Tony Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell, far right, and other members of the then-prime minister's staff wait outside his office as he prepares alone for prime minister's questions in 2007. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Being a private secretary in a ministerial or senior official’s office is a Whitehall rite of passage. Occupying this role is no guarantee of greatness – take it from me – but few who rise to the top make it without completing a tour of duty. Why?
It pretty much goes without saying that most people working in private offices are clever. They also tend to have youth on their side, which leaves plenty of time for climbing the ranks. But the same holds true for lots of promising civil servants.
In fact, the most important quality for any aspiring PS is feeling comfortable with invisibility. Private secretaries are expected to lurk. A preference for shadows is essential. Having the ability to create shadows all of one’s own is even better.
Sure, that means sacrificing claims on limelight and glory, but obscurity confers certain advantages. People tend not to see you coming. They remember you in the meeting, but can’t put a finger on what you said. (In most cases, nothing. The best private secretaries also tend to be the best listeners.)
Lurking is something that came naturally to me. On the internet, I’m your classic lurker. Like about 90% of people, I’ve never written a comment on an online newspaper story or YouTube video. And lurking in Whitehall has many of the same advantages as it does on the web. Both allow people to learn the conventions of a community before they participate in it.
Spending time hanging around the senior civil service and political class, observing the foibles, failings and flights of fancy, is the best possible education for aspiring leaders. You can take what you learn here and apply it over the rest of your career – or alternatively, run for the hills in horror.
Private secretaries spend almost all of their time developing empathy with decision-makers, consciously or otherwise. Political diaries abound with anecdotes about their office’s uncanny ability to plan for their whims. But the real point is that there’s nothing exceptional about this; the PS’s job is to get into their heads, anticipate their needs, and do whatever is needed – preferably before it is asked for. There are few moments more satisfying for a PS than having your boss ask for something urgently, and for you to casually reply: “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve already done that.”
Even for the very best, working as a PS demands tolerance for rapidly switching between the sublime and ridiculous. One night may see you exchanging scurrilous gossip with your high-powered boss over wine in the international conference hotel bar, the next morning a mad rush in the rain between several branches of Pret to find their favoured breakfast fruit pot. That afternoon may be spent responding to a leak, talking down an angry DG, or explaining to your least favourite policy team – for an umpteenth time – why their submission is returning to them covered in red pen and laughter spittle. Or, more likely, all three tasks at once. Physical stamina and the ability to remain calm amid multiple crises are essential parts of the PS’s personality.
The qualities required of a private secretary are those which also make the consummate mandarin, so it’s no wonder private office is seen as an ideal training ground for time at the top of the civil service.
The persistence of private office stalwarts in the top ranks of government means the civil service is missing out on leaders with a better feel for owning reform from top to bottom of an organisation. The problem with being a private secretary is a simple one. You don’t have skin in the game. Your name isn’t on the papers. You don’t deliver. You don’t sit at the meeting table. Your empathetic skills are directed within the organisation, not without to its users.
“Being a PS demands tolerance for rapidly switching between the sublime and ridiculous”
When things go wrong, while you might cop flak from your master, they take the bullet. The senior civil service’s honour code is a flexible document, but there is a general rule that holds: if a junior official screws up in a way that leaves a senior official or politician looking like an idiot, the fault is shared around with people further up the food chain. They chose you for the job. If you mess up, that reflects on their judgment more than your competence. Private secretaries may only enjoy qualified power and influence, but then they’re only burdened with qualified responsibility. Some would argue that’s a learned behaviour common among senior officials too.
Private secretary is a role that is unusually specific to governments. Few companies prize similar jobs in the same way. Many would see putting several hundred of their most promising people into two years or so of “enabling” others as an overhead they couldn’t possibly justify. But the network of private offices around Whitehall isn’t just about executive and ministerial support. Rather, it’s one of the oldest leadership training programmes in the world. It steeps consecutive generations of officials in the wisdom of private secretaries made good. For good and for ill, it preserves the knowledge, insecurities and folklore of the civil service, passing it on over and over. From shadows emerge successors, who have learned to love lurking.