15 July 2016

In the political excitement of the last few days, it’s easy to forget about the people behind the scenes in government departments. Nicola Hughes looks at our Ministers Reflect archive to offer advice on welcoming in a minister.

New ministers, new secretaries of state in particular, mean a huge change in Whitehall departments: not just in policy direction, but also in style and tone. Right at the centre of that is the private office, the “hinge between the secretary of state and the department at large.” They will play a vital role in the coming weeks to ensure a smooth transition to the May administration. Private secretaries in Whitehall will have been feverishly checking the news and preparing for a possible change of boss this week. What are their first tasks to support new ministers?

  1. Sort the basics. It makes a good first impression to have the very basics covered: make sure the minister is greeted by the permanent secretary, has a desk, a computer, a team and is indeed inside the building. Bob Neill said: “… [it] took us 24 hours before Greg and I could actually get into the building, which we all saw the funny side of, and sat there drinking endless cups of coffee until about seven o’clock when we went and had a drink…”
  1. Establish their portfolio and interests. It sounds obvious, but a new minister needs to know what their role is. “It was all a bit confusing,” said Lord McNally. “Did I know what my title [would be]? Well, I knew I was going to be a Minister of State…” Where possible, some background research on the Minister and their interests helps too: “I was struck by how much care the Civil Service had taken to prepare”, said Mark Hoban, “…the two speech writers who were assigned to junior Treasury ministers had analysed my speeches and my speech patterns and the phrases I liked to use.”
  1. Help them get up to speed. “…you're suddenly thrown into this ridiculous world where you're supposed to be an expert on everything in your brief overnight”, said Jo Swinson. For brand new ministers, an explanation of processes like submissions and the dreaded ministerial diary is essential. Private offices must also co-ordinate policy briefings and a series of introductory meetings with departmental heads and external stakeholders.
  1. Communicate the new minister’s style to the department. A really important role for the private office is to help translate the new Minister’s style and preferences to the rest of the department: do they like detailed reports or short, sharp briefings? How will they divide their time between the department, Parliament and their constituency? How do they like to be addressed? Andrew Mitchell illustrates this well: “There wasn’t a big table in the Secretary of State’s office. I asked what had happened and I was told my predecessor had had it removed – he didn’t like big meetings with civil servants. So I said if it didn’t look too self-aggrandising I wanted it put back so I could have a more consultative approach.”

In the interviews we have conducted, private secretaries are mentioned far more than permanent secretaries or other senior officials. As Vince Cable explains, “I was very heavily reliant … on the private office and the Principal Private Secretary in particular, who was by far the most important civil servant I had to deal with.” This is particularly true of ministers with little previous experience of Whitehall, who need their private offices to help them navigate the system and get off to a good start. “One of the things the Principal Private Secretary had to do in the early days and weeks was actually explain what we had to do, because no-one had explained that to us”, said Caroline Spelman.

But some ministers find it hard to establish a trusting relationship with their predecessor’s office. Former Defence Secretary (and incoming International Trade Secretary) Liam Fox, for example, felt that “there are very strong arguments for, as quickly as you can, recreating a whole new private office”, while Hugh Robertson described it as “a difficult moment for any new minister coming in”. “They know their way around, they have the experience of doing things,” he continued, “but on the other hand they’re never entirely yours.” Private offices will continue to be an important, if largely unseen, part of the Whitehall machine as the new administration settles in.