Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Powerful executives, loyal ministers and policy coordination

Presidents and prime ministers are without doubt, the most powerful, influential and visible policymakers in an elected democracy. Depending on different political traditions and institutional configurations, the executive branch has strong prerogatives to set the country’s policy agenda, appoint technical and political staff to implement policy decisions and secure funding allocations to finance their agenda. Strong executive influence can be decisive to ensure fiscal discipline, push for legislative reforms or adopt new policy priorities.

The recent political economy analysis work of nutrition policies underlines the central role of the executive office to ensure that nutrition strategies are part of national development plans, to coordinate different sectors and ministries to implement the nutrition strategy, to secure nutrition funding and to maintain an electoral commitment to reducing children and maternal chronic malnutrition over time.

Building political commitment: Coordinating ministers and managing coalitions

The existing research, however, has not explained why different cabinet members would be willing and able to implement the presidents’ agenda? Why would ministers agree to coordinate around a common policy agenda instead of looking after their own goals, especially if they come from different parties, regions or technical backgrounds? And how can the ministers’ incentives be compatible with the president’s?

There is a remarkable research gap to explore on cabinet management. Work in the European context and more recently in Latin America has begun to paint a picture (see references below). We know for example that presidents (as opposed to prime ministers) usually have greater powers to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers from a broad range of collaborators selected from inside and outside the party in government.

In most Latin American countries, presidential appointments do not even need validation from congress, which makes cabinet members directly responsible and responsive to the head of the government. This is a mixed blessing. In Peru, presidents relied on the support of loyal ministers to execute and implement his nutrition agenda. On the other hand, this makes ministers less responsive to demands or issues that are not on the president’s radar.

In coalitional settings, cabinet ministers help ensure that different political allies are included in the government to influence decision making. In this context, minority presidents or prime ministers can still remove and replace “rebel” cabinet ministers to protect their policy agenda. But in doing so, they affect the balance and stability of their governing coalition. The implication is that cabinet ministers are more likely to represent the different demands of the coalition and are less responsive to the priorities of the executive.

In Brazil, President Lula worked with ministers from different political parties around his nutrition agenda, while allowing them to take credit for the success of visible outcomes.

Vertical and horizontal relationships: What’s missing in our understanding of inter-sectoral cooperation?

More systematic research is needed to tell us what produces policy coordination across different ministries, especially outside a European context. A useful point of departure is to think whether the relationship between executives and cabinet ministers is vertical (hierarchical) or horizontal (collegial) (Hallerberg 2009). At the same time, we still need to know where ministers are recruited from, how long they remain in office, why they leave office and where do they go to afterwards.

From a policy perspective, these questions are critical to understanding why inter-sectoral cooperation takes place.

Altman, David.  2000.  "Politics of Coalition Formation and Survival in Multiparty Presidential Democracies: The Case of Uruguay (1989-1997)."  Party Politics  6: 259-83.
Amorim Neto, Octâvio, and Kaare Strøm.  2006.  "Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-Partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies."  British Journal of Political Science  36: 619.
Hallerberg, M., Rainer Strauch, R. and von. Hagen, J. 2009. Fiscal Governance in Europe, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Laver, Michael, and Kenneth A. Shepsle.  1990.  "Coalitions and Cabinet Government."  American Political Science Review  84: 873-90.
Martínez-Gallardo, Cecilia.  2010.  "Inside the Cabinet: The Influence of Ministers in the Policymaking Process." In How Democracy Works. Political Institutions, Actors, and Arenas in Latin American Policymaking, edited by Carlos Scartascini, Ernesto Stein and Mariano Tommasi, 119-45. Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank.119-45
Schleiter, Petra, and Edward Morgan-Jones.  2009.  "Party Control over European Cabinets?"  European Journal of Political Research  48: 665-93.


  1. This is really interesting. In small states the Prime Minister is the one who have the vision and the power and as agreed more research is needed to unearth the how cooperation is formed and sustained between sectoral ministeries and also between the minister and senior public servants.

    1. Andres Mejia Acosta writes:

      Thanks for your comment. I would be interested to know if you have a specific example of cabinet coordination led by the Prime Minister in a small state, and what do you think were the motivations for cooperation. Many thanks


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