What is the private office?
Every government minister has a private office, staffed by a small team of civil servants. Private offices support ministers to perform their duties, manage the minister’s diary and act as a communication channel between the minister and other officials in the department. Ministers who sit in the House of Commons maintain separate parliamentary and constituency offices to manage their non-departmental responsibilities. Few ministers in the House of Lords maintain a separate parliamentary staff and so these ministers are almost entirely dependent on their private office.
Who works in the private office?
Private offices are composed of private secretaries and administrative staff. The size of a private office varies significantly depending on the rank and individual requirements of the minister. The private offices of secretaries of state typically contain between five and 18 staff. 13 ‘‘Most Costly’ Ministers’ Offices Revealed’, Sky News, 11 August 2010, retrieved 14 September 2023, news.sky.com/story/most-costly-ministers-offices-revealed-10492623 Junior ministers tend to have smaller private offices made up of more junior staff.
Private office staff are managed and appointed by senior civil servants and remain in place after government reshuffles. This maintains continuity and preserves institutional knowledge. However, ministers are able to exercise considerable discretion over the composition of their office, particularly when vacancies arise. Institute for Government research has noted that ‘ministers are often particularly keen to replace their predecessor’s PPS (principal private secretary) or head of office with someone of their choice’.
Ministers were given even greater control through extended ministerial offices (EMOs), which were introduced in 2013 to widen the support available to senior ministers. EMOs brought together private offices, special advisers and external appointees in a single unit, with composition determined by ministers. 14 Cabinet Office, ‘Extended ministerial offices: guidance for departments, GOV.UK, 27 November 2013, retrieved 2 February 2022, www.civilservant.org.uk/library/2013_Cab_Off_EMO_Guidance.pdf Low uptake by departments led to provision for EMOs being wound down by the Cabinet Office in 2017. 15
What are the main tasks of the private office?
The private office has several main tasks, although ministers may adjust these to better suit their needs. Private office work is a combination of administrative tasks, subtle communication and clear judgement. Fostering a good relationship with the minister and understanding their priorities is key. Stephen Timms, a former Labour minister, noted that ‘if you’ve got a good private secretary, you can achieve a great deal more’.
- Managing information and communication
The private office funnels information between the minister and the department, conveying advice from officials and steers from ministers. When the minister makes a decision, the private office communicates this to the relevant team.
The private office controls the daily flow of papers into the minister’s red box. This box may contain submissions (advice on policy issues), draft letters, speaking notes and briefing papers. Some ministers may choose to receive a digital version of this red box. The private office checks the quality of advice, summarises papers and prioritises which documents reach the minister first.
Communications with other departments and external stakeholders are also managed by the private office. This can require private offices to establish relationships both across Whitehall and beyond. Ministers may at times choose to communicate directly, without involving their private office.
- Providing advice
Private offices are responsible for ensuring that their minister is properly advised.
Departments advise ministers through formal documents called submissions. Submissions are written by policy teams elsewhere in the department, but many private secretaries will add their own thoughts to submissions, taking into account their knowledge of the department, their understanding of the minister’s priorities, and their connections in wider government.
The private office also advises ministers on their responsibilities and the application of the ministerial code, which sets out what ministers can and cannot do. This kind of advice is particularly important to ministers who are new in post. The private office provides briefings and papers to new ministers to help them understand their new role and department. When the coalition government was formed in 2010, the then environment secretary Caroline Spelman recalled her private office staff having to ‘actually explain what we had to do, because no-one had explained that to us’.
- Managing the diary
The diary secretary manages the minister’s departmental diary. Every appointment is cleared with the minister and the diary’s contents are closely guarded. The diary secretary may also be responsible for ensuring ministerial meetings are accurately reported in transparency returns. Ministers’ timetables must also accommodate parliamentary and constituency duties, as well as their personal life. Former ministers have told the Institute that their private offices often failed to appreciate these additional demands on their time. Nick Hurd claimed that ‘the civil service aren’t very understanding of parliamentary process or the reality of that bit of a minister’s job, let alone the constituency.’
- Overseeing departmental correspondence
While almost all letters sent in the name of a minister are actually written elsewhere in the department, private office staff have an important role to play in overseeing this work. They supervise the quality of letters and include items in the red box for ministerial approval. Former ministers have noted the importance of this function in interviews with the Institute for Government. Hilary Benn complained that ‘departments [did not] give enough priority to ministerial correspondence in terms of the quality of what’s drafted’, while Ben Bradshaw complained that at DCMS ‘we took weeks, months to respond to letters’.
What is the role of the principal private secretary?
The principal private secretary (PPS) heads the secretary of state’s private office and oversees junior ministers’ private offices on behalf of the permanent secretary. The quality of the PPS can have a significant impact on the functioning of the private office. Some PPSs will play a more active role in helping ministers develop relationships with key people both inside and outside the department.
PPSs often go on to senior civil service roles including permanent secretary. Many cabinet secretaries have been former PPSs, including the current cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who was PPS to the prime minister between 2016 and 2017, serving under both David Cameron and Theresa May. 16 GOV.UK, ‘Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service: Simon Case’, GOV.UK, (no date) retrieved 2 February 2022, www.gov.uk/government/people/simon-case
The PPS is not to be confused with parliamentary private secretaries (elected MPs serving as a minister’s contact with parliament), or with the permanent secretary (the most senior civil servant in each department).
How does the private office relate to other parts of the department?
The private office serves as the link between the minister and the rest of the department. The private office must therefore clearly understand the minister’s priorities but also be aware of what guidance officials and departmental teams need to deliver on those priorities. Institute for Government research has emphasised the benefit of private secretaries having prior experience in the department to fulfil their role successfully.
The private office will also relay to the minister what officials are working on. As Ken Clarke has noted, a good private office will ‘tell you what the department is really up to. That is how you discover what is happening and what is not happening.’
The secretary of state’s private office often works closely with the minister’s special advisers. The precise nature of this relationship is shaped by the secretary of state themselves. Special advisers usually have their own private secretaries.