved ("demoted") to a different portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle for "underperforming".

This position in relation to the executive power means that, in practice, any spreading of responsibility for the overall direction of the government has usually been done as a matter of preference by the prime minister – either because they are unpopular with their backbenchers, or because they believe that the cabinet should collectively decide things.

A shadow cabinet consists of the leading members, or frontbenchers, of an opposition party, who generally hold critic portfolios "shadowing" cabinet ministers, questioning their decisions and proposing policy alternatives. In some countries, the shadow ministers are referred to as spokespersons.

The Westminster cabinet system is the foundation of cabinets as they are known at the federal and provincial (or state) jurisdictions of Australia, Canada, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and other Commonwealth of Nations countries whose parliamentary model is closely based on that of the United Kingdom.

Cabinet of the United States

President Joe Biden's cabinet, 2021 P20210720AS-3425-2 (51417135942).jpg
President Joe Biden's cabinet, 2021

Under the doctrine of separation of powers in the United States, a cabinet under a presidential system of government is part of the executive branch. In addition to administering their respective segments of the executive branch, cabinet members are responsible for advising the head of government on areas within their purview.

They are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the head of government and are therefore strongly subordinate to the president as they can be replaced at any time. Normally, since they are appointed by the president, they are members of the same political party, but the executive is free to select anyone, including opposition party members, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Normally, the legislature or a segment thereof must confirm the appointment of a cabinet member; this is but one of the many checks and balances built into a presidential system. The legislature may also remove a cabinet member through a usually difficult impeachment process.

In the cabinet, members do not serve to influence legislative policy to the degree found in a Westminster system; however, each member wields significant influence in matters relating to their executive department. Since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States has acted most often through his own executive office or the National Security Council rather than through the cabinet as was the case in earlier administrations.

Although the term "Secretary" is usually used to name the most senior official of a government department, some departments have different titles to name such officials. For instance, the Department of Justice uses the term "Attorney General" instead of "Justice Secretary", but the Attorney General is nonetheless a cabinet-level position.

Following the federal government's model, state executive branches are also organised into executive departments headed by cabinet secretaries. The government of California calls these departments "agencies" or informally "superagencies", while the government of Kentucky styles them as "cabinets".

Communist system

Communist states can be ruled de facto by the politburo, such as the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This is an organ of the communist party and not a state organ, but due to one-party rule, the state and its cabinet (e.g. Government of the Soviet Union) are in practice subordinate to the politburo. Technically, a politburo is overseen and its members selected by the central committee, but in practice it was often the other way around: powerful members of the politburo would ensure their support in the central committee through patronage. In China, political power has been further centralised into the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Government of Barbados</span> National government

The Government of Barbados (GoB) is a unitary parliamentary republic, where the President of Barbados is the head of state and the Prime Minister of Barbados is the head of government.

A head of state is the public persona of a sovereign state. The specific naming of the head of state depends on the country's form of government and separation of powers; the head of state may be a ceremonial figurehead or concurrently the head of government and more.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Politics of Mongolia</span>

The politics of Mongolia takes place in a framework of a semi-presidential multi-party representative democracy. Executive power is exercised by the government, which is headed by the prime minister. The president is the head of state, but holds limited authority over the executive branch of the government, unlike full presidential republics like the United States. Legislative power is vested in parliament. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prime minister</span> Top minister of cabinet and government

A prime minister or chief of cabinet is the head of the cabinet and the leader of the ministers in the executive branch of government, often in a parliamentary or semi-presidential system. A prime minister is not the head of state, but rather the head of government, serving as the chief of the executive under either a monarch or a president in a republican form of government.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Westminster system</span> Parliamentary system of government

The Westminster system, or Westminster model, is a type of parliamentary government that incorporates a series of procedures for operating a legislature, first developed in England. Key aspects of the system include an executive branch made up of members of the legislature, and that is responsible to the legislature; the presence of parliamentary opposition parties; and a ceremonial head of state who is separate from the head of government. The term derives from the Palace of Westminster, which has been the seat of the Westminster Parliament in England and later the United Kingdom since the 13th century. The Westminster system is often contrasted with the presidential system that originated in the United States, or with the semi-presidential system, based on the government of France.

In the executive branch, the head of government is the highest or the second-highest official of a sovereign state, a federated state, or a self-governing colony, autonomous region, or other government who often presides over a cabinet, a group of ministers or secretaries who lead executive departments.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Parliamentary system</span> Form of government

A parliamentary system, or parliamentary democracy, is a system of democratic government where the head of government derives their democratic legitimacy from their ability to command the support ("confidence") of the legislature, typically a parliament, to which they are accountable.

A presidency is an administration or the executive, the collective administrative and governmental entity that exists around an office of president of a state or nation. Although often the executive branch of government, and often personified by a single elected person who holds the office of "president", in practice, the presidency includes a much larger collective of people, such as chiefs of staff, advisers and other bureaucrats. Although often led by a single person, presidencies can also be of a collective nature, such as the presidency of the European Union is held on a rotating basis by the various national governments of the member states. Alternatively, the term presidency can also be applied to the governing authority of some churches, and may even refer to the holder of a non-governmental office of president in a corporation, business, charity, university, etc. or the institutional arrangement around them. For example, "the presidency of the Red Cross refused to support his idea." Rules and support to discourage vicarious liability leading to unnecessary pressure and the early termination of term have not been clarified. These may not be as yet supported by state let initiatives. Contributory liability and fraud may be the two most common ways to become removed from term of office and/or to prevent re-election.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prime Minister of Malaysia</span> Head of government of Malaysia

The prime ministerof Malaysia is the head of government of Malaysia. The prime minister directs the executive branch of the federal government. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong appoints the prime minister as a member of Parliament (MP) who, in his opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of a majority of MPs. The prime minister is usually the leader of the party winning the most seats in a general election.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">President of Trinidad and Tobago</span> Head of state

The president of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is the head of state of Trinidad and Tobago and the commander-in-chief of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force. The office was established when the country became a republic in 1976, before which the head of state was the Queen of Trinidad and Tobago, Elizabeth II. The last governor-general, Sir Ellis Clarke, was sworn in as the first president on 1 August 1976 under a transitional arrangement. He was formally chosen as president by an electoral college consisting of members of both houses of Parliament on 24 September 1976, which is now celebrated as Republic Day.

The Cabinet of Australia, also known as the Federal Cabinet, is the chief decision-making body of the Australian government. The cabinet is appointed by the prime minister of Australia and is composed of senior government ministers who head the executive departments and ministries of the federal government. The cabinet is separate to the federal Department of the Prime Ministers and Cabinet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cabinet of the Netherlands</span> Executive body of the Dutch government

The cabinet of the Netherlands is the main executive body of the Netherlands. The latest cabinet of the Netherlands is the Schoof cabinet, which has been in power since 2 July 2024. It is headed by Prime Minister Dick Schoof.

An indirect election or hierarchical voting, is an election in which voters do not choose directly among candidates or parties for an office, but elect people who in turn choose candidates or parties. It is one of the oldest forms of elections and is used by many countries for heads of state, cabinets, heads of government, and/or upper houses. It is also used for some supranational legislatures.

A minister is a politician who heads a ministry, making and implementing decisions on policies in conjunction with the other ministers. In some jurisdictions the head of government is also a minister and is designated the 'prime minister', 'premier', 'chief minister', 'chancellor' or other title.

Cabinet collective responsibility, also known as collective ministerial responsibility, is a constitutional convention in parliamentary systems and a cornerstone of the Westminster system system of government, that members of the cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting for the government in the legislature. This convention formed in the 19th century in the United Kingdom. Some Communist political parties apply a similar convention of democratic centralism to their central committee.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ministers in the New Zealand Government</span>

Ministers in the New Zealand Government are members of Parliament (MPs) who hold ministerial warrants from the Crown to perform certain functions of government. This includes formulating and implementing policies and advising the governor-general. Ministers collectively make up the executive branch of the New Zealand state. The governor-general is obliged to follow the advice of the prime minister on the appointment and dismissal of ministers.

Fusion of powers is a feature of some parliamentary forms of government where different branches of government are intermingled or fused, typically the executive and legislative branches. It is contrasted with the separation of powers found in presidential, semi-presidential and dualistic parliamentary forms of government, where the membership of the legislative and executive powers cannot overlap. Fusion of powers exists in many, if not a majority of, parliamentary democracies, and does so by design. However, in all modern democratic polities the judiciary does not possess legislative or executive powers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">New Zealand Government</span> Central government of New Zealand

The New Zealand Government is the central government through which political authority is exercised in New Zealand. As in most other parliamentary democracies, the term "Government" refers chiefly to the executive branch, and more specifically to the collective ministry directing the executive. Based on the principle of responsible government, it operates within the framework that "the [King] reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives". The Cabinet Manual describes the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of the Government.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Government of Malaysia</span> Federal government of Malaysia

The Government of Malaysia, officially the Federal Government of Malaysia, is based in the Federal Territory of Putrajaya, with the exception of the legislative branch, which is located in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is a federation composed of the 11 States of Malaya, the Borneo States of Sabah and Sarawak, and 3 Federal Territories operating within a constitutional monarchy under the Westminster system and is categorised as a representative democracy. The federal government of Malaysia adheres to and is created by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, the supreme law of the land.


  1. "Cabinet | Political Definition, Government, Function, & Facts | Britannica". 6 July 2024. Retrieved 7 July 2024.
  2. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition, at
  3. Creighton, Mandell; Winsor, Justin; Gardiner, Samuel Rawson; Poole, Reginald Lane; Edwards, Sir John Goronwy (1923). The English Historical Review. Oxford University Press.
  4. "THE 1987 CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES – ARTICLE IX". Official Gazette (Philippines). Retrieved 25 October 2022.
  5. Castelvecchi, Davide (9 May 2008). "The Undeciders: More decision-makers bring less efficiency". ScienceNews. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Alt URL
  6. Middleton, John, ed. (2015). World Monarchies and Dynasties: Volume 1–3. Routledge. p. 214. ISBN   978-0-7656-8050-1 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  7. Kennell, Nigel M. (2010). Spartans: A New History. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN   978-1-4051-2999-2 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  8. Roberts, J. M.; Westad, Odd Arne (2013). The History of the World (6th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 302. ISBN   978-0-19-993676-2 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  9. Wren, Melvin C.; Stults, Taylor (2008). The Course of Russian History (5th ed.). Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock. p. 37. ISBN   978-1-60608-371-0 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  10. Sharer, Robert J.; Traxler, Loa P. (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th ed.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p. 580. ISBN   0-8047-4816-0 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  11. Currey, James (1997). Ki-Zerbo, Joseph; Niane, Djibril Tamsir (eds.). General History of Africa: IV Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century (Abridged ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 81. ISBN   0-520-06699-5 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  12. Stilwel, Sean (2014). Slavery and Slaving in African History: New Approaches to African History. Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN   978-1-107-00134-3 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  13. Rawski (2011). "2. The Qing empire during the Qianlong reign". In Millward, James A.; Dunnell, Ruth W.; Elliott, Mark C.; Forêt, Philippe (eds.). New Qing Imperial History: The making of Inner Asian empire at Qing Chengde. New York, NY: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN   978-0-415-51118-6 . Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  14. 1 2 Oxford English Dictionary : Cabinet
  15. Bacon, Essay "On Counsel"
  16. UK | UK Politics | Clarke targets 'sofa-style' Blair. BBC News (2007-03-27). Retrieved on 2013-08-24.