A chief of staff and experts needed to help ministers says Institute

Private offices are the “life support machine” for ministers, but should be strengthened to help ministers become more effective in departments, according to the Institute for Government’s new discussion paper on private offices published today.

The discussion paper  ‘Supporting ministers to lead: Rethinking the ministerial private office’ by Senior Researcher Akash Paun, is part of the IfG’s work into how accountability structures in the UK Civil Service can be improved. 

The paper concludes that private offices in the UK could be strengthened with more expert support for ministers drawn from inside and outside the Civil Service. Newly expanded private offices would be led by the appointment of a Chief of Staff (with ministerial say over the appointment) to help ministers track policy implementation, speak on their behalf to the department and run the new expanded ministerial office.

Central to the effectiveness of a minster is their private office. Recently ministers have been reported as saying that they don’t receive enough support to ensure what they want to achieve is implemented. Other ministers, current and former, said they needed more expert advice in their private offices. Some have criticised the role of the private secretary as being seen as a ‘training ground’ lacking specific expertise and seniority.

This has led to calls for more politically aligned appointed officials in private offices to work solely on the priorities of the minister and ensure the department is clear about what they are and that it is working to achieve them.

Critics of the current UK private office system have pointed to the cabinet systems operating in Brussels and France or the private office structure in Australia, which provide much stronger support for ministers, as a case for a review of their own support systems in Whitehall.

There are key differences between the UK private office and cabinet systems abroad however:

  • The UK private office plays no role in policy making;
  • They are more constrained in how political they can be; and
  • They work through official and not political routes – traditions many civil servants see as necessary to enable effective working in departments.

The paper concludes that while private offices should be strengthened, a full cabinet system with teams led by political staff would have its risks. It says:

“We do not recommend 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 departments. This could worsen the state of politico-administrative relations, and would not necessarily increase ministerial ability to get things done.”

Expert teams to strengthen support for ministers

However the Institute recommends that there should be “a clear and transparent right for each Secretary of State to request the appointment of a small number of expert advisers outside of ordinary civil service recruitment processes, led by a Chief of Staff.”

Newly appointed expert advisers could come from inside or outside of the Civil Service but would not be additional special advisers (who are directly appointed by ministers). They would be experts in their policy field or in management who have clear lines of accountability to both the Civil Service and ministers and they would go through an assessment/merit based process of appointment and be jointly appointed by the secretary of state and permanent secretary.

Their appointment would be in addition to the one or two special advisers who are directly appointed by the Secretary of State and are accountable to the Secretary of State.

Chief of Staff – line managed by the permanent secretary but appointed jointly with Secretary of State

A Director of Ministerial Support (or Chief of Staff) should also be appointed to lead the expanded ministerial office comprising expert advisers, private secretaries, and administrative staff. The chief of staff should be line managed by the Permanent Secretary and should be capable of managing the transition to a new minister.

The effectiveness of the chief of staff and expert advisers will depend on their having a close and trusting relationship with the Secretary of State, and the ability to speak convincingly on their minister’s behalf in discussions with others. Therefore, although these would not be purely political appointees, there would be an expectation of significant ministerial involvement in the selection process, most obviously the right to select from a shortlist of ‘above the line’ or ‘appointable’ candidates.

Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government and author of the paper, Akash Paun, said:

“It’s a full time job for ministers to keep on top of what their departments are doing, ensuring their priorities are clearly communicated and acted upon. Our conclusion is that ministers do need additional expertise and support in the private office team. However it is important that the system put in place in the UK departmental private office is appropriate for the UK, clear and helps improve the ability of ministers to do their jobs.

“Our research looked at cabinet systems in Brussels, France and the private office system in Australia. Those experiences send a clear message – that reforms to the private office system in the UK must ensure that ministers can work more effectively and help improve relationships with civil servants, not inadvertently worsen them.”  

Brief background on ‘cabinets’

France – cabinets here comprise expert advisers covering different parts of ministerial portfolio, as well as advisers on particular functions such as relations with parliament, the civil service and media. Cabinets grew in size during the Fifth French Republic in response to a perception that the administration had grown too dominant. Cabinets were therefore seen as a counterbalance to what was termed la république des fonctionnaires. Department cabinets are headed by a Directeur de Cabinet, who will usually be a high-ranking civil servant with extensive experience (as well as the right political inclination). French cabinets are larger than those in Brussels and their size has caused controversy. François Hollande described this (before election) as causing “confusion in the chain of command”.  The previous administration sought to restrict cabinets to 20, at present most cabinets comprise around 15-20 advisers.

European Commission

Here cabinets play a major role in driving forward the agenda of Commissioners. They are involved in policy negotiations and finding compromise positions. Some critics have said that they are “disrespectful both of the work of the services and the Commission’s independence”. Attempts have been made under Prodi and Barroso to clip the wings of cabinets and restrict their numbers. Also it was agreed that three nationalities needed to be represented in each cabinet to stop commissioners bringing their whole team in from their domestic political scene, in addition three members needed to come from the permanent commission staff.

Australia

Ministerial offices here are larger than Whitehall and not just staffed with partisan supporters of government of the day. Some ministerial staff are employed because of their political affiliation, but a significant number are public servants appointed on the basis of their expertise.  Ministerial advisers are bound by a code of conduct that stipulates among other things that they do not have the power to direct permanent civil servants. They are employed as ‘parliamentary staff’ and not as public servants. Another feature of the Australian system is that ministers and their teams sit in a different building to the rest of the department, unlike in in the UK, reinforcing their separation.