Deciding how to run a private office is among the most significant decisions facing new ministers, according to a report from the Institute for Government providing top tips to incoming ministers after this week’s election.
In a paper published yesterday, the think tank said that although junior ministers have an average tenue of just 21 months, they are often responsible for overseeing large parts of the public sector from the NHS to the police.
Based on interviews for the IfG’s Ministers Reflect series, the paper set out four recommendations on how to do the job well.
“The private office is there to work for the minister,” the report said. “Private office staff prepare the minister’s boxes and diary, and act as gatekeepers of their time and attention. Incoming ministers must communicate how they want this to be done; a conversation with the diary manager early on will make the role easier.
“Factoring in time for parliament, constituency visits, home life and deciding how the ministerial box should be prepared are all important things to consider.”
The briefing describes officials in the private office as among the “most important figures involved in inducting any new minister” into the department.
“The private office provides continuity through changes of minister, and is appointed by the civil service, though ministers can request changes to the team.”
The report cited former work and pensions secretary John Hutton and ex-DWP perm sec Sir Leigh Lewis's book How to be a Minister: “To be a successful minister you need to have a good private office. It is as basic as that.”
Other lessons included deciding on personal policy priorities in office, building strong relationships across government and parliament, and making time for constituency and personal life.
'Private office helps get things done'
Among the ministerial reflections, Stephen Timms, who held various ministerial roles over 12 years as a minster in the Labour government between 1997 and 2010, observed that “if you’ve got a good private secretary, you can achieve a great deal more”.
Former home secretary Jacqui Smith said she felt lucky to have had “a private secretary who was pretty experienced in having worked with other ministers beginning the role” when she first became a minister in the Department of Health in 2001. Her private secretary “provided me with the sort of guidance on [the] process and what a submission was and how the correspondence was dealt with and how you might go about agreeing or not agreeing to do a particular event. All things which, if you didn’t have somebody to explain to you, it would be pretty opaque actually in terms of the way that government works”.
The paper advised ministers to get the most out of their private office by communicating clearly their priorities and how they want to work. Patricia Hewitt, who was a junior minister from 1997 until moving into the cabinet in 2001, said the private office “[runs] your life, and so you need to be very clear about what you do want in your life and what you don’t want”.
This includes arranging ministerial boxes to meet the minister’s working style.
The IfG also advised that junior ministers who feel they are getting what they need to turn to their permanent secretary or the secretary of state’s principal private secretary for assistance.
Former ministers quoted in the report all highlighted the importance of choosing a limited number of priorities to focus on in office. These can range from policy changes to managing relationships with business and others or changing aspects of how the department works.
Smith told the IfG she felt her most successful experiences as a minister came when she “took advantage of that period of time [at the start of a new role] to say, ‘The priorities I’m really interested in are x and y’, before those things get imposed on you”.
Another former Labour minister, Liam Byrne, advised trying to “speak to about 20 to 30 people in order to establish what’s going on and what you might think about something and what your priorities need to be” in the first month of each new role.
Smith, too, felt that you needed to set up “a series of meetings... with the key teams to talk to you about... where you want to focus... reasonably quickly".
Reflecting on her time as a junior minister, the Nicky Morgan, who will step down as culture secretary after Thursday's election. said that, “particularly if you’re a junior minister, two or three priorities is more than enough”, while Byrne worked on four or five issues.
Publishing the reflections, Tim Durrant, the IfG's associate director, said: “Whatever the outcome of the election, we are likely to see a new set of junior ministers – but they may not be in the job long. To make the most of their time in office, they will need to focus on a limited number of priorities and build strong relationships with their colleagues.”