Strengthening civil service support for ministers is essential to reset the strained relationship between Whitehall and government – and this should begin with reform of ministers' private offices.
Recent events in government, including the circumstances surrounding Dominic Raab’s resignation as justice secretary, have deepened the divide between ministers and civil servants and highlighted the key role played by private offices – the team of civil servants which is the most immediate point of contact between ministers and their department.
Private offices shape how ministers view the wider department and marshals a government department to achieve their minister’s priorities, but this report reveals how some private offices are performing below expectations and failing to deliver the support ministers need to achieve their aims in government.
Drawing upon the Institute’s extensive archive of interviews with former ministers, as well as interviews with 27 people working in and around private office – including current and former ministers, private secretaries, senior civil servants, special advisers and parliamentary assistants – the report recommends that working in private office should be viewed as a specialism within the civil service, requiring particular experience and skills, and not merely a stepping stone in an ambitious civil servant’s career.
To achieve this strengthening of the private office, it recommends:
- Recruiting senior staff with specific skills needed to work in private office.
- Improving training and mentoring for people working in private office.
- Introducing basic training to all private secretaries on how parliament works, including the legislative process and how they can best support their minister with parliamentary business.
- Giving ministers a greater say in restructuring how their private office functions to suit their way of working.
- Publishing clear and consistent guidance about the appropriate level of involvement of ministers in the recruitment of their private office staff.
- Ensuring permanent secretaries are held accountable for the performance of private offices.