Don't let your minister eat mayo: What I learnt in private office

Former SCS Katie shares what’s worked – the ideas, tips and strategies that can help you overcome the obstacles you may face in private office

By Katie Driver

14 Jul 2023

My minister had just delivered his New Deal speech for the umpteenth time. As always, he had enthused about how it would help young people to get jobs and employers to fill their vacancies. As always, he turned to me and asked: “Was that OK?”

As his private secretary, I was his eyes and ears. I needed to spot if part of the speech didn’t land with the audience and might need revising for next time. I needed to record and follow up any commitments he made when responding to questions. And I needed to notice whether a disgruntled person might need careful navigation later on. 

The speech was followed by a networking buffet. With the minister safely talking to some interested parties, I gathered some finger food as I knew he hadn’t really eaten that day, taking care to avoid mayo (splurge risk) or flaky pastry (too many crumbs). 

Throughout, I needed to keep an eye on the time – there was always somewhere else to be and a call to fit in on the way. On this occasion, we were due at Heathrow for an Edinburgh flight. The minister got deeply engaged in conversation so we ended up running through the departure lounge. 

Post-trip, we returned to the routine of calls and meetings, with the minister occasionally dashing over the road for Commons votes while I shuttled between my desk and his meeting room. I looked forward to the slightly quieter evenings when I could write emails updating colleagues on the day’s developments, and prepare notes for the minister on the contents of his overnight box.

A PS has many roles. The mundane: bag carrier and speaking clock. The personal: making sure your minister is fed; telling them if a shirt button has come undone (no-one else will). Occasionally it’s glamorous – an overseas visit or meeting a famous person. It nearly always involves keeping track of paperwork moving back and forth physically or electronically.

At heart, the job is about helping the government machine progress smoothly. The PS is the conduit between the minister and the department, and you constantly need to judge whether you’re adding value or being a bottleneck. Is it more important to put a poorly-drafted submission into the box because the decision is urgent – or will doing so create more delays? Can you tip off officials about a ministerial idea without wasting time if he was only thinking out loud?
Private office taught me countless lessons which I draw on to this day.  

  • People first. Ministers are human and their work is deeply relational – it is about who they know and what alliances they can bring together to make things happen. 
  • Read the room. A PS must be alert to nuanced speech or shifts in body language and be ready to intervene subtly to keep things moving. Those skills helped me manage all sorts of tricky meetings.
  • Be organised and prepared. A minister’s diary has no logic. Papers need to be findable in an instant, with the relevant section highlighted. And just like the weather, the entire day can shift in moments. I always have a plan B in my back pocket, and am rarely far from a sticky note or highlighter!  
  • Clarity is king. When you have moments to get a message across, it needs to be clear. That’s why submissions go through endless drafts before they get near private office and a well-chosen example can often cut through better than a lengthy note. Officials who do this well gain leverage with their minister and leeway on private office deadlines.
  • Talk early and often. Things go wrong when communication fails. Ministers, just like the rest of us, don’t like bad news, but they dislike it even more when people sit on it until it’s too late. 
  • Look after yourself. I was a PS before kids, so 14-hour days were doable. But even then, I tried to recharge where I could. I slept the weekends I wasn’t on duty, saw friends, and used a brisk walk around the block to clear my head during the day. 
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