3 The Ministries and the Government

3 The Ministries and the Government

3.1 The Government

According to the Constitution, the Council of State possesses formally no independent executive powers except in the absence of the King or heir to the throne (see below). The Council of State serves as an advisory council to the King. The official power to take decisions is vested in the King, and the decisions adopted are designated as Royal Decrees. In order to become valid, all decisions taken must be signed by the King. However, the provision of Article 30 that " . . . it rests with the King to make a decision according to his own judgement, " is no longer in keeping with the political and constitutional realities of the parliamentary form of government which was introduced in 1884 and has been practised ever since. Under today's parliamentary system, he members of the Council of State have a joint responsibility for decisions taken in the Government, the real and " workable " decisions are taken by each member of the Government for implementation through their respective ministries.

The term Government (Regjeringen) is often used synonymously with the term Council of State. However, in the Constitution the term Government is specifically used to mean either the King in Council or the executive power.

Thus, in political terms, the Government exercises the authority which is vested in the King by the Constitution or fundamental law. Although it is common practice to refer to a Government bill, Government budget, or Government regulations, the King must in fact have given his formal approval to the Government's recommendations for these decisions to be valid.

As stated above, the Government may in certain cases act as the executive power in the King's absence. The Constitution gives the Government the same formal authority as the King in Council under certain circumstances, such as when a regency must be formed because the King is out of the country or ill, and the nearest heir to the throne is not of legal age. Decisions taken under these circumstances are designated Government Decrees and not Royal Decrees, and are signed by all members of the Government present.

If the King is travelling within the realm, he may authorize the Government to take decisions in his name. When the King returns from such absence such as is described above, the Council of State is required to provide a report on all decisions that have been taken.

Although the actual power in matters of state lies with the Government, it does not have any formal or independent decision-making powers. In reality, however, this distinction is of little importance. Practically speaking, the decisions taken by the Government are, as just mentioned, implemented by the appropriate ministry or, if a matter involves several ministries, by the Prime Minister's Office.

According to the Constitution, more than half the ministers must be present in the Council of State to constitute a quorum. No such conditions exist for discussions within the Government, i.e. meetings of the Council of State where the King is not present. It is up to the Prime Minister to decide whether a matter may be dealt with by the members present at any given meeting of the Government, or whether a matter should be postponed until more ministers are in attendance.

3.2 Meetings of the King in Council

A " preparatory " meeting of the Council of State is held prior to meetings of the King in Council. This practice is not mentioned in the Government Instructions, but has become a regular procedure in matters which are to be brought before the King in Council. These preparatory meetings are usually held each Thursday in conjunction with the meeting of the ministers held the same day.

Matters which require detailed discussion in the Government will normally have been dealt with in an earlier meeting of the ministers on the basis of a Government memorandum (see below). Thus, each minister may simply read out the list of matters to be discussed, commenting on individual items only when necessary.

If a minister is disqualified in any way from participating in a decision, he or she must make this known to the Council. The provisions pertaining to disqualification are laid down in Section 6 of the Public Administration Act, but they do not apply to a minister acting in the capacity of a member of the Government (cf. Section 10, second sentence). Although the principles of disqualification may be applied in the Council of State (Government), it has not been found necessary to lay down binding legal rules Thus, the procedure at the Government level has been to evaluate the question of whether a minister is disqualified according to the circumstances in each individual case.

In the event that a minister disagrees with a decision taken by the King in Council, he or she must express dissent during the formal meeting of the Council of State and have this dissent recorded.

If a minister is unable to attend a meeting of the Council of State, another member will be asked to present the matters being dealt with by that minister. If the member who normally assumes this responsibility is also absent, the Prime Minister will informally ask another member to present the matters instead.

As pointed out above, at least half the ministers in the Government must be present to constitute a quorum. Moreover, a majority of the members present must be members of the State Church if Church matters are to be dealt with. Such matters are usually presented by the Minister of Church Affairs.

Minutes from the Council of State.
There are no minutes taken of the discussions in the Council of State. All decisions are entered in a record, as stipulated in Article 30 of the Constitution. As a rule, these decisions are published, unless the matter involved is exempted from public disclosure. Special guidelines exist for discussion in the media of matters pertaining to the individual ministries, (see chapter 5).

Article 75 f. of the Constitution stipulates that all records of proceedings of the Council of State shall be submitted to the Storting. Thus, at the end of each legislative session (i.e. 30 June each year), these records are sent to the Presidium. The documents are reviewed by the Standing Committee on Scrutiny and the Constitution, which gives its recommendation when the next Storting opens. Report No. 6 to the Storting always includes an overview of senior official appointments from the period from 1 July to 30 June of the previous year as well as lists of senior officials who are acting in a new capacity. Although there is seldom any debate in the Storting on these issues, it may be noted (and discussed in the media) if there has been any dissent in the Government.

3.3 Activities of the Government

Preparing for the meetings of the Council of State, Government memoranda

In keeping with Article 21 of the Constitution and established practice, matters which are to be submitted to the King in Council must, as a rule, first have been dealt with by the Government . This applies primarily to matters which are to be presented to the Storting, such as government reports and propositions to the Storting or the Odelsting. However, important appointments, particularly for senior positions, will often have been discussed by the ministers before a proposal is formally submitted in the Council of State. Although the Constitution and other acts contain provisions stipulating the decisions which must be taken by the King in Council, there are no specific rules governing which matters must be considered by the Government in its informal meetings before the meetings of the King in Council. Reports on government reforms of a certain magnitude may not be initiated until the economic and administrative consequences have been assessed by the Government. The Prime Minister's Office has issued rules requiring that the substance of important regulations and Storting documents shall be submitted to the Government.

There are, of course, more informal norms regarding the work of the Government. According to these,

  • matters on which two or more ministers disagree shall not be discussed within the Government until all other methods of resolving the conflict have been tried;
  • matters which clearly belong to the domain of a particular minister shall not be submitted to the Government unless there are special reasons indicating otherwise.

Beyond this, it is up to the individual prime minister and members of the Government to establish their own specific guidelines regarding the matters to be discussed at their meetings. The attempt to establish such guidelines creates a dilemma; while it is essential to ensure that ministers do not take individual decisions on matters which should be discussed by the Government as a whole, it is equally important not to overburden the Government with too many matters that could be decided elsewhere.

Traditionally, matters which are dealt with in the meetings of the Government have been divided into five groups:

  1. Decisions which must be formally taken by the King in Council .
  2. Decisions which the appropriate ministry is authorized to take, but which the minister nonetheless wishes to discuss with his or her colleagues. This applies primarily to matters which will affect other ministries, which are viewed as politically controversial, or which involve large-scale expenditures.
  3. General policy discussions which are not necessarily associated with a specific matter, but which involve the principles underlying the guidelines which the Government wishes to implement within a certain area.
  4. Important matters relating to the Government's or a minister's conduct in public, for example before the Storting or in the media,
  5. Information and notifications of various types.

    As there are few rules and guidelines in this field, it is largely up to the individual minister to decide which matters are to be brought before the Government.

    Government memoranda.
    Deliberations within the Government are generally based on Government memoranda. Traditionally, these memoranda have been very comprehensive, and relatively difficult to extract information from. In recent years, successive prime ministers have issued strict instructions that Government memoranda are to be kept as brief as possible, not exceeding two, or in special cases three, pages. Each memorandum must contain clearly formulated conclusions, as it is on the basis of these that the Government will conduct its deliberations.

    All memoranda containing budgetary or economic elements must be presented to the Ministry of Financebefore being submitted to the Government. The Government memorandum must state that the matter has been presented to the Ministry of Finance, and must include any comments from that ministry. See also below regarding the role of certain ministries in coordinating activities within the government administration.

    When a particular matter overlaps with the sphere of other ministries should be presented to those ministries beforehand, and the memorandum should clearly state that this has been done. Divergent viewpoints must be mentioned, along with any alternative solutions proposed.

    Great importance is attached to ensuring proper contact between the ministries assigned special coordinating functions (see 3.8 below). It is also essential that Government memoranda be circulated between the appropriate parties according to established procedure and with a generous time-frame, as the members of the Government must be given adequate time to acquaint themselves with the matter.

    The meetings of the Government are usually held each Monday and Thursday at 12:00 p.m. Government memoranda for the Monday meeting must be sent out and received by the Prime Minister's Office at the latest by the Wednesday before. Memoranda for the Thursday meeting must have been received by the preceding Monday.

    Matters which are to be included on the agenda for the Monday meeting must be reported to the Prime Minister's Office before 10:00 a.m. the preceding Friday, or the preceding Wednesday for the Thursday meeting. Each ministry has its own instructions regarding the preparation of Government memoranda, and its own deadlines as to when the draft texts must be sent to the minister and political leadership. As a rule, the ministry will also supply instructions for how to deal with Government memoranda from other ministries.

    Government memoranda are considered part of general procedure for dealing with ministry business, and a copy is to be filed in the ministry archives together with the other documents pertaining to the specific matter. However, as a rule, the Government memoranda themselves are stored in the minister's office, and are considered to the property of the Government. This means that their contents will not be made known to successive governments.

    After a change of government, all Government memoranda from the various outgoing ministers are collected and delivered to the National Archives. They will be exempted from public disclosure for 30-40 years.

    Activities of the Government:Meetings and discussions between members of the Government

    Meetings of members of the Government are held every Monday and Thursday, and all ministers are expected to attend. Ministers who are unable to do so must notify the Prime Minister's Office. Practice regarding attendance by other persons than the ministers at these meetings has varied somewhat. In periods, the state secretaries have been permitted to attend, either together with or in the place of the minister. It is for each new Government to decide the extent to which state secretaries and others will be permitted to participate at meetings of the members of the Government.

    Occasionally, one or more of the senior officials from a ministry, or in exceptional cases special experts, may be permitted to participate alongside the minister at these meetings in order to provide the Government with special information.

    The Prime Minister presides over the meetings of the Government. If the Prime Minister is absent, the meeting is headed by the minister with the highest seniority, generally the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

    An agenda is set for each meeting, and each minister gives a report which is for the most part based on the Government memoranda which have been circulated. After this the floor is opened for discussion. It is the Prime Minister's task to chair the debate and formulate a conclusion which the members of the Government can agree upon, whether or not this conclusion corresponds to the conclusion set out in the Government memorandum in question.

    As has already been pointed out, the Government has no formal executive powers except in those cases where it must assume these powers in the absence of the King. Thus, the conclusions reached at the meetings of the Government are not constitutionally binding in the strict sense of the term. However, a decision taken at a meeting of the Government may be said to be politically binding for the minister, as it is inconceivable that a minister would act against a decision taken by the Government. Such action would almost certainly affect that minister's position in the Government.

    The Prime Minister's Office has repeatedly emphasized the need for the government administration to utilize the proper terminology in the reports which are sent out from meetings of the Government. Such reports should not state that " a decision has been taken ", but rather that " a matter has been discussed " by the Government.

    The Government deals with some 600 matters a year in the bi-weekly meetings. On average, this means that six issues will be dealt with at each meeting, though this number may of course vary widely.

    3.5 Minutes of the meetings etc.

    The practice of recording minutes from the meetings of the Government was first introduced during the Second World War. The oldest records date back to 22 May 1940, from a meeting of the Government in Tromsø. During the war, Prime Minister Nygaardsvold took the minutes himself. After 1945, the minutes were taken by the secretary to the Prime Minister. Now the minutes are taken by a senior official from the Prime Minister's Office who attends the meetings on a regular basis.

    The minutes of the meetings are very brief, usually noting time, place, participants and matters discussed. Any decisions taken are also cited in the minutes. Two copies of the record of decisions or minutes are sent to each member of the Government immediately following the meeting. Unlike the record of proceedings from the meetings of the King in Council, the minutes are not submitted to the Storting for review.

    The implementation of decisions taken at the meetings of the Government is the responsibility of the ministry involved. This is an integral part of the follow-up process for the Government memorandum which has been prepared. Follow-up of decisions involving more than one ministry must be agreed upon by all the appropriate ministries.

    3.6 Ministerial committees

    It is important to emphasize that each Government chooses its own working form within the constraints laid down in the Constitution and relevant legislation.

    The use of ministerial committees will be adapted to the specific needs of each Government. Thus, the presentation given below reflects the structure of such committees today and may not apply in the case of a new Government.

    For many reasons, not the least of which is time, the Government's ability to act as a central coordinating body will be limited. Many tasks that need coordination will naturally remain, and these are often dealt with in special ministerial committees comprising the specific ministers involved rather than the entire Government. Such committees are viewed as a useful means of assisting the Government in its work while reducing the burdens on the Government as a whole.

    When dealing with matters of particular political importance, the Government may wish to follow a matter closely while is it being examined in more detail. In such cases a ministerial committee is often established, either as a more or less permanent committee for all matters in certain areas or as a committee established especially for a specific matter (see 3.7 below on state secretary committees).

    Ministerial committees differ from the regular committees or working groups appointed by Royal Decree or a ministry. Unlike other committees, ministerial committees have no official status and their existence may not always be known. These committees are often brought into matters at a relatively late stage in the proceedings, usually after a matter has been dealt with by a ministry or elsewhere in the public administration.

    The number and scope of ministerial committees varies from Government to Government. As of February 1994, the following ministerial committees are active:

    1. Ministerial Committee on Security
    2. Ministerial Committee on Research
    3. Ministerial Committee on EU Affairs
    4. Ministerial Committee on Health and Social Affairs
    5. Ministerial Committee on Industrial Policy
    The committees on research and industrial policy are each chaired by their respective ministers, while the Prime Minister chairs the others. The number of other ministers on each committee varies. Secretariats for the committees have been established partly at the Prime Minister's Office and partly in the appropriate ministry.

    There are a number of other coordinating committees which are chaired by the Prime Minister and include other ministers among their participants.

    Sub-committees have also been appointed to deal with political aspects of larger, more complicated matters before they are discussed in the Government. This practice was introduced during the Willoch Government in 1983, and the sub-committees included representatives of the three government coalition parties.

    Other types of committee include the mixed committees, where members of the Government serve together with representatives from outside the Government, such as senior officials from various ministries. This is the case with the Defence Council, for example.

    3.7 State secretary committees

    Although state secretaries have traditionally served on many types of government committees, specific state secretary committees have only recently been introduced. Such committees have been appointed within a variety of spheres, ranging from planning activities and cooperation with developing countries to petroleum issues and international economic affairs. As is the case with the ministerial committees, the number and scope of such committees will vary according to specific Government needs.

    The following permanent state secretary committees are currently active:

    • Secretary Committee on European affairs
    • State Secretary Committee on income policy and employment
    • State Secretary Committee on environmental affairs
    • State Secretary Committee on economic crimes
    • State Secretary Committee on North Norwegian affairs

    3.8 Coordinating activities between ministries

    In the past, each ministry operated for the most part within a clearly delineated sphere of responsibility which afforded it more or less independent decision-making authority in its respective areas. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Increasingly, the matters dealt with by ministries extend across various spheres, requiring attention from not one but several different ministries before a final decision can be taken. This means that each ministry must give consideration to the possible interests and responsibilities of other ministries in its dealings with a matter.

    The need to consult other ministries is formally laid down in the Instructions for issuing of official documents and regulation (emanated in 1984 but is now under revision). It is essential that the respective interests of the various ministries be taken into consideration, particularly in connection with submissions to the Government.

    The procedure whereby ministries (or directorates) circulate matters to other interested parties for comment plays an important role in this context. According to Section 37 of the Public Adminstration Act, specified interested parties must be given an opportunity to express their opinions on draft regulations prepared by a ministry. This practice has now been extended to include matters other than draft legislation, such as draft reports (White Papers, called Stortingsmelding, abbr. St.meld., Nos. 1, 2 etc.) to the Storting and other measures, in part in response to the need for better evaluation of the economic and administrative consequences of government measures. Procedures for circulating documents for comment are formally set out in the said Instructions.

    It can be very time-consuming for the individual ministry to deal with matters circulated for comment. However, in principle, ministries consider it useful to compile viewpoints from other sources when dealing with decisions to be taken internally as well as within the formal political structure of the Council of State.

    A circular from the Prime Minister's Office in 1986 stipulates that all Government memoranda which contain economic or budgetary elements must be presented to the Ministry of Finance before being submitted to the Government. The circular goes on to emphasize that the Ministry must be given ample time to consider the matter carefully. The Government memorandum must state that the matter has been presented to the Ministry of Finance, and must include any comments from that ministry. This is crucial to ensuring a constructive debate on the matter in the Government.

    Likewise, a matter which involves the sphere of other ministries should be presented to those ministries beforehand, and the memorandum should clearly state that this has been done. Divergent viewpoints must be included, along with any alternative solutions proposed.

    It is particularly important that all legislative bills and draft amendments be presented to the Ministry of Justice to review legal formalities and niceties before submission to the Government. This does not apply to new or amended tax legislation, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance.

    Proposals which are expected to lead to substantial organizational or administrative restructuring within the public administration must be presented to the Ministry of Government Administration. Matters involving municipal or county budgets or administration must be discussed with the Ministry of Local Government and Labour, which is also responsible for coordinating regional policy and all matters concerning the location of government jobs.

    The Ministry of Education, Research and Church search issues. The ministry should be consulted on the following issues before they are implemented or submitted to the Government:

    • matters which involve large-scale investment or will in some other way require substantial resources,
    • matters which clearly involve several ministries,
    • matters which require large-scale measures within the education sector,
    • matters which are essential to the principles underlying national research policy,
    • matters in which Norway is participating in international cooperation.
    Finally, all matters which involve foreign policy or which are otherwise defined as involving international affairs should be presented to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    3.9 The ministries and the Prime Minister's Office

    Previously, the prime minister headed a ministry in addition to serving as the head of government. Thus, Prime Minister Mowinckel was head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Prime Minister Nygaardsvold headed what was then the Ministry of Public Works.. All assistance needed in connection with the tasks of the prime minister was provided by the appropriate ministry. However, when war broke out in 1939, this practice was no longer found to be adequate. Thus, the prime minister was freed from the administrative responsibilities of running a ministry, and was equipped instead with an office and a secretary. After the war the number of secretaries rose to three, and in 1956 the office was expanded considerably to include three director generals, two state secretaries and the requisite clerical personnel. The office has continued to grow and today comprises a total of 31 employees organized within a structure similar to a ministry, with state secretaries, a secretary general, director generals etc. Such a structure is necessary as the task of coordinating the ministries' activities and preparing the meetings of the Government is essentially an administrative one along the same lines as the administrative workings of the ministries. The introduction of a small staff of permanent civil servants at the Prime Minister's Office provides the public administration with a certain amount of continuity as regards the administrative aspects of the workings of government. This is important not least when there is a change of government.

    Today, all matters which were previously the responsibility of the secretariat of the Council of State have been transferred to the Prime Minister's Office, which is responsible for coordinating all tasks under the prime minister. The office also has special responsibility for legal and administrative affairs, emergency preparedness measures and preparations for the meetings of the Government ministers.

    It is up to the individual prime minister to decide the extent to which he or she wishes to become involved in any particularly important or controversial issues being dealt with by a ministry. In recent years, procedures for submission have been specified for certain issues. The aim of this has been to prevent ministries from initiating large-scale studies until the ramifications have been sufficiently assessed.

    The Prime Minister's Office is also responsible for compiling a concentrated overview of all matters being dealt with in the ministries intended for submission to the Storting for discussions or decisions in the nearest future.. This overview is sent to the administration of the Storting, which in turn is responsible for coordinating the activities of the Government and the ministries with those of the Storting.

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