A Private Secretary (PS) is a civil servant in a governmental department or ministry, responsible to a secretary of state or minister; or in a royal household, responsible to a member of the royal family.
The role exists in the civil service of the United Kingdom and several Commonwealth countries including Australia, India and New Zealand as well as other countries influenced by the Westminster system. A Private Secretary is normally of middle management level; however, as the key official responsible for disseminating the decisions and policy steers of ministers and as their gatekeeper, the role is of considerably greater significance than their grade would suggest. Depending on the status of the political principal the official works for, they may be aided by an Assistant Private Secretary (APS), or even head a private office.
A Principal Private Secretary, or Senior Private Secretary, is a senior civil servant who runs a cabinet minister's private office. A similar role to a Principal Private Secretary in the United States federal government would be chief of staff.
In the United Kingdom
The role of the private secretary to a Secretary of State originated in the 18th century. Today, a junior minister may have a three-person private office consisting of a Private Secretary and two Assistant Private Secretaries; whereas a more senior minister may have a five-person private office consisting of a Senior Private Secretary, Private Secretary and three Assistant Private Secretaries. The same applies to a Cabinet-level minister's private office but on a larger scale, due to a cabinet minister usually being responsible for entire, government departments and agencies.
Where the Private Secretary is a member of the Senior Civil Service, he or she will be referred to as a Principal Private Secretary. The order of precedence is Principal Private Secretary, Senior Private Secretary (rarely now in existence), Private Secretary and Assistant Private Secretary. A similar role to a Principal Private Secretary in the United States federal government would be chief of staff.
The Private Secretary is the principal link between a government minister and officials in the department or ministry. He or she has overall responsibility for coordinating the development of the minister's policy remit, ensuring that the decisions of the minister are clearly and fully implemented by the department. In that respect a PS and APS will often be in a position of debate with colleagues of much higher seniority, as well as be a sounding board for senior officials in the department and other ministerial private offices in Whitehall.
A PS or an APS is always in attendance with the minister at every official meeting or event to provide support; and to ensure that a member of the Civil Service, who are non-political appointees, takes a factual note of discussions and commitments made. They also have ownership of the ministerial diary, managing the minister's time with the diary secretary. This means prioritising invitations, commitments, policy briefings and submissions and parliamentary business. A PS is always the initial source of advice to Ministers on policy, parliamentary protocol, the process of cabinet government and departmental administration.
Often the PS and APS will take on specific responsibilities within the private office, dividing their minister's portfolio between them, with each PS dealing solely with policy, correspondence and diary matters relating to it. They often deputise and support other members of the PO temporarily, but would be considered subject matter experts for that area of work in the department.
Working in a private office as a Private Secretary or an Assistant Private Secretary is highly desired due to widely being seen as essential for advancement to the Senior Civil Service. Although considered to be a highly rewarding and sought-after post, it is one of the most difficult when compared to others at the equivalent grade.
Depending upon the seniority of their political principal, Private Secretaries may be regarded an important officials in their own right; the Private Secretary to the Sovereign and the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister being the most important. The former is viewed as being equivalent to a permanent secretary, the head of a government department, and the latter is currently equivalent to a Director General in the Civil Service. Other notable positions include the Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
Private Secretaries also work in the Royal Households of the United Kingdom for the working members of the British royal family. The household of the Prince of Wales, as heir apparent to the British throne, is led by a Principal Private Secretary, who runs his private office.
In popular culture
A classic explanation is provided in the British sitcom Yes Minister.
- Sir Humphrey (the Permanent Secretary) briefs Hacker (the Minister) on the Department's workings:
Hacker: Who else is in this department?
Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hacker: Can they all type?
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs MacKay types: she's the secretary.
Hacker: Pity, we could have opened an agency.
Sir Humphrey: Very droll, Minister.
Hacker: I suppose they all say that, do they?
Sir Humphrey: Certainly not, Minister. Not quite all..."
(From the episode "Open Government", transmitted 25 February 1980)
In the Commonwealth
In Australian Public Service the Principal Private Secretary is the civil servant who runs a cabinet minister's private office.
In India, the post of private secretary (PS) and an additional private secretary (APS) to the Union Council of Ministers of India (cabinet ministers and minister of state) are Group A (All India Services or Central Civil Services) officers, appointed by the President of India.
Senior Principal Private Secretary (Senior PPS) is a Senior Group A Gazetted Selection post one rank above Principal Private Secretary that takes care of the office of a Secretary to the Government of India or the Equivalent Rank officer Member CBBC or Member Railway Board.
P.S.O. is Principal Staff Officer, a Senior Group A Gazetted Selection post one rank above Senior Principal Private Secretary that takes care of the office of a Secretary to the Government of India or an equivalently ranked Member of the Central Board for Excise and Customs, Member of the Railway Board, or the Chairman. Pay is equivalent to that of a Director to the Government of India.
Persons holding the role of private secretary to a cabinet minister in New Zealand go by the title Senior Private Secretary.
Outside the Commonwealth
A system of the Ministerial Secretary (秘書官, Hishokan), one to several per minister playing a role similar to the private secretary's, is also employed by the political system in Japan. The seven secretaries appointed to the prime minister are called the Executive Secretaries to the Prime Minister (内閣総理大臣秘書官).
- Sainty, J. C. (1973). "Introduction". Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 2 - Officials of the Secretaries of State 1660-1782. University of London. pp. 1–21.
Something should be said at this point about Private Secretaries. In the establishments of the Home, Foreign and War Offices drawn up in 1795 provision was made for salaried Private Secretaries to the Secretaries of State. Before 1782, however, the arrangements in this respect lacked definition and appear to have varied widely.
- "Ministers' private offices". Institute for Government.
- Lee, John Michael; George William Jones; June Burnham (1998). At the centre of Whitehall: advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 42–44. ISBN 978-0-312-17730-0.
- (PDF) https://www.civilservant.org.uk/library/2010_Bowles-The_Role_Of_The_Private_Secretary.pdf. Missing or empty
- "UK Civil Service - Key Skills - Working with Ministers". www.civilservant.org.uk. Retrieved 2021-03-20.
- "Lurking your way to the top: life as a private secretary". Civil Service World. 2020-06-25. Retrieved 2021-03-20.
- "The importance of a Private Secretary – the most trusted of royal aides". Royal Central. 2021-01-22. Retrieved 2021-03-21.
- "Remarks by the Principal Private Secretary Clive Alderton at the Annual Review 2018 Media Briefing | Prince of Wales". www.princeofwales.gov.uk. Retrieved 2021-03-21.
- "Consolidated Instructions to the appointment of personal staff to Union Ministers" (PDF). Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 December 2014. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
- "Why babus want to be private secys to ministers now". GovernanceNow.com. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
- http://persmin.gov.in/dopt_csdivision_index.asp. Missing or empty
- http://www.archive.india.gov.in/knowindia/profile.php?id=32. Missing or empty
- Member CBEC
- Member Railway Board
- P.S.O., Principal Staff Officer
- Member of the Central Board for Excise and Customs