A cabinet is a body of high-ranking state officials, typically consisting of the top leaders of the executive branch. They are usually called ministers, but in some jurisdictions are sometimes called secretaries.
The functions of a cabinet are varied: in some countries it is a collegial 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, the cabinet is called "Council of Ministers" or "Government Council" or lesser known names such as "Federal Council" (in Switzerland), "Inner Council" or "High Council". These countries may differ in the way that the cabinet is used or established.
In some countries, particularly those that use a parliamentary system (e.g., the UK), 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 gets opinions and advice in upcoming decisions.
Legally, under both types of systems, the Westminster 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 he does not agree with it.
In parliamentary democracies which do not have the Westminster system, very often the Cabinet does not "advise" the Head of State as he (or she) plays only a ceremonial role. Instead, it is usually the Head of Government who holds all means of power in his hands (e.g. in Germany, Sweden, Spain, etc.) and the Cabinet reports to him (or her).
The second role of cabinet officials is to administer executive branch government agencies or departments (in the United States, these are the federal executive departments)
In many parliamentary democracies, including those that use the Westminster system, Cabinet ministers are usually (or mandatory) appointed from among sitting members of the legislature and either remain members of the legislature while serving in the cabinet (e.g. in the United Kingdom), or have to give up their seat in parliament, which is especially the case in countries with a strict separation between the executive and legislative branches of government (e.g. Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium etc.).
The latter is usually also the case in countries with a presidential system: Cabinet members cannot be sitting legislators, and legislators who are offered appointments must resign if they wish to accept.
In most governments, members of the Cabinet are given the title of minister, and each holds a different portfolio of government duties ("Minister for the Environment," etc.).
In a few governments, as in the case of Mexico, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, and United States, the title of secretary is also used for some Cabinet members ("Secretary of Education," or "Secretary of State" in the UK). 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 some countries (e.g. the US) 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. The day-to-day role of most cabinet members is to serve as the chief of one segment of the executive branch of the national government (or regional government in federal systems) and its respective bureaucracy to whom all other subordinate public servants and employees in that ministry or department have to report.
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.
Origins of cabinets
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-standardized spelling of the day, it is often hard to distinguish whether "council" or "counsel" is meant.
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".
Charles I began a formal "Cabinet Council" from his accession in 1625, as his Privy Council, or "private council", was evidently not private enough, 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. The process has repeated itself in recent times, as leaders have felt the need to have a Kitchen Cabinet or "sofa government".
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 Act.
In theory the prime minister or premier is first among equals. However, the prime minister is the person from whom the head of state will ultimately take advice on the exercise of executive power, which may include the powers to declare war, use nuclear weapons, expel ministers from the cabinet, and to determine their portfolios in a cabinet reshuffle. This position in relation to the executive power means that, in practice, the prime minister has a high degree of control over the cabinet: 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.
The 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, Bangladesh, Canada, Pakistan, India, South Africa, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth of Nations countries whose parliamentary model is closely based on that of the United Kingdom.
Cabinet of the United States
Under the doctrine of separation of powers, 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.
In some European countries and in the institutions of the European Union, "cabinet" (French pronunciation: [kabiˈne]) refers not to a group of officials, but to the private office of consultants and assistants working directly for a minister or senior executive.