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Skeleton Government

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"One main problem in calling the Empire evil is that we are offered precious little information as to how the Empire is run. It could be democratic, communist, socialist or an absolute monarchy, for all we know."

Skeleton Government (as per the term Skeleton Crew, referring to the bare minimum to operate a vessel) is a simplified version of governments to the point that they resemble authoritarian dictatorships, if even that. If some sort of public servants are shown, expect them to be soldiers (which adds to the "dictatorship" impression).

Due to Conservation of Detail, any story (no matter the genre) where the government is not important is likely to be this. It is most common in children's television, because it's hard to explain to a child how a government runs without reprising the "Bill" song from Schoolhouse Rock!.

May be a Strawman Political or Designated Villain. Compare to Shadow Government. See also Easily Conquered World. For a government run by skeletons, see The Necrocracy.


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  • In the Inheritance Cycle, the main governing body is called The Empire, even though it is ruled by a king and has a centralized government. In the second book, we find out that officially, it is called the Broddring Kingdom. The major cities are ruled by governors. How much power those governors officially have is never stated, but with Galbatorix spending all his time finding the Name of Names, at least one of those governors, Marcus Tabor, essentially had free rein for a while. The soldiers of Feinster are far more loyal to their governor, Lady Lorana, than to Galbatorix.
  • The Shire government in The Lord of the Rings. Justified because hobbits naturally tend towards the good, and consequently tend to manage their own affairs without much hassle—the main services the government provides are mail distribution and law enforcement (though it's stated that law enforcement officers spend as much time looking for lost sheep as anything else).
  • In Snow Crash, the government jurisdiction is extended to the Post Offices and FBI offices, since even the CIA has become the "Central Intelligence Corporation."
    • They still have "Franchise" governments which have been known to include super-powered cyborg dogs enforcing gun-control. Also, the Mafia acts fairly government-like. It's been mentioned that they help clean up high-crime areas.
  • In James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand, there is no longer any real government in the USA due to a lack of oil. When the main character reaches Albany, New York, he finds that the state capital has but a few people 'running' it. They even admit that they have no power, calling themselves 'a skeleton crew sailing a kind of Flying Dutchman of government'.
  • In Franz Kafka's "The Trial", the Court can be seen as this. It is a powerful institution perceived to be unreachable, but nothing is actually known about it. It could be a democracy and executing the legitimate will of the people. It's not even known if the highest levels of the Court are actually unreachable, because no one in the novel even tries.
  • Discworld: Justified: The government of the Lancre kingdom literally consists of the King, the Queen, maybe a few other servants, and a standing army [Shawn Ogg, except when he's lying down], who also does some servant and civil service duties as well. In this case, Lancre only has a population of 500. In Lords and Ladies we're told that Verence tried to have a parliament, but no-one was interested.
  • In Jennifer Government, taxes were abolished years before the events of the book, so these days the government mostly tries to prevent crime as it happens, and investigate them if the victims can pay for the investigation. Society consists mostly of privatized organizations with two Mega Corps vying for total control, while the government has to work solely within its budget.
  • In The Last Unicorn, King Haggar's tendency to dispose of anything that does not make him happy means that when he is introduced as a character, his court consists of himself, his son, four elderly guards, and a court magician. And the fact that there are only seven people in the castle means that they all have to take turns cooking, cleaning and guarding the gate. No mention is made of who actually implements the king's decisions in affairs of state - it's entirely possible that nobody does, because Haggar can't be bothered to do anything that does not make him happy, and governance doesn't make him happy.
  • Every government authority in Land of Oz is a king, queen, or princess. Justified to an extent by having so many of them (Oz is composed of a series of micro-kingdoms which make up the four main countries, which are then overseen by the ruler of Oz), so most royals only oversee a small town's worth of citizens at most, but even on the national scale, the only time Ozma is seen referring to any sort of staff is when she's appointing ceremonial positions to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to keep them out of the way while feeling busy. Quadling is the only major country with an army, and no form of public works are ever alluded to.
  • In the Heralds of Valdemar series, the government is a Monarch and a small Council of representatives. While the titular Heralds act as the Monarch's agents and Circuit Judges, the centralization of power at the kingdom's capital means that local lords do much of the day-to-day government; a system not particularly discouraged by the kingdom's philosophy that "there is no One True Way."

     Live Action TV  

  • Star Trek uses this a lot, due primarily to the Law of Conservation of Detail : the protagonists and antagonists are chiefly military personnel so most of the civilian workings are off-screen.
    • The Federation, overall. There are frequent references made to the Federation Council as a legislature, and the current President of the Federation appears in a two-parter in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but as the stories chiefly revolve around Starfleet most of the Federation's civilian legal workings are off-screen, and some of the lines are blurry: has observed among other things that Starfleet's military justice system seems to have some jurisdiction in civilian cases, with uniformed admirals appearing in judgment of civilians. The Star Trek Expanded Universe goes into more detail: the Federation government is looked at particularly closely in Star Trek: Articles of the Federation, a novel which is essentially a Government Procedural.
    • The Klingon Empire has the High Council, led by the Chancellor, plus a powerless figurehead emperor starting in season six of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There's also references to a Feudal Future system of noble houses but little actual detail.
    • The Romulan Star Empire has the Senate, led by the Praetor. Amusingly we get more detail on the nation's State Sec, the Tal Shiar, than we do on the actual government.

     Video Games  

  • The Legend of Zelda series: Besides Princess Zelda, the guards, and sometimes a mayor, Hyrule appears to be more a loose confederacy of autonomous city-states than a kingdom. Some of the later games have the actual King of Hyrule appear.
    • The only time we actually see something relating to a real government function is in Twilight Princess, when Ordona, a foreign nation apparently long ago annexed by Hyrule, prepares to participate in a ceremonial renewal of feudal ties.
    • While the Kingdom of Hyrule itself has been destroyed for a century in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the various realms ruled by the non-Hylian races survived the Great Calamity and are shown to have similarly simple governmental structures. The Zora have the most complex of these governments, and based on what we see it consists only of the king, his son/heir, a royal advisor, and a secretary.
  • In Final Fantasy VIII, the government of Galbadia seems to consist entirely of the president and the Minister of Defense, up until Edea's coup d'etat. After her Heel–Face Turn, Seifer, her teenage bodyguard, becomes head of state apparently by default.
  • Most of the nations in NationStates are like this. It is justified by no player actually wanting to explain every single government institution. Some do, however.
  • The Mushroom Kingdom and the Koopa Kingdom from Super Mario Bros. fall under this, it's never really shown that they have any officials so to speak other than the princess and/or a king and a bunch of random advisers and, perhaps, the Mushroom Chancellor from Super Mario RPG. The former also has no real shown army or method of defense other than "call Mario and Luigi to sort out their problems". We can see why everyone likes Peach then, apparently they have no taxes and their "defense budget" consists of giving Mario some cake. Slightly better in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, where there are some officials related to the relations between the Mushroom and Beanbean Kingdoms. The Beanbean Kingdom also seems like more of an established Monarchy.
  • In Fable and its sequel, the only authority figures in the whole of Albion are the mayor of Bowerstone and the chief of Knothole glade. Someone must be organising all those guards.
  • Pokémon has hints to some sort of government, with the Nurse Joys and Officer Jennys in every city, and the very efficiently organized Pokemon battling hierarchy. But the government never plays much of a part in the story in either the game or the anime. The games actually have a stronger police presence and even park rangers but the criminal syndicates also have a much tighter grip on the world in the games so...
    • Taken to extremes in Orre, where the player characters encounter precisely two police officers, and both in Pyrite Town, where there are more low-end hooligans than you can shake a Pokeball at. Is it any wonder Cipher's running the show in Pokemon Colosseum?
    • Given the fact that about everything in the Pokemon world seems to revolve around Pokemon training and battles, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the Pokemon League organizers are the government. They also presumably would have little opposition. It would be some sort of semi-social Darwinist meritocracy, but they seem nice enough. This is more or less explicitly the case in the Pokémon Adventures manga. The League chooses the Gym Leaders, who in turn are law-enforcers along with their Gym duties and are very well organized in getting together to take on threats. The Elite Four, as shown in the Ruby/Sapphire arc and possibly the HeartGold/SoulSilver one, are brought in when things get really serious.
    • The Poké Wars fanfic series elaborate on this apparent system, where each city is run by a local council and a "military" gym, which can vie for power over a city or region. Larger scale politics seem to consist mainly of coalitions of cities.
  • Gears of War has the players under the banner of the "Coalition of Ordered Governments" (COG). That said, the actual government shown in the games is almost nil. Chairman Prescott, the only character representing non-military leadership, isn't even introduced until the opening cinematic of the second game. Justified in the third game, where the opening cinematic has Anya Stroud recording a message that, since Prescott has gone missing and there are no freestanding COG cities left, they cannot call themselves a government any longer.
  • The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion plays it straight. You hardly ever get a glimpse of how the Empire and its people roll, and the plot only deals with the demon invasion, with no quests that involve political intrigue when compared to Morrowind (see below), it is one of the reasons why Oblivion is such a polarizing game among the fanbase. For example, the Elder Council is supposed to be an advisory body to the Emperor and rule in the Emperor's name if he's incapacitated. You never meet or hear about anybody who is actually on the council, aside from Chancellor Ocato, who you only talk to a few times, never provides any sort of help and seems to be the only person that sits in the enormous Council Chamber. There was originally supposed to include a questline that would involve the Player Character climbing through the ranks of nobility, eventually becoming a count. Presumably, this quest would have been much more involved in politics and would have averted this trope to a degree, however the questline was Dummied Out as the devs felt it distracted from the main quest.


  • In City of Reality the government consists solely of the mayor. Who is a rabbit puppet.
  • Justified for the Martians in A Miracle of Science; being a sort of post-Singularity Cyberpunk quasi-Hive Mind (it's complicated), decisions are taken by instantaneous majority-consensus polling of every Martian through their implanted wireless transceivers. They do have a president, but the post is largely ceremonial.

     Western Animation  

  • In The Fairly OddParents!, when a government building in Fairy World is invaded, it's completely empty. The only civil servant seems to be Jorgen. However, since fairies are effectively omnipotent and immortal, he is portrayed less as a dictator and more like a volunteer. In season six, it's revealed that there is a Fairy Council that handles a lot of things, like declaring that no more fairies are to be born. The "Wishology" trilogy shows us that they are still active.
  • In the animated version of W.I.T.C.H., the entire planet of Meridian seem to be run by a single monarch, assisted by a couple of advisors. In a particularly egregious scene in the second series, Elyon was asked to negotiate a boundary dispute between two groups of farmers. You'd think there'd be some sort of regional governor to see to such matters.
    • Meridian had until recently been a dictatorship where Prince Phobos was more interested in draining the life force out of his kingdom than actually making it work, so it may be Justified that their infrastructure needs some work.
    • Also appears in the original comic books: Meridian (that is shown to not cover the whole planet) under Phobos plays this straight, as Phobos had absolutely no interest in doing anything (the only high ranking officials we ever see are Cedric and Vathek, who are shown to work as police chiefs, prison wardens, army commanders, and State Sec leaders, and this on top of trying to invade Earth, make Elyon believe the Guardians are evil and teach her how to use her powers), and on Arkhanta the government of the whole planet appears to be king Ari; justified by him having an overpowered banshee at his orders and tricked into obeying any of his orders at the best of her abilities, allowing him to literally do anything his people need to live well. It's unknown if this is still the case after the banshee got free). Also Subverted by Meridian under Elyon: the government isn't too detailed, but Elyon mainly appears to serve as a figurehead and ultimate arbitrator, with her ministers ruling in her name.
  • In Jimmy Two-Shoes, Lucius seems to be the only one in charge, and he's not even a government official, but a CEO of a Mega-Corp. A Broke Episode shows that when his riches disappear, so does his power. Police show up in... one episode, as a quick joke, and everything else is handled by Lucius' personal army.
  • Both Homestar Runner and Coach Z appear to serve as the police for Free Country, USA. And they use a cardboard box as a prison!
  • Sheriff the police car is actually now the only authority figure running Radiator Springs in Cars 2, since they actually decided to kill off the town's only judge and doctor.
  • The government of Agrabah in Aladdin is this; nobody seems to actually work in it apart from Jafar and some really incompetent guards. Jafar being evil and controlling the Sultan himself might justify the lack of high-ranking officials, as he wouldn't want the competition for influence, but there aren't even any lower functionaries about. They might just be unnecessary to show to the audience, but they're never even mentioned.
    • This continues in the series; they never got a new vizier. Aladdin was appointed, but he held it off. Basically the only people who seem to live or work in the palace (which is enormous) are the Sultan and Jasmine. Foreign leaders show up more often than any government employees of Agrabah do. In one episode, it is mentioned that there is a bureaucracy that Razoul answers to who handle paperwork for things like personnel reassignments, but that's never elaborated upon.
  • The government of Equestria seems to consist entirely of princesses. Ponyville has a mayor and the only law enforcement shown are the royal guards.
    • However, the newer episodes like Princess Spike do portray Equestria as The Federation with each settlement having autonomy to run their own affairs while sending delegations to Canterlot for conference.
    • My Little Pony Friends Forever Issue 15 further subvert this trope for local government, like Ponyville. Where Mayor Mare had to work with various departments, Chamber of Commerce, and paperworks to maintain the town's everyday life.


  • Nomic often works like a Skeleton Government, as it was originally invented to explore conceptual issues about governments via miniature examples.


     Anime and Manga  

     Fan Fic  

  • In The Tainted Grimoire, we see a huge gathering of nobles and/or politicians to discuss political matters, as well as an explanation of how the Jylland Defenders of the Peace operates in relation to the clans, explaining that all clans must register new members as well as keep a log of achievement and accomplishments.
  • Ripples averts this trope in practice and implies a justification for it in the canon show. Meridian is largely aristocratic government with some smaller tribal communities and a few unique governments, and a large number of noble houses declared against Phobos in the Civil War following his ascension to the throne. Decimating them without mercy as Cedric constantly suggests was presumably the reason for Meridian's Skeleton Government in the original timeline.


  • Mandatory Monty Python and the Holy Grail subversion quote:
    Dennis [a peasant]: We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major...
    King Arthur: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
    Dennis: Oh, NOW we see the violence inherent in the system! COME SEE THE VIOLENCE INHERENT IN THE SYSTEM! HELP-HELP, I'M BEING REPRESSED!
  • Star Wars has generally gone out of its way to avert this. The first film Star Wars: A New Hope has a scene where the Imperial military brass are discussing how the Emperor has disbanded the civilian Senate and moved to direct military control by the regional governors. The Prequels doubled up on Galactic politics to the dismay of some fans.


  • More or less every named character in Nineteen Eighty-Four works for one of the four Ministries. Except those four only cover war (Ministry of Peace/Minipax), rationing (Ministry of Plenty/Miniplen), propaganda (Ministry of Truth/Minitrue) and torture (Ministry of Love/Miniluv). Orwell doesn't mention who is in charge of the roads, fire department, public utilities and so on. Which is part of the point. For the most part, no one is running those things, which means they are in a constant state of decay. The Ministry of Plenty probably ensures that basic utilities are kept running to the bare minimum, and the proles are probably relied upon to keep their own facilities running, but other than that everything is left to rot, and any large scale accidents or shortages are ignored and then covered up.
    • A certain level of functioning infrastructure would be required for the Party to maintain its grip on power, e.g., electric utilities to power the viewscreens. Some unspecified agency - possibly Miniplen? - must be tending to that.
  • Ankh-Morpork's system in Discworld gets increasing mention as well, while still being extremely small for a city state of its size. The Patrician is a dictator appointed by some sort of nebulous council of the city's most powerful citizens, who then utilizes personal authority to rule them (with the Assassins removing those who get too greedy). The Council (which now includes the many Guilds) has the power to remove the Patrician, and the government of the city is undertaken through clerks at the palace, postal service, police force, palace guard. All in all the government was much less skeleton than it once was, while still being little.
    • The city is generally shown to have serious problems. Traffic congestion is chronic, often backing up the whole city due to there being little to no traffic laws. Crime is still endemic to the place, despite serious efforts to combat it. The thieves guild keeps out other thieves in most of the city, but don't touch the Shades, where you are very likely to be killed and mugged. Gang fighting is frequent and destructive. It seems the real reason Ankh-Morpork is so rich is that it actually allows and encourages innovation and change, while many other places around the world are stuck in fundamentalist regimes, totalitarian governments, constant tribal wars, general barbarism or similar issues.
    • To the credit of Lord Vetinari and Sam Vimes, the city still works. Although they both blame the guilds for these problems, as the guilds rarely pay their taxes in full (being some of the few citizens to have enough money to tax) and tend to try and destabilize Ankh Morpork as an excuse to sack both characters, when they're not having internal conflicts. The amount of success to be had in these schemes, and Vetinari's tendency to run multiple plans against himself and the others, and his awareness of those small irregularities that hide major problems, indicates that while it may be a small government, it is still very much in control.
  • While the Dune novels show little of the Galactic government outside the lives of the Great Houses, the massive galactic bureaucracy is mentioned often. Paul's massive palace on Arrakis in Dune Messiah, in particular, is described as having been built less as a monument to his ego than as a necessity to house the millions of clerks, ministers, and bureaucrats needed to run an empire of several trillion souls.
  • The inner workings of the Ministry Of Magic play a large part in Harry Potter.
  • Every single Vogon works for the bureaucracy in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • There is an intricate system of military governors (Moffs) in the Star Wars universe, although The Emperor and Vader still maintain the majority of decision-making power. The prequels show the massive Senate building that serves as the legislative core of the Republic.
  • The Honor Harrington books greatly avert this over time with Haven, Manticore and Solarian governments getting more and more face time, with the limits of authority for a local politician or commander having great impacts. At least 3 books have nearly no naval action for a series built on space opera, with the diplomatic system and intrigue in Parliament becoming extremely important.
    • The series goes into detail about the Havenite government, as there has been two internal regime changes and one failed coup d'etat on screen, as well as several plebiscites once Haven becomes a representative democratic republic once more. Keep in mind that Haven is the enemy of the good guys. The governments of several worlds get mentioned, but Grayson stands out as well by having its own system of government fleshed out, demonstrating how a theocratic feudal monarchy can avoid being a bad guy very well.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, local lords theoretically have absolute power over their subjects, higher-ranking liege lords over the lower-ranking lords sworn to them, and the king over everyone, with succession determined at least as much by a complex set of traditions (along with a healthy helping of might-makes-right) as any kind of codified law. In practice, though, the frequency of armed rebellion means that nobody can afford to piss off their subjects too much, and getting anything done tends to require an absolutely brain-pummeling amount of politics.
    • In the formal sense, the series is more of a straight example, since the actual appointed government of the realm apparently consists of a whopping eight people: the King, and his (very) Small Council of seven ministers... of whom three don't even have a clear governmental role. The ministers themselves are basically expected to resort to their personal authority in the ad-hoc feudal system to actually get anything done, as there isn't even a system in place to let them actually wield whatever power they're nominally assigned.
    • Tyrion mentions in A Clash of Kings that the Iron Thrones Treasury equivalent is composed of a considerable number of officials and part of the background events of A Feast For Crows is rebuilding the Navy after it either sided with an usurper in Clash. Varys' system of little birds is also technically part of the government. It is unclear whether the Iron Throne possesses a similar law enforcement bureaucracy under the Master of Laws.
  • In Mistborn, the political structure of the Final Empire is explored in detail, particularly the uneasy relationship between the aristocracy and Obligators, because the heroes are deliberately exploiting the cracks in the system to make it collapse.

     Live Action TV  

  • A major focus in Battlestar Galactica is the functioning of the civilian government of the fleet and the interactions it has with the military. And after the Colonies were ravaged by the Cylon sneak attack, there's only a skeleton left of the original government: Roslin was a member of the Department of Education before the show started, the only reason she ended up President was that she was the highest ranking government official alive.

     Tabletop Games  

  • The Imperium's bureaucracy in Warhammer 40,000 is mentioned a bit in fluff. Apparently taking over a century to process a petition.
    • One Black Library novel describes the life of a scribe in the Administratum on Terra. His day consists of six hours sleep, twelve at work. Every day until he is too old to work (at which point he gets a nice retirement). Apart from once every ten years, when he gets three hours off to pray. This less-than-idyllic job is then deconstructed when he makes a mistake (causing the protagonists to be sent to a horrific trench war rather than a nice pacification action) and doesn't correct it because, you know what, fuck the system.
  • Inverted in Paranoia, seeing as Alpha Complex's 'government' consists of Friend Computer and a Vast Bureaucracy provided for your convenience, Citizen. Only Mutant Commie Traitors would ever think that the Bureaucracy in Alpha Complex was less than perfect. Alpha Complex is, after all, a Utopia. You're not a Mutant Commie Traitor, are you? Furthermore, suggesting that the bureaucracy is inconvenient suggests unhappiness. Happiness Is Mandatory, Citizen.

     Video Games  

  • The Vaults in the Fallout games have an autocratic, possibly hereditary Overseer, and no other government visible to the player. Vault 101 has a single "officer" who handles law enforcement; it's implied that the Overseer relies on goons and various underhanded tactics to maintain order.
    • There are multiple security-officer-police-guard-type-people, it's just that only one (the one on the player's side, of course) is shown doing his job properly.
    • Plus for the most part Vaults are only have 100 to 1,000 people in themnote  so there don't really need that many people to run it.
    • Rivet City has a three-member Council, but the only public employees seem to be the security guards. The player's actions can actually cause the whole Council's membership to change.
    • In Fallout 2, Vault City, the New California Republic, and San Francisco seem to have reasonably functional (if somewhat repressive) governments. Each has an executive, some sort of advisory body and other officials, and a fairly well-armed police force.
    • The Enclave in Fallout 3 seems to consist entirely of a President and a military. In Fallout 2, however, a number of civilian citizens are seen, there's a noticeable bureaucracy, the Secret Service is still extant as a separate entity, and a Senate and House are referenced as still existing (although it's strongly implied that they are now appointed by the President rather than elected).
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind largely averts it, as glimpses into the inner workings of the Imperial governance and Dunmeri Great Houses are frequent. For example, you fill in your class and race information at a tax office, you need a "passport" scroll to enter Sadrith Mora, and number of quests revolve around such mundane acts of government as tax collection and diplomatic banquets, not to mention the workings of the local goverments: the Tribunal Temple and the the Dunmer Great Houses, which often find themselves at odds with the empire and each other.
  • Mass Effect mostly focuses on the law enforcement, military, and leadership of the Alliance and the Citadel powers, but we do get glimpses of transportation security and immigration authorities on the Citadel and the in-game Codex refers to other government functions.
    • Justified in Mass Effect 3 for humans, after a Curb-Stomp Battle leaves Earth's power structure in shambles, a skeleton government is all there is.
  • The Witcher and its sequel avert this, with most towns and outposts in Temeria and the surrounding countries maintaining government posts. For example, the port town of Flotsam in Assassins of Kings is run by the official Bernard Loredo, his security detail, the post office, and government issued jobs on the town board.

     Western Animation  

  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we see bureaucracy in action/inaction on the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Northern Water Tribe; not so much with the Southern Water Tribe and Air Nomads, but you wouldn't really expect any (the Southern Water Tribe was reduced to a series of semi-isolated villages, and the Air Nomads were pseudo-monastic wanderers).
    • Sequel Series The Legend of Korra also has some glimpses of politics in Republic City and the rebuilt Southern Water Tribe, with one of the politicians even being a secondary antagonist and brother to the season 1 Big Bad.