Directorate for Public Governance

A to Z of Public Governance Terms


Semi-autonomous public organisation that operates at arm’s length from the government, usually reporting to a ministry and mandated to carry out public tasks (e.g. regulation, service delivery, policy implementation) in a relatively autonomous manner (i.e. with less hierarchy and political influence in daily operations and with more managerial freedom).

This term is used to refer to the collective meeting of Ministers. In some countries it is called the Council of Ministers, in others Government, and there are a number of other less common names.

Centre of Government (CoG)
The term refers to the administrative structure that serves the Executive (President or Prime Minister, and the Cabinet collectively).  The Centre of Government has a great variety of names across countries, such as General Secretariat, Cabinet Office, Chancellery, Office/Ministry of the Presidency, Council of Ministers Office, etc. In many countries the CoG is made up of more than one unit, fulfilling different functions. A unit that is shared by virtually all Centres of Government is the unit that serves specifically the head of the government. This too has a variety of names, such as the Cabinet of the Prime Minister or the Private Office.

Civil servant
An employee of the state, either permanent or on a long-term contract, who would remain a state employee if the government changes.

Full-time equivalent (FTE)
A full-time equivalent, or FTE, is defined as total hours worked divided by average hours worked in full-time jobs.

Specific group of people who occupy the institutions of the state and create laws. 'The government' is usually taken to define the individuals who exert political power over the state and its institutions at a given time (for example the prime minister, ministers and ministers without portfolio). The government is thus the particular group of people that controls the state apparatus at a given time, and is the means through which state power is employed (for example the adoption of laws). In a democracy, the state is served by a continuous succession of different governments. The number of governments is determined by the number of terms served by the head of the executive branch (where a term is defined by a change in the executive or an election that renewed support for the incumbent government). Government in this definition is not the same as the use of the term government in a statistical or expenditure context (as for example in “general government”).

Government Programme
The government programme is typically developed on the basis of an incoming government’s policy manifesto (or in the case of coalition governments, the coalition manifesto). The programme covers policies and legislation that the government intends to implement during its period in office. It may be updated and refined on annual basis.

Head of Government
This term is used to refer to the Prime Minister or President – or both - depending on the political system of the country.

The processes and actions that need to be taken, once a new policy and/or law has been adopted, in order to ensure that the policy or law is given concrete effect. Can also be called operationalisation, reflecting the fact that policies have no effect unless and until they are made operational.

Political head of a ministry (in certain countries, the head of a ministry may be called Secretary or Secretary of State, and minister may be more junior in rank). Ministers are generally in charge of one or more ministries, and have a portfolio of responsibilities derived from the areas of responsibility covered by the ministry or ministries. Some ministers do not head up a ministry, but are in charge of specific issues supported by an office ('minister without portfolio'). In most parliamentary systems, ministers are drawn from the legislature but keep their parliamentary seats. In most presidential systems, ministers are not elected officials and are appointed by the President.

Ministerial Committee
Committees of ministers, usually set up to deal with specific sectors of government activity and policy such as economic affairs, social affairs, EU issues, in order to confirm a course of action and to resolve disagreements. They are usually chaired by a relevant senior minister. A key objective is to minimise the number of issues that need to be put to the Cabinet, and to identify the priority issues that merit Cabinet attention. Ministerial committees are often 'shadowed' by committees of officials, with the equivalent aim of preparing the ministerial committees, identifying priority issues for ministerial attention, and resolving disagreements.

An organisation which forms part of the central core of the executive branch of government. A ministry is responsible for the design and implementation of an area or sector of public policy and administration (e.g. agriculture, education, economy, foreign affairs), in line with the government programme and strategy.  A ministry is also responsible for the direction of agencies under its authority. In some countries, such as Australia, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom, ministries are called 'departments'. Sub-national governments may also be organised into ministries. A ministry has a delegated budget to exercise its responsibilities, under the authority and direction of the finance ministry or equivalent organisation responsible for the budget in central government. The term line ministry designates the majority of ministries, which exercise delegated, sectoral powers. The finance ministry is not a line ministry.

A term which does not exist in all languages and which in some languages may be synonymous with politics. A public policy defines a consistent course of action designed to meet a goal or objective, respond to an issue or problem identified by the government as requiring action or reform. It is implemented by a public body (ministry, agency, etc.), although elements may be delegated to other bodies. Examples include a public policy to tackle climate change, educational reform, support for entrepreneurship. A public policy is, or should be, linked to the government programme and its strategic planning. It is often given a formal framework through legislation and/or secondary regulations, especially in countries with a system of civil law. It is given practical effect through a defined course of action, programmes and activities. It is, as necessary, funded from the state budget. A priority policy is a policy which matters more than others for the achievement of the government’s strategic objectives. The responsibility for taking forward a public policy may rest with the relevant line ministry, or, in the case of policies that cut across ministerial boundaries, may be shared by relevant ministries.

Political adviser
A member of staff who is not a civil servant, appointed by the President, Prime Minister or a Minister to assist them, and who would leave state employment if the government changes.

Private Office of the Prime Minister or President (PO)
Many countries have a unit which is part of the CoG (at least for administrative purposes) that serves specifically the head of the government. This, too, has a variety of names, such as the Prime Minister’s Office or Office of the President.

Professional staff
This category of staff is to be distinguished from clerical/secretarial staff and managers. They are usually required to have a university degree, and may have leadership responsibilities over a field of work or various projects. They develop and analyse policies guiding the design, implementation and modification of government operations and programmes; review existing policies and legislation in order to identify anomalies and put-of-day provisions; analyse and formulate policy options, prepare briefing papers and recommendations for policy changes. Moreover, they assess the impact, financial implications and political and administrative feasibility of public policies. Their areas of expertise may include law, economics, politics, public administration, international relations, engineering, environment, pedagogy, health economics, etc.

Risk anticipation and management
In this context, refers to focused efforts at anticipating and identifying emerging risks (may also be referred to as horizon scanning, or strategic foresight) and taking actions to manage the identified risks. A more technical definition focuses on risk assessment, risk management and risk communication as part of a cycle. Risk assessment is about identifying and assessing the extent of a potential hazard and to estimate the probability and consequences of negative outcomes for humans, property or the environment. Risk management refers to the design and implementation of actions and remedies to address risks Risk communication refers to the methods and practices for educating and informing the public about risks when making risk trade-offs.

Set of enduring institutions, usually given legitimacy in a constitution and related legal forms, through which public power is distributed. In the social sciences, a sovereign state is a compulsory political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a defined territory (Weber), and is internationally recognised as such (through for example membership of the United Nations).

State Secretary
Administrative head of a ministry, i.e. a civil servant; may also be known as Permanent Secretary, Chief Executive or (non-political) Deputy Minister. There is great variability in the roles, responsibilities, place in the hierarchy and mode of appointment of state secretaries. Note that in some countries the same term may be used for (political) junior ministers, and a variant (Secretary of State) may be used to designate the senior minister in political charge of a ministry.

Strategic planning
A tool for identifying short-, medium-, and long-term priorities and goals (e.g. 'improve education' or 'achieve energy security') and laying out a set of present and future (collective) actions for achieving them.   

Support and clerical staff
These staff are generally not required to have a university degree although many do.  They perform a wide range of clerical and administrative tasks in connection with money-handling operations, travel arrangements, requests for information, appointments and communications, including recording, preparing, sorting, classifying and filling in information; preparing reports and correspondence; recording issue of equipment to staff; responding to telephone or electronic enquiries or forwarding to appropriate person; checking figures, preparing invoices and recording details of financial transactions made; transcribing information onto computers; updating Internet pages; and proofreading, correcting and laying out copy. Some assist in the preparation of budgets, monitoring of expenditures, drafting of contracts and purchasing or acquisition orders. Senior staff who supervise the work of clerical support workers are excluded from this category.

We use this generic term to refer to Departments, Directorates, Sections, or any other organizational segment that can be identified within the CoG.


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