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How does the Government work?

The Finnish Government is to be understood, on the one hand, as the body which convenes for the general governing of the country, consisting of the Prime Minister and other ministers, and, on the other hand, the decision-making body for governmental and administrative matters consisting of the Government plenary session and the ministries.

The Prime Minister directs the activities of the Government and oversees the preparation and consideration of matters that come within the mandate of the Government. The Prime Minister chairs the plenary sessions of the Government and statutory Ministerial Committees.

Ministries

Currently, the Finnish Government comprises 12 ministries. Each ministry is responsible for the preparation of matters within its mandate and for the proper functioning of administration.

These ministries are:

A Permanent Secretary is the most senior official in a ministry. The Permanent Secretary directs and monitors the operation of the ministry. In the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance, State Secretaries serve as the Permanent Secretaries of the ministry.

A State Secretary may also be appointed to the Prime Minister's Office and his/her term is linked to that of the Prime Minister. The State Secretary serves as the closest adviser to the prime minister and directs preparatory work, promotes and monitors the implementation of the Government Programme and manages cooperation between ministries. A State Secretary may also be appointed to the other Finnish Government ministries to assist the minister and his/her term is also linked to that of the relevant minister. The minister may assign the State Secretary to act as his/her substitute in the preparatory work of national and international issues. In addition, ministers also have political special advisers.

The area for which each ministry is responsible is specified by the Government Rules of Procedure and by decrees governing the ministry in question. The mandate of the ministry is generally indicated by its name: the Ministry for Foreign Affairs deals with Finland's relations with foreign states, the Ministry of Justice handles issues concerning the judicial system, legislation and prison administration and the Ministry of Defence is responsible for the national defence and defence forces.

Ministers head ministries or conduct other assigned ministerial duties and act in the Government. The latter involves participation in the Ministerial Committees and in the plenary and presidential sessions of the Government.

All matters to be decided by the Government are prepared in the relevant ministry. The ministries also handle a significant proportion of the Government's administrative issues.                 

Working of the Government

The ministers' weekly schedule includes the following regular meetings, in addition to their responsibilities at their own ministries

  • Ministerial Finance Committee
  • Government plenary session
  • Presidential session
  • Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy
  • Ministerial Committee on European Union Affairs
  • Ministerial Committee on Economic Policy
  • Government evening session.

There may also be extraordinary meetings of the Government plenary session and the Ministerial Finance Committee. The timing of such meetings is decided by the Prime Minister.

There are also other ministerial committees and ministerial working groups set up to prepare individual items or categories of business.

Government plenary sessions

Plenary sessions of the Government are held as a rule at 13.00 every Thursday in the government session hall. Sessions are chaired by the Prime Minister, or, when the Prime Minister is unable to attend, by the minister deputising for the Prime Minister. If the minister deputising for the Prime Minister is also unable to attend, the session is chaired by the most senior minister present.

In addition to the Prime Minister and other ministers, plenary sessions of the Government are also attended by the Chancellor of Justice. When the business before the session relates to the University of Helsinki, the Chancellor of the University is also entitled to take part.

Plenary sessions constitute a quorum when a minimum of five ministers are in attendance.

The Prime Minister decides the order for the presentation of business at plenary sessions. Each item on the agenda is presented by a presenting officer from the ministry concerned. These are, however, not obliged to attend if the business is to be decided without debate on the basis of the presenting officer's written proposal. Presenting officers are called to attend only if ministers wish to amend, supplement or discuss the proposal.

The minutes of plenary sessions are taken by a government employee from the Government Session Unit in the Prime Minister's Office.

On 15 January 2015, the government plenary session adopted an electronic tool for session materials, a government session information system. In future, ministers will follow the progress of decision-making at plenary sessions on tablet computers. The change modernises the session procedure and reduces the need to print and transport decision documents between ministries.
Government decision procedure digitalised - Press release 15.1.2015

Issues raised in plenary session

Government plenary sessions make proposals to the President of the Republic on decisions in matters which come under the authority of the President. Plenary sessions also have the power to issue decrees and take decisions on governmental and administrative matters coming under the authority of the Government.

Division of the Government's decision-making authority between the plenary session and the individual ministries in governmental and administrative matters is provided for in the Constitution and Government Act. More detailed provision is made in the Government Rules of Procedure. Government plenary sessions handle approximately 1,000 items of business every year.
Government Act (only in Finnish and Swedish)

Working procedures in plenary session

The handling of business in government plenary sessions is based on a presentation agenda distributed in advance and including the decisions proposed by the presenting officers. The order of presenting ministries is laid down in the Government Act.

Items for which a presenting officer is not called to attend are handled under the decision agenda procedure. Items on the decision agenda are generally approved unchanged. Ministers do, however, have the right to remove an item from the agenda or request the production of relevant documents for a more detailed examination of items raised. Also the Government has the right of deferral.

Under the alternative presentation agenda procedure, items on the presentation agenda are presented in person by the presenting officer responsible for the preparatory work. Again, ministers have the right to remove an item from the agenda or request the production of relevant documents. The Government has the right of deferral. Unlike the decision agenda procedure, the items on the presentation procedure may be amended prior to decision making.

Voting procedure

All ministers have the right to propose their own solution to business discussed in plenary session. A vote must be taken in cases where more than one proposal is put forward. Proposals by a minister do not need the support of other ministers in order to be voted on. A proposal by a presenting officer which does not receive the backing of a single minister is dropped without a vote.

Government voting procedure is collegial. Fundamental to this procedure is that all proposals are decided on a single vote. In the voting process, each minister in turn expresses his/her opinion in reverse order of seniority, from the most junior up to the most senior minister. The chairperson is the last to express a view. The proposal supported by the majority is the final decision. In the event of a tie, the chairperson's vote is decisive.

If a minister wishes to express a minority view on an issue, but does not wish to present an alternative solution or a dissenting opinion, he or she has the right to enter a statement in the government minutes.

Responsibility

The presenting officer and all ministers attending government plenary session are responsible for the decisions taken in the session. Dissenting ministers may, however, release themselves from responsibility by presenting a dissenting opinion for entry in the Government minutes.

Ministerial responsibility is both political and legal in nature. Political responsibility and control are mediated by the Government and Parliament, for example through government statements and reports, and questions and interpellations by members of Parliament. Legal responsibility means that the legality of actions by ministers is subject to investigation by the High Court of Impeachment.

Presidential session

In general, a presidential session is held at 11.00 on every other Friday. The President of the Republic takes decisions at government sessions on the presentation of the minister within whose mandate the matter falls. The order of presentation is the same as for government plenary sessions. The session is presided over by the Prime Minister.

The Government is responsible for presenting proposals that regard such items of business which must be placed before the President. Where necessary, the government plenary session may decide its position by voting. The presenting minister must then present the matter to the President according to the position supported by a majority within the Government.

All ministers attend the presidential sessions of the Government. In order to constitute a quorum, sessions must be attended by the President and at least five members of the Government. The Chancellor of Justice is also present in presidential sessions. The minutes are taken by a government employee from the Government Session Unit in the Prime Minister's Office

As the President of the Republic alone takes the decisions at presidential sessions, no vote is taken on business presented. To release themselves from responsibility, ministers may, however, have their opinions entered in the minutes. The President may request the production of documents to facilitate more detailed examination of items raised.

When the business before the session relates to the University of Helsinki, the Chancellor of the University is also entitled to take part for as long as these particular issues are on the table. The same applies to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces when the President takes a decision on a matter of military command at the government plenary session. The permanent secretary of the relevant ministry, or another official standing in for the permanent secretary, is present during the handling of ministry business.

During the summer, presidential sessions may also be held at Kultaranta, the President's summer residence in Naantali. Unlike in the other presidential sessions, all ministries are represented by the State Secretary from the Prime Minister's Office, and not by their own permanent secretaries.