The fundamental role of government

Throughout the twentieth century, many countries witnessed significant changes as the importance of the state grew and the role of the government evolved. In the wake of World War Two, nations the world over – Great Britain included – sought to rebuild in the aftermath of destruction, tackling the immense challenges facing industry, economy, infrastructure and society.

Now, in the 21st century, they continue to grow and evolve in both new and familiar ways. The pandemic saw national and federal governments enact stringent policies to contain the spread of COVID-19, the effects of which are still being felt by economies and communities.

What is the role of government?

The specific roles and functions of national governments vary depending on the political ideologies and societal characteristics of a given country. For starters, different governments will have various  approaches, priorities and orientations to the rule of law, including:

  • democracies
  • dictatorships
  • autocracies
  • oligarchies
  • constitutional governments.

Generally speaking, national and state governments are responsible for:

  • provision of public services and public goods – managing key expenditures to deliver healthcare, transportation, sanitation, education, development of infrastructure and much more.
  • economic regulation – ensuring economic stability, protecting consumers, upholding fair competition in the private sector, encouraging entrepreneurship and addressing deficits.
  • national defence – safeguarding the security and sovereignty of the country via national defence forces such as the UK Armed Forces.
  • law and order – keeping citizens safe by implementing and enforcing laws and security systems and establishing law enforcement bodies such as police forces.
  • protecting human rights – including individual rights and fundamental liberties such as freedom of religion or belief and freedom of speech.
  • international relations and diplomacy – upholding relations, partnerships, agreements and negotiations with other countries and nations.
  • protecting the environment – via policies which aim to tackle issues such as the climate crisis and environmental sustainability.
  • resource distribution – address economic disparities using wealth redistribution methods such as social welfare initiatives and tax revenues.

In the UK, there are various central government bodies and organisations, which have wide-ranging goals and remits. The range of their responsibilities and interests are broad, offering an insight into some of the critical aspects of society the government oversees.

In the UK, these include the:

  • Department for Business and Trade
  • Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Department for Education
  • Department for Energy and Net Zero
  • Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs
  • Department for Science, Innovation and Technology
  • Department for Work and Pensions
  • Department of Health and Social Care.

There is also local government, tasked with providing and managing vital services for populations and businesses in specific areas. Local government systems include schools, social and community care, housing, waste collection, business support and planning and licensing.

What is the difference between government and parliament?

According to the UK parliament website, ‘the government is responsible for deciding how the country is run and for managing things, day to day’ whereas ‘parliament is there to represent public interests and make sure they are taken into account by the government.’

The government is made up of the political party that wins the most seats at a general election, and consists of the prime minister, their cabinet, junior ministers, and non-political civil servants based in various government departments.

Parliament is formed of two Houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Members of the Houses are eligible to speak on behalf of the public interest if they believe unfair treatment  has occurred or will occur at the hands of governmental agencies or departments. It is a requirement that government ministers attend parliament on a regular basis to engage in debates with other political parties, respond to issues, answer questions, and inform the Houses of important decisions.

What factors affect government?

A number of factors spanning political, economic and cultural contexts can all affect  government decisions at international, national and local levels.

Examples of factors that can influence and impact government include:

  • Political beliefs and ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism, socialism and environmentalism, will influence how a government operates, the policies it develops and the areas it focuses on.
  • Economic climate, for example whether there’s high unemployment, a recession, inflation or slow economic growth, can significantly influence national budget expenditure and fiscal policies.
  • Public opinion, often expressed via polls, elections, protests and rallies, can impact governmental responses and actions.
  • Globalisation, which can impact international relations between governments, as well as issues such as trade, business and immigration.
  • Technology, in particular advancements, mean governments must take into account factors such as cybersecurity, data privacy and protection, and surveillance.
  • National demographics, from age to size to composition of a population, impact decisions made around aspects such as health provision, social services offerings, jobs and pensions.
  • Interest groups, who advocate on behalf of specific issues – such as the British Medical Association (BMA) lobbying the government to introduce the smoking ban in the interests of public health – can put pressure on policymakers and influence decisions and outcomes.
  • Legal frameworks, as well as constitutions, often dictate what governments can and can’t do in relation to the extent of rights and powers.

There are numerous other factors, including the country or nation’s historical context, the media, and world events – such as trade agreements, health crises and conflicts.

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