Cabinet Meeting August 2023 (c)

The roles of ministers and state secretaries (or secretaries of state) are crucial in government. These positions, while similar, differ significantly across countries, shaping how policies are developed and implemented. This post explores the responsibilities of ministers and state secretaries, focusing on why ministers report to state secretaries in countries like the US and UK, and vice versa in countries like Germany and France.

Roles and Responsibilities

Ministers head government departments and are primarily responsible for policy-making and administration within their jurisdiction. They are often members of the executive branch and the cabinet.

State Secretaries (or Secretaries of State) can be equivalent to ministers, as in the US and UK, or high-ranking civil servants, as in many European countries like Germany and France. Their roles include overseeing policy implementation, managing daily operations, and advising ministers.

Ministers Reporting to State Secretaries: The US and UK Model

In the US and the UK, the titles and responsibilities vary:

  • United States: The Secretary of State is a senior official who heads the State Department, primarily responsible for foreign affairs. The Secretary of State is one of the top executive branch officials. Other secretaries, like the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Treasury, head their departments and are senior to any ministers or assistant secretaries.
  • United Kingdom: A Secretary of State in the UK is a senior minister responsible for a specific department, such as the Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary. Ministers of State are junior to Secretaries of State and assist them. Here, the Secretary of State holds primary authority and responsibility for the department, with junior ministers supporting them.
  • Canada: Historically, Canada used to have a Secretary of State for External Affairs who acted as the country’s foreign minister until the position was replaced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1993. Some junior ministers are still styled as Secretaries of State, assisting cabinet ministers in specific policy areas but not members of the cabinet themselves.
  • Argentina: In Argentina, a Secretary of State (Secretario de Estado) in the federal government holds a high official rank similar to a minister and reports directly to the President, handling various administrative functions and supporting ministers.
  • Mexico: In Mexico, a Secretary of State is a member of the Executive Cabinet reporting directly to the President. The Secretaries of State oversee various government departments and functions, akin to ministers in other countries.

State Secretaries Reporting to Ministers: The German and French Model

In contrast, in Germany and France, the structure is different:

  • Germany: State secretaries (Staatssekretäre) in Germany are top civil servants supporting federal ministers. They come from a career civil service background. Federal ministers (Bundesminister) are political appointees and government members. State secretaries assist in policy implementation and administrative tasks. Germany also has elected parliamentary state secretaries who are members of parliament and act as political deputies to ministers.
  • France: In France, ministers are at the top, with state secretaries (Secrétaires d’État) acting as deputies or junior ministers within the ministries. Ministers handle overarching policy decisions and political direction, while state secretaries manage more specific areas within the ministry.
  • Austria: Similar to Germany, federal ministers head ministries and state secretaries support them. Austrian state secretaries assist in specific portfolios within the ministry and report directly to federal ministers.
  • India: The highest-ranking civil servants in India are secretaries to the Government of India. They oversee daily operations of their departments and report to union ministers, ensuring a clear distinction between political leadership and civil service.
  • Indonesia: The Secretary-General in Indonesia is a high-ranking civil servant leading a ministry’s general secretariat, reporting directly to the minister. This role manages administrative functions and ensures policy implementation.
Cabinet Meeting August 2023 (c)
Cabinet Meeting August 2023 (c)

Distinction Between Civil Servant and Elected State Secretaries

In many countries, the distinction between civil servant state secretaries and elected state secretaries is significant:

Civil Servant State Secretaries: Typically career civil servants appointed based on expertise and experience. They ensure continuity and stability in government administration, irrespective of political changes. Examples include state secretaries in Germany and Austria.

Elected State Secretaries: Often appointed by the ruling party or coalition, they have a political mandate and are involved in strategic and political policy aspects. In Germany, parliamentary state secretaries are elected members of parliament serving as political advisors and deputies to ministers.

Why These Differences Exist

The differences in these structures reflect each country’s approach to governance and public administration:

  • Historical Evolution: In the UK and US, Secretaries of State evolved to be central to government, emphasizing political leadership in departments. This reflects a more centralized decision-making form in the executive branch.
  • Civil Service Tradition: Germany and France have a strong tradition of a professional, career-based civil service. The distinction between political appointees (ministers) and career civil servants (state secretaries) ensures stable and professional policy implementation regardless of political changes.

Glossary of Terms

  • Ministers: High-ranking officials heading government departments, responsible for policy-making and administration.
  • State Secretaries: Senior officials equivalent to ministers in some countries; high-ranking civil servants supporting ministers in others.
  • Secretaries of State: In the US and UK, senior officials heading key departments, usually cabinet members.
  • Junior Ministers: Assistants to senior ministers or secretaries of state, handling specific aspects of a department’s portfolio.
  • Parliamentary State Secretaries: Elected parliament members serving as political deputies to ministers.
  • Permanent Secretaries: Top civil servants in some countries, responsible for daily operations of government departments.
  • State Ministers: Officials in some countries heading departments or holding significant administrative roles, similar to ministers.

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This article was written in English. Other language versions have been automatically translated and might therefore feature incorrect information.