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A ministry is a high governmental organisation, headed by a minister, that is meant to manage a specific sector of public administration. Governments may have differing numbers and types of ministries, but the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary notes that all states have (often under varying names) a Ministry of Interior, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a Ministry of Defence (which may be divided into ministries for land, naval, and air forces), a Ministry of Justice, and a Ministry of Finance. A Ministry of Education or similar is also commonly present.
Ministries are usually immediate subdivisions of the cabinet (the executive branch of the government), and subordinate to its chief executive who is called prime minister, chief minister, president, minister-president, or (federal) chancellor.
During the 20th century, many countries increasingly tended to replace the term "ministry" with titles such as "department", "office", or "state secretariat". In some countries, these terms may be used with specific meanings: for example, an office may be a subdivision of a department or ministry.
In Canada, five of the ten provincial governments use the term "ministry" to describe their departments (Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Alberta) but the other five, as well as the federal government, use the term "department". Despite the difference in nomenclature, both the provincial and federal governments use the term "minister" to describe the head of a ministry or department. The specific task assigned to a minister is referred to as his or her "portfolio".
In the United Kingdom, all government organisations that consist of civil servants, and which may or may not be headed by a government minister or secretary of state, are considered to be departments. Until 2018, the term "ministry" had been retained only for the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice. On 8 January 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the Department of Communities and Local Government would be renamed at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to emphasise her government's prioritising of housing policy.
Some countries, such as Switzerland, the Philippines and the United States, do not use or no longer use the term "ministry" and instead call their main government bodies "departments". However, in other countries such as Luxembourg a department is a subdivision of a ministry, usually led by a government member called a secretary of state who is subordinate to the minister.
In Australia at the Federal level, and also at the State level, the term "Ministry" refers to the ministerial office held by a member of Government, the executive, which is then responsible for one or more Departments, the top division of the public service. The collection of Departments responsible to a ministerial office and hence the Minister, is referred to as the Minister's "portfolio".
New Zealand's state agencies include many ministries and a smaller number of departments. Increasingly, state agencies are styled neither as ministries nor as departments. All New Zealand agencies are under the direction of one or more ministers or associate ministers, whether they are styled "ministries" or not. Each body also has an apolitical chief executive, and in ministries and departments these chief executives often have the title of Secretary.
In Hong Kong, the term "bureau" is used, and departments are subordinate to the bureaus. In Mexico, ministries are referred to as secretariats. In 1999, the ministries of the federal government of Belgium became known as "federal public services", the exception being the Ministry of Defense which kept the original designation.
The organization of the Portuguese government implemented in 2015, ceased to expressly foresee the existence of ministries, with the portfolios of the ministers being referred as "governative areas". While some governative areas continue to be structured as traditional ministries (Finance, Defense, Foreign Affairs, etc.), other governative areas received a more flexible organization.
In Lebanon, there are 21 ministries. Each ministry is led by a minister, and the Prime Minister is the 22nd minister of the Lebanese government.
In the European Union, departments are termed Directorate(s)-General with the civil servant in charge called a Director-General (in the European Commission, the political head of the department is one of the European Commissioners).
The government departments of the Soviet Union were named "People's Commissariats" between 1917 and 1946.
The term "ministry" has also been widely used in fiction, notably in satires and parodies.