Precedence is the hierarchical ranking of officials

The precedence or official rank of stakeholders is, for example, used to determine the order of flags, the assigning of seats and the order of speeches.

Order of precedence is a hierarchical ranking. Generally speaking, it does not rank individuals but instead ranks (or sets an order for) those responsible for a specific function. Precedence is therefore determined in an objective way.

For example, a head of state is the representative of all the inhabitants of a country and is therefore considered to be higher in rank than, for example, a mayor who ‘only’ represents the inhabitants of one city.

Determining precedence is not an exact science. There are rules that determine the rank among equals, among different groups and among individuals. The rules of precedence are often complementary to each other, but sometimes they can be contradictory. It requires practice to deal with precedence and to be able to put officials in the correct order.

National lists of precedence

The rank among senior officials is described in so-called national lists of precedence. These lists determine the rank of the most important individuals in a country. Many of these and other examples of lists of precedence can be found online, however, some countries have not made their list public.

Although many differences exist between countries some general commonalities in ranking can be derived:

  • Lists start with the head of state of a country.
  • Followed by accredited foreign ambassadors to that country (as representative of their own head of state).
  • Highest representatives of the church.
  • Chairpersons of national parliaments (representing the voters).
  • Followed by the members of the national cabinet starting with the prime minister (head of government), deputy prime ministers and other ministers.
  • The list continues with senior officials of other important government institutions, such as the president of the supreme court and the president of the national court of audit.
  • Further down on the list are other officials, such as senior regional representatives, governors and mayors.
  • The lists also include first representatives of the police force, the courts and the universities.

It is good to realise that there are always exceptions to the above basic rules of ranking. For example, a different ranking may apply within a country if an event is not organised in the capital. Many organisations have also developed their own ranking, such as the church and universities. In most Catholic countries, high-ranking representatives of the Church are given high positions. Also in Catholic countries, the representative of Vatican City is often given priority over other ambassadors. Many countries also rank ministers above ambassadors.

Other rules to determine the rank or precedence of officials

Groups of officials are ranked in the following order:

  1. Royalty.
  2. Diplomatic corps (ambassadors).
  3. Senior (elected) officials (politicians).
  4. Senior civil servants.

Among equal representatives rank also applies:

  • The period of service (by seniority).
  • Or the alphabet.

Source: Protocol to Manage Relationships Today (Amsterdam University Press, 2020)

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