In parliamentary democracy, how do Ministers compensate for their potential lack of relevant experience to run their own ministry?



Due to the fact that most parliamentary systems prefer having Members of Parliament as Ministers, how do Ministers make up for their lack of relevant experience when running a ministry?

For example, a Minister of Defence without prior military experience might have issues getting a handle on the whole institution.

Similarly, a Minister of Health without any knowledge in the medical field might run into a similar issue.

How do different countries deal with this issue?


Posted 2020-12-11T06:37:52.053

Reputation: 1 536

1Can you quantify (or qualify) that most parliamentary democracies actually do this? – gktscrk – 2020-12-13T09:27:45.170

Australian ministers must be MPs. UK ministers must be MPs. – masher – 2020-12-14T02:07:00.777

I am regularly quite impressed by the abilities and learning curve of such ministers running a department. The right profession is not everything. A minister of health does not need to much what you learn from studying medicine, while studying medicine and being a MD doesn’t necessarily gives you the knowledge and tools for a ministry position. – lejonet – 2020-12-14T06:50:49.907

@masher: As a quick counter-example, the Swedish, Dutch, and Estonian government ministers are not (and cannot be) MPs. The OP should quantify whether their described approach really is more common than the opposite. – gktscrk – 2020-12-14T09:00:44.187

@gktscrk In the Netherlands at least, many ministers are in fact MPs who resign to embark on a ministerial career, which for the purpose of this question doesn't necessarily make huge a difference. The nuance is not unimportant (it does at least make it possible to recruit minister elsewhere as being a MP is not a requirement) but those are not really two opposite approaches. – Relaxed – 2020-12-14T13:49:11.137

@Relaxed: Interesting! It did seem to be an inbuilt part of the system as well ("dualism" on the Dutch Parliament's website), but perhaps it works differently to original intentions. – gktscrk – 2020-12-14T14:16:50.530



o.m. has made some nice points for how it could/should work out, but one answer that shouldn't be missing here is the following:

Very often, they don't.

The crux of a parlamentary system, which by its nature is very party-oriented, is that there is a lot of internal party-politics going, which results in cabinet positions often not being assigned based on qualification, but on the merit of rewarding a loyal ally/friend, pleasing donors/lobbies or for some other strategic reason. Obviously they have to worry about political backlash when someone unqualified they appointed screws up big way, but it still happens quite often.

I am quite sure, everyone here can think of countless examples in their respective country. I am german and I could cry you a river about of our secretaries of defense and the state of our military, but will refrain from doing so...

And just to be fair: It isn't that different in presidential systems as well. To my knowledge, the U.S. president, being elected independently from the legislature, has theoretically more freedoms in picking their cabinet, but you still will find enough loyalist/special-interest picks there as well.

The biggest stabilizing factor in both systems is that the underlying bureaucracy doesn't change: Ministries/departments are filled to the brink with administrative personal that has been there for a long time, isn't switched out after elections and usually knows how things are running there for better or worse.
If a department head is willing and capable to work around that, they can easily compensate for a lack of knowledge in the respective field, but as I have mentioned before, quite often it doesn't work out very well in pratice...


Posted 2020-12-11T06:37:52.053

Reputation: 4 304


"the underlying bureaucracy doesn't change": yes; this is the key difference between, say, the US and UK. As I mention in an answer to another question, the number of political appointees in the UK is tiny compared to the US - currently not more than 9 (nine!) per department for the former. As a result, UK ministers are expected to be neither experts nor managers (that's what the civil servants are for); their job is to decide on and direct government policy.

– Steve Melnikoff – 2020-12-11T13:07:54.317

The Belgian Health Minister is a famous example of how party politics can result in a completely inappropriate appointment... – JonathanReez – 2020-12-11T23:54:04.307

1@JonathanReez That sounds a lot more like a personal dislike of the man than anything else. It is one of the worst examples you could find in the present gouvernment. Putting a former minister of social affairs and professor in social affairs in the department of social affairs doesn't sound like lack of relevant experience to me. – Some wandering yeti – 2020-12-12T10:34:43.657

10@JonathanReez unless you would be refering to the previous one: a very obese woman who has been made fun of in pictures on the internet because she doesn't really look like an example of a healthy person. In that case, she is a GP. Again, one of the worst examples possible. Unless you want to conflate optics and competence. – Some wandering yeti – 2020-12-12T11:00:28.417

1@Somewanderingyeti: Well she has proven herself completely unwilling and/or incapable of handling the pandemic in a competent manner. And let's not forget she completely mismanaged our strategic stock of medical facemasks (i.e. she had it destroyed, and failed to renew it). – Roel Schroeven – 2020-12-12T17:02:12.783

1@RoelSchroeven Irrelevant in this context. I did not make any judgement on the quality of their work. I only stated that both are very bad examples of ministers without domain knowledge. – Some wandering yeti – 2020-12-12T18:09:06.513

To what extent does the state of the German military actually depend on the secretaries of defense (as opposed to the chancellor's staff and minister of finance)? – Relaxed – 2020-12-13T08:53:31.980

@RoelSchroeven I know nothing of the issue (just learned about Maggie De Block five minutes ago) but I note that the fact remains that she was a GP and someone with prima facie credibility as a domain knowledge expert. This kind of undermines the OP's assumption that you need a soldier for defense and a MD for health or the idea that appointing a party politician instead of a medical doctor is what went wrong in that case. – Relaxed – 2020-12-13T09:01:47.203

1@SteveMelnikoff for the tension between Minister and his secretary, I recommand the documentary 'yes minister' (it is disguised as fiction though....) – lalala – 2020-12-14T13:18:13.870

A Domain Expert may not be an experienced manager and be quite incapable of managing a large organisation. GP's, in particular, would have very little experience doing so. – simon at rcl – 2020-12-17T16:52:27.107


  • In most cases, cabinet officials are not picked at random from the members of parliament. One would pick a member of the relevant subcommittee, who should have experience with the policy issues of the department -- either by defending relevant legislation and budgets, or by criticizing them.
  • At a certain point, the key skill for leaders is leadership. The ability to organize a team of highly skilled experts and to forge a consensus. The ability to administer a large bureaucracy. You don't need to be a physician to run a health bureaucracy. (For that matter, would one want a former surgeon, a former internist, or a former head nurse in the top spot? What does a cancer specialist know about epidemics?)
  • Accounting, administrative, and contract law might also be more relevant at the top level than the subject matter.
  • But of course it could happen that personal loyalties or representation of all voter blocks decide who gets the job. Is that worse than a practitioner promoted by the Peter principle?


Posted 2020-12-11T06:37:52.053

Reputation: 49 884

2"What does a cancer specialist know about epidemics?" Very often, much more than a politician. – Obie 2.0 – 2020-12-11T17:26:39.390

3@Obie2.0 - Yes, but they're also often too close to the problem. Sometimes the best medical solution to a problem would be catastrophic for the economy. And something that's catastrophic for the economy would have a long-term impact on mortality, worse than the thing you're trying to prevent in the first place. – Valorum – 2020-12-11T17:37:22.463

9@Valorum and sometimes you end up doing something worse than either the politician, the cancer specialists or the epidemiologist would've recommended, because freedom. – user253751 – 2020-12-11T17:51:09.870

1(+1) Rather than contract law, it's administrative law that's relevant. That and understanding the way government works is one reason why subject matter experts can be abject failures as cabinet ministers. – Relaxed – 2020-12-13T08:51:24.617

@Relaxed, I was thinking of the pitfalls of EU-wide procurement and the proper use of external consultants. I've added administrative law. – o.m. – 2020-12-13T12:03:10.533

@o.m. That's an excellent example... and mostly unrelated to contract law, at least when it applies to government procurement (i.e. it's public rather than private law). – Relaxed – 2020-12-13T13:05:58.107

@Valorum Every example of a good COVID response would disagree with you. – Studoku – 2020-12-13T14:10:17.090

@Studoku - I have made this point before but it is impossible to do post-mortem on covid response when we are less than a year into the overall impact. – Valorum – 2020-12-13T15:06:04.153

@Valorum Is there a reason you think countries that have controlled covid wil magically self-destruct? If so, when? – Studoku – 2020-12-13T17:29:19.310

1@Studoku - Effectively control through harsh lockdown was a calculated risk for a couple of reasons; 1) Your population has no herd immunity, hence will eventually get the bug, just delayed and 2) Lockdown measures have an impact on GDP which will (in the long term) have an impact on mortality rates. – Valorum – 2020-12-13T18:03:59.097

@Valorum So how long? At what point in the future, when China's GDP growth doesn't magically go away, will you admit that you're wrong? – Studoku – 2020-12-13T18:23:12.780

@Studoku - Trying to assess the long-term impact of covid during the epidemic itself is a fool's errand. It took 20+ years to see what happened when the Spanish flu hit. – Valorum – 2020-12-13T18:34:27.717

@Studoku - New Zealand, for example, had a very harsh lockdown and has destroyed its tourism industry. Their GDP is down almost a quarter and the knock-on effects will be (in the long term) a decline in life-expectancy of at least 1 years. So they've saved a few thousand lives, but at a cost of 4.8 million people living an average of a year less. Or have they? Who the hell knows what the next 50 years will bring. – Valorum – 2020-12-13T18:37:46.767

2@Valorum Can I ask which country you believe retained a thriving tourist industry during the lockdown? I can't think of any, unless you count domestic tourism. – Studoku – 2020-12-13T19:00:41.850


The Ministers experience with the functions of their portfolio is not actually their function. Assuming the legal tradition of the Common Law countries after the revolution of 1688, (when the Executive forever lost the power to act according to its own intent), the Ministers are responsible to the Parliament for the Legislation and Actions of the Ministry.

By this it is meant they are responsible for obtaining Parliamentary approval (legislative approval) for all Actions of the Ministry, and they are responsible for ensuring that all Actions of the Ministry are only those Actions that Legislation demands.

Essentially they are watchdogs that exist to ensure that Executive power is only used as Parliament demands, and of course making those decisions that legislation clearly demands they must make.

The actual doing of things (the execution of legislation) is the responsibility of servants, who as servants may only exercise their masters power as their master intends.

What you are seeing on TV with the "Minister" presenting themselves as the "Great Leader" is simply politics, they are getting camera time.

In simple terms, even if the minister was highly experienced in their portfolio it would not matter, because the strict delineation between the "mens rea" of the legislature and the "actus rea" of the executive (separation of powers) means the minister could not define what is done even if they were able to.

This is not to say that having some idea of what they are doing would not be a bad thing. It might cut back on some of the dumb ideas that make it to Parliament, but it is not what they are there for.

The skills ministers must have is that they must be competent Legislators necessary to ensuring that all legislative processes necessary to the lawfulness of executive action have been followed.

In essence they are the interface between the legislature and the executive, and it is experience with the functions demanded by this interface that matters, not the duties of the portfolio under the interface.

(Apologies for capitalization - its all over the place)

Brenton Thomas

Posted 2020-12-11T06:37:52.053

Reputation: 155

I don't agree with the last two paragraphs.In the UK at least, the whips and Leader of the House are responsible for getting legislation through Parliament. Ministerial aides (specifically, Parliamentary Private Secretaries are the interface between the legislature and executive.

– Steve Melnikoff – 2020-12-23T11:21:38.137

"all Actions of the Ministry are only those Actions that Legislation demands." I'm not sure what this means. While it's certainly true that government departments must act within the law, it is the demands of policy (specifically, deciding and implementing it), not legislation, that is a minister's primary responsibility. That may involve changing the law, but law follows from policy. – Steve Melnikoff – 2020-12-23T11:25:41.573

To consider the alternative is to consider that ministers have legislative power and retain the prerogative power to act according to their own intent that was abolished in 1688. Ever since then the executive has held no legislative power and only has the powers of a servant. – Brenton Thomas – 2020-12-31T10:38:32.233

In the UK at least, ministers do have some legislative power: through statutory instruments (delegated to them by acts of Parliament), and through Orders in Council (which can be SIs or prerogative powers). Besides this, the government also retains some prerogative powers, though these mostly aren't legislative in nature.

– Steve Melnikoff – 2020-12-31T16:39:15.320

Regulations? In Australia they are called Legislative Instruments. They still have to be put to Parliament - tabled in parliament it is called here, the difference is they pass by default unless revoked by either house, The argument is that as regulations are within scope of primary law, any impacts on other laws has already been considered.

But intent must still be of the Parliament. There have been problems with government using commercial agreements to act without legislation that have twice been stomped on by the High Court in the Williams vs Commonwealth of Australia cases. – Brenton Thomas – 2020-12-31T17:49:38.243


Politicians are often concerned with ends rather than means. So its about establishing in which direction the ship of state is to sail. This is one reason why Machiavelli's Prince, so beloved of political theorists of a certain stripe, to me, means very little. It discusses tactics but not ends.

In a democracy, politicians over time gain experience of the areas that interest them, policy and policy-making and they learn to work with different branches of government. More, in a parliamentary democracy, they learn to gain the respect and the trust of their constituents by engaging with them in their local offices.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2020-12-11T06:37:52.053

Reputation: 3 678

True, but an MP having the respect and trust of their constituency doesn't necessarily translate into having the respect and the trust of the country (or their party) if they rise to a more senior position. – Steve Melnikoff – 2020-12-23T11:27:50.287