Cabinet Office urged to review operation of ministers’ private offices

Institute for Government says exercise should explore best-practice amid “strained” relationship between ministers and Whitehall

By Jim Dunton

18 May 2023

Think tank the Institute for Government has called on the Cabinet Office to carry out a review of the way different ministerial private offices work in government to help fix problems identified with the support offered to departments’ political leaders.

The IfG said recent events in government – including the resignation of justice secretary Dominic Raab, who was found to have intimidated staff at the Ministry of Justice – had further strained relations between ministers and civil servants.

It said resetting the relationship was “more crucial than ever” ahead of the next general election and that strengthening the support provided by private offices, which are the most immediate point of contact between ministers and their department, should be the starting point.

The IfG’s Strengthening Private Office report brings together findings from interviews with former ministers and civil servants. It paints a picture of patchy support offered to ministers, often by inexperienced officials who take “principal private secretary” jobs in order to advance their careers rather than to share a wealth of experience.

Other problems identified included poor understanding of ministers’ parliamentary responsibilities and a lack of experienced diary managers in private offices.

Report authors Maddy Bishop and Beatrice Barr said that while permanent secretaries had overall responsibility for their department’s performance, they often had little involvement with the private offices of junior ministers – with the operations of some “falling below expectations”.

They said there should be “regular, established opportunities” for permanent secretaries, heads of office, and ministers to come together to carve out dedicated time and space to examine the operation of private offices in their department.

“To create a baseline, the Cabinet Office should carry out a ‘light touch’ review assessing private offices across government,” Bishop and Barr said.

“The aim would be to explore best practice in private office across Whitehall, as well as to hold permanent secretaries personally accountable to the cabinet secretary for the current performance of the private offices in their department and for building their capability to face future challenges.”

The authors said the review should be supported by a small team in the Cabinet Office and a board made up of external reviewers and senior officials from different departments.

Bishop and Barr said the core task of the review should be to assess the strengths and weaknesses of private offices in each department, taking the problems identified in their report as a starting point.

Their other recommendations include a call for a step-change in recruitment to ministers’ private offices, with greater emphasis placed on candidates with the specific skills required.

The report authors also called for improved training on working with ministers, with all private secretaries receiving basic instruction on the legislative process and ways they can best support their minister with parliamentary business.

Bishop and Barr suggested that job postings for private secretaries supporting ministers or special advisers should stipulate that candidates ought to have a minimum of two years’ experience in the civil service, “ideally with previous experience within the relevant department”.

Additionally, they recommended that departmental HR managers should be able to offer private-office staff six-month secondments to other postings “if they are feeling burnt out” from their minister-supporting duties.

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