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Huber and Lupia: Cabinet instability and delegation in parliamentary democracies

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Huber and Lupia. 2001. Cabinet instability and delegation in parliamentary democracies. AJPS 45:18-32.

In Brief

In parliamentary democracies, cabinet ministers delegate to bureaucrats but coalition governments replace cabinet ministers with little advance notice. The authors would like to evaluate the claim that cabinet instability (uncertainty about the timing of ministerial replacements) allows bureaucrats to ignore ministerial orders.

Theoretical Argument

Huber and Lupia present a delegation model that introduces cabinet instability as a variable. They discover that often instability has no effect on bureaucratic behavior. They observe the bureaucrats' dilemma (the fear that a bureaucrat's efforts will be unrewarded or even punished if the incumbent minister is replaced unexpectedly), which makes bureaucrats choose policies that would make both them and their ministers better off.

Three Insights (see Figure 1)

  1. Uncertainty about ministerial continuity can, but need not reduce the extent to which ministers benefit from delegation. In many cases, however, instability does not affect delegation.
  2. Cabinet instability can cause agents who would otherwise implement a policy desired by the incumbent not to do so. (Bureaucrats' dilemma)
  3. It is not the case that the consequences of instability will be the same across nations. Several substantive variables affect these consequences in systematic ways.

Three Hypotheses

  • Proposition 1: where the policy preferences of successive ministers are extremely similar, or where the costs of ministerial intervention are very large, we do not expect ministerial instability to affect delegation behavior or outcomes when agents are centrist.
  • Proposition 2: when incumbent faces an agent whose policy preferences differ from her own and a status quo that is far from her ideal policy, then high levels of cabinet instability force her to intervene in order to gain the utility that she would have achieved if instability was zero. Since both the incumbent and agent pay a cost when intervention occurs, instability causes inefficiencies in such cases.
  • Proposition 3: When agent and incumbent interests are more tightly linked, by contrast, high levels of instability cause the incumbent and the agent to suffer a decline in utility. Thus, the means by which cabinet instability affects delegation is not limited to the fact that it allows recalcitrant agents greater incentive to obstruct, it also dissuades agents who would otherwise want to serve the incumbent from doing so.


Based on their formal model, the authors present the following findings.

A given level of instability becomes more problematic for incumbent ministers as:

  • the agent's cost of policy change increases; or
  • the status quo moves away from the incumbent's ideal policy.

A given level of instability becomes less problematic for incumbent ministers as:

  • the agent's preferred policy moves away from that of incumbent's;
  • the incumbent's cost of intervening increases; or
  • the agent's sanctions increase.