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Internal memo calls for changes in government procedure

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (center) leading a government session.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (center) leading a government session. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu (IRL) has introduced a new concept to the government, according to which the limitation of the number of ministerial portfolios would be given up, and the role of the prime minister given more weight.

The memo, submitted to the cabinet in its last meeting, covers several areas, among them losing the limit of ministers it can have, promoting the prime minister’s role in developing policy and solving problems that involve several ministries, and making cooperation between parliament and government more coherent.

The last point includes a proposal to change the current system to the effect that ministers could in the future also be members of parliament.

Making government more effective

While the Constitution does not specify the number of members in any government, there is currently a law in place that does. The government has 15 ministers at the moment, a number that could increase if this law was to be changed. In particular, ministers without a portfolio could be appointed.

The proposed change would help solve issues like the position of Estonia’s permanent representative at the European Union. The current representative, Matti Maasikas, holds the rank of ambassador, while his role and competencies are necessarily closer to those of a government minister. The proposed changes might introduce the possibility to appoint such a representative a member of the government.

How many ministers there are in each ministry is set out by the head of government by issuing an according directive. Though the Estonian Constitution would make it possible to have ministers without portfolio, Jüri Ratas so far has not appointed any. Each of the 15 members of his government is assigned an administrative area in one of the 11 ministries.

The proposed change would not just affect how policy is shaped, but may well make coalition negotiations easier, as there are more positions to determine and distribute if the upper limit is given up.

At the same time, the change wouldn’t mean that the final say in determining government size would be taken away from the Riigikogu, as the national parliament would still have to confirm the prime minister’s appointments, the memo stresses.

Specifying the prime minister’s role

The proposal would define the prime minister’s tasks and responsibilities more clearly. According to current law, the prime minister’s tasks are defined by only few formal criteria, building their role on running government and cabinet meetings.

Chairing government meetings, the prime minister does not have the necessary competencies to define the direction of the state’s development, while carrying all the responsibility, the memo states.

For this reason, the prime minister would in the future define the government’s strategic aims and plan how to achieve them, and their role would include guaranteeing the implementation of those aims as well as making sure the government stays on course. It would also include coordinating the work of the government’s ministers.

The new arrangement would still leave the prime minister the possibility to delegate their responsibilities to the current extent, the memo states. In all of the tasks specified in the memo, the leader of the government as well as the ministers would be supported by the Government Office.

Introducing government committees, changing role of ministers without portfolio

Cabinet meetings are the government’s present way to consensus. All ministers are typically included in policy debates. In practice, it often turns out to be difficult to find a time when all ministers can discuss a problem, which again can lead to delays.

Just the same, some issues reach the cabinet level in too raw a shape, and would profit if they could be discussed by a smaller circle of ministers first, the memo states. The changed law on the work of the government would include the option to form such government committees, and to delegate the power to make decisions to them.

According to the opinion expressed in the memo by the Ministry of Justice, the new order would speed up the work of the government and strengthen it where consensus is necessary, and where policy decisions need to be reached.

The proposal includes a change of the role of ministers without a portfolio as well. They could be delegated some of the prime minister’s tasks, and could help coordinate the work of different ministries. They could also take on the prime minister’s tasks when the head of government is not available, the memo states.

Rõivas: No law in place that would obstruct prime minister’s work

Former prime minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform) commented on Tuesday that the priorities of the proposed change lie in his successor’s wish to lead the government more, and to improve the cooperation with the Center Party’s junior partners in the coalition.

Rõivas told ERR that government had become more flexible in his time already, and that it was necessary to further increase the effectiveness of the public sector. The point the memo makes about putting the prime minister in charge of the government’s strategic goal was obvious, Rõivas said: “The prime minister leads the government de jure as well as de facto, and it’s obvious that it’s the leader that sets out the strategic aims and follows their implementation.”

A lot depended on the prime minister’s personality, and on the atmosphere in the coalition, Rõivas added. There was no law in place that would obstruct them in doing their job.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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