Bureaucracy: A Ministerial Portfolio

The Ministry of Jute, the Ministry of Friendly Societies, and other offices along the corridors of power

ONE OF PARKINSON’S LAWS holds that the ideal government cabinet contains just five members. One of them knows the law, one knows finance, one knows foreign policy, and one knows defense. The fifth member, the one who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the Prime Minister. Over time, however, other officials, representing other interests, will seek to join the cabinet, and it often proves easier to let them in than to keep them out. As a result, cabinets tend to get larger and larger.

Americans will recognize the truth of this. The first cabinet of the United States, in 1789, had exactly the four secretaries that Parkinson prescribes. The cabinet grew to eight by the end of its first century and stands at thirteen as it approaches the end of its second. A nice case for Parkinson. Still, the United States is cabinet-poor compared with most countries. On average, each of the world’s 174 national governments employs twenty-five cabinet-level ministers. These 4,300 officials are identified and paired with their portfolios in a bimonthly publication called Chiefs of State and Cabinet Members of Foreign Governments, which is put out by the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to the CIA, only a handful of foreign states have smaller cabinets than the United States, many of them theocracies and principalities. The tiniest belongs to the Vatican, which lists only two cabinet-level officials—one of them the Pope. Monaco and Liechtenstein also have modest bureaucratic needs. Monaco gets along with a Councilor for Interior, Finance, and Economics, and one for Public Works and Social Affairs. Liechtenstein deems sufficient the gentle Departments of Agriculture, Health, and Welfare. The seven ministers in the ancient realm of Bhutan include the King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and two princesses. This is clearly no storybook kingdom: the princesses are in charge of Development and Finance.

As one might expect, Communist regimes are at the opposite end of the bureaucratic scale, employing whole rafts of ministers. Romania lias sixtv-three ministers and Vietnam has forty-eight. Communist North Korea has fifty (to South Korea’s twenty-four), and East Germany forty-five (as against West Germany’s eighteen). The Soviet Union has a vast cabinet of 135 officers, the largest number of any state, in charge of carefully allocated responsibilities. Eleven ministries deal with machine building alone: the Ministry of Machine Building for Light and Food Industry and Household Appliances, of Medium Machine Building, of Heavy and Transport Machine Building, of Chemical and Petroleum Machine Building, of Construction, Road, and Municipal Machine Building, of Machine Tool and Tool Building Industry, of Power Machine Building, of Tractor and Agricultural Machine Building, and of Machine Building for Animal Husbandry and Fodder Production. With all these, what could possibly be left for the two remaining, the Ministries of General Machine Building and Machine Building?

Many small and remote countries also enjoy a wealth of ministerial positions. The state of Antigua and Barbuda has twenty-three, Guyana has thirty-three, and the Cook Islands has forty-three. Gabon has fifty-five cabinet-rank officers^—one for every 20,000 inhabitants. (In the United States there is one cabinet member for every 18 million citizens.) Most of Gabon’s ministers have multiple responsibilities. For example, a single minister is responsible for Domains, Housing, Urbanism, Land Registration, and the Law of the Sea. Gabon also has a Minister of Road, Rail, River, and Lagoon Transport and of Social Communication.

Although New Zealand has almost as many cabinet posts as Gabon, it thriftily employs rather fewer ministers. The same names appear over and over again. One Geoffrey Palmer is Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney General, runs the Ministry of Justice, holds down the Ministry in Charge of the Government Printing Office, and serves as the Minister in Charge of the Legislative Department. Similarly, in the smaller but considerably more turbulent cabinet of Lebanon, Nabih Barri finds time to preside at Justice as well as to control Hydroelectric Resources. Such versatility is rivaled in Brunei, where Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan, is also Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, and Minister of Internal Affairs. On the little South Pacific island of Niue, thirteen of the twenty-three ministries are run by the Premier, Robert R. Rex, C.M.G., O.B.E., and his son, Robert R. Rex, Jr.; two other officials share the remaining ten posts. The record for most cabinet posts filled by an individual belongs to Rajiv Gandhi, who holds eleven out of India’s twenty-seven ministerial portfolios.

A few cabinet officers, at least, must enjoy their work. Papua New Guinea has a Ministry of Youth, Women, Religion, and Recreation. Many countries have cheerful-sounding cabinet posts dedicated to Youth or to Sport. Mongolia has a State Committee for Physical Culture and Sports, and Canada a Ministry of State for Fitness and Amateur Sports. Until recently France had a Ministry of Leisure and Italy a Ministry of Tourism and Public Entertainment. Morocco has a Ministry of Handicraft and Social Affairs. The Netherlands Antilles, in a paroxysm of good cheer, once maintained a Minister of Culture, Youth, Recreation, and Sport and Well-Being—an enviable post!

CABINET JOBS CAN be more idiosyncratic than one might expect. Justice may exist in any country, and few nations lack Interior, but you know where you are (almost) when a nation has a Ministry for the Aegean (Greece), a Ministry of Atolls Administration (Maldives), a Ministry of Maori Affairs (New Zealand), a Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs (Saudi Arabia), or a Ministry for Irish-Speaking Affairs (Ireland). The Ministry of the Sugar Industry is surely in Cuba, and the Ministry of Jute in Bangladesh; the Ministry of Construction Jihad could only be in Iran; and the Ministry for Labor and the Ivorization of Cadres, whatever that is, must conduct business in the Ivory Coast.

Often a nation’s character and history are on display in its cabinet. Luxembourg, for example, has a Ministry of Middle Class Affairs. Vietnam has a Ministry of War Invalids. Until recently Pakistan had in its cabinet an Adviser to the President for Traditional Medicine. “Divorced” countries seem to long bureaucratically for their other halves. South Korea has a Ministry of National Unification, and West Germany a Ministry for Inner-German Relations. Other governments show concern for missing lands and peoples. Jordan has a Ministry for Occupied Territories’ Affairs. Israel has a Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

Some countries confront fate with red tape at the ready. Chad resignedly maintains a Ministrv of Natural Disasters. New Zealand, equally gloomy, has a Minister in Charge of the Earthquake and War Damage Commission. More confident, France has a Secretary of State for the Prevention of Natural and Technological Disasters.

Governments have not hesitated to call very large concepts to their ministerial service. Thus Sri Lanka has a Ministry of Power, Norway one for Culture, India a Ministry of Space, and Portugal a Ministry for Quality of Life. Then again, some nations have elevated quotidian needs to high station. New Zealand has a Minister in Charge of the Rural Bank. Sri Lanka has a Minister of Private Omnibus Transport. The Cook Islands has a Ministry in Charge of Kia Orana Foods and Agricultural Stores and a Ministry in Charge of the (one) Library and (one) Museum.

A number of countries either depend for a substantial part of their income on foreign tourists or would like to. Two fifths of all countries have ministries concerned with tourism, including such unlikely though no doubt interesting locales as Uganda, Guinea-Bissau, Chad (you know, the country with a Ministry of Natural Disasters), and Lebanon (where it is somehow not surprising to find the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in charge).

Certain ministries remain mysterious. We have to guess at the significance of two offices in the Netherlands Antilles. One is the Ministry of Constitutional Structure of the Five-Island Antilles; the other is the Ministry of Constitutional Structure of the Six-Island Antilles. Argentina has a striking combination in the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Worship. And it is not for the outsider to fathom New Zealand’s Ministry in Charge of Friendly Societies, much less Kiribati’s Ministry of Line and Phoenix Groups.

There are ministries that could belong only to our times. Disraeli and Bismarck would surely puzzle over a Minister in Charge of Publicity (New Zealand). The Soviet Union has a State Committee for Cinematography and Norway a Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Ecology (Mexico), women’s rights (Mauritius, France, Togo), the environment (United Kingdom, Poland), and the elderly (France) have all taken their places in twentieth-century cabinets.

Does the world have too many ministries? Brazil, for one, thinks so. It has a Ministry for Debureaucratization.

—Paula Roberts