Awaiting the minister in the department will be a private office, a ‘life support machine’ that sustains each minister from the minute they arrive. This small group of officials plays a key role in helping each minister to carry out his or her role effectively, yet its own basic structure and role is rarely examined.
The secretary of state’s private office is the hinge between the minister and the department at large. It must help to ensure that decisions are taken by the secretary of state in good time and based on sound advice, and that those decisions are then acted upon by the department. The private office is a facilitator, not a source of expertise or advice in its own right. And to be effective, it must be loyal to and trusted by the minister, while remaining part of the department at large.
Civil servants understand and are familiar with the traditional private office system and its reliance on predictable processes of ministerial submissions and boxes. Ministers themselves also tend to express satisfaction with the diligent and professional service their private secretaries provide. But there is nonetheless an ongoing debate about whether the system provides sufficient support to secretaries of state to help them achieve their objectives and effectively lead their departments. Certain ministers in both the current and previous administrations take the view that they would have been more effective if provided with stronger offices.
The Institute for Government recently conducted research into the private office system. We found that, compared with the cabinets of French ministers and European commissioners, and the ministerial offices of Australian ministers, private offices are small and play a narrower role. What they lack at present are mid-career, experienced civil servants, who have serious policy or implementation expertise and a broad overview of how government works.
There is a degree of uncodified flexibility in the UK system for ministers to reshape their private offices. But it takes time and determination for a minister to do this. And there is a lack of clarity and transparency about how far ministers can go in, for example, bringing in external experts to work alongside them. The proliferation of ‘tsars’ is one response, but hardly the most transparent or accountable one available.
We at the Institute for Government do not support the wholesale adoption of a cabinet model – which would imply a significant increase in the number of direct political appointees, and a more pronounced separation between ministers and their private offices on the one side, and their departments on the other. This could worsen the state of politico-administrative relations, and would not necessarily increase ministers’ ability to get things done.
However, we do conclude that private offices should be strengthened, by creating a clear and transparent right for each secretary of state to request the appointment of a handful of expert advisers, and with a new chief of staff to manage the expanded ministerial team and provide strategic advice.
Expert advisers and the new chief of staff, we argue, should be appointed to clearly-defined roles in the department, with the roles focused on providing policy, strategy and implementation advice (drawing on the wider departmental expertise), and monitoring progress on ministerial priorities. What is not needed is a back door route to increasing the number of purely-political special advisers. Expert advisers should, therefore, have to pass through a merit-based assessment to ensure they have the requisite skills.
To be effective, these individuals will need a close and trusting relationship with the secretary of state, so they can speak convincingly on behalf of their minister in discussions with others. So although these should not be purely political appointees, ministers should be closely involved in the selection process, with a right to select from a shortlist of appointable candidates presented by a panel.
The job of secretary of state will always be a testing one. And there will always be frustrations along the way, when the task of creating change proves more difficult than expected. But enhancing the ministerial support function could be one way of improving ministers’ ability to lead – and that should benefit both them, and their departments.