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 will be aided by an Assistant Private Secretary (APS), or even head a private office.
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, making the order of precedence 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 UK 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 Queen's Private Secretary and the Principal Private Secretary to the prime minister being the most important. The latter is currently equivalent to a Director General in the Civil Service, and the former is viewed as being equivalent to a permanent under-secretary of state.
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.
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).
- "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.