My survivor’s guide for a new secretary of state

As a new Prime Minister makes the traditional speech on the steps of Number 10, the blood pressure of Tory MPs will start to rise as they anticipate the call they all hope to get.  I’ve watched as friends anguish by the silent telephone in their parliamentary office.

The inevitable questions start to flow. “When will they call?” “Why is it taking so long?” and of course, “What if the phone doesn’t ring?”

Then the phone starts to enthusiastically vibrate.  Nervousness evaporates as they are invited to visit Number 10 for an audience with the new PM. That’s when the worry sets in.  You hear their thoughts through the silent tension, “What if it is a department that I don’t want?” and “What if it is something I know nothing about?”

But there is not a moment to lose; they have to walk the walk – the length of Downing Street. It’s not a long walk, but the journalists and photographers are out in force, shouting out the provocative questions looking to claim a scalp before they’ve even been appointed. “What role have you got?” They don’t yet know themselves and their key advisers will be telling them to control their excitement, walk well, smile and wave, but say nothing.

Some moments later, as they leave through that famous black door, they are already considering the magnitude of the subject matter in which they have just been invited to become an overnight expert.

Yet, the real challenge has not yet begun. The coming days could define the rest of their career, even though most don’t realise it.  There is a lot to learn, a mountain of red boxes to plough through and a new team to shape.

The ministerial car is poised ready and waiting to drive them off to whichever ministry the PM has directed them to.  The awaiting senior civil servant, who will greet them upon arrival, will either become a key ally for their reforms or a thorn in the side of what they consider to be progress.  Either way, now the real job starts, and some simple rules can help.

Caution as you attack the in-tray

On day one the inbox is full of things your predecessor either did not get time to finish, or had sat on with enthusiastic inaction. The civil servants will tell you they are all urgent and well progressed. Don’t be bounced into decisions in the early days. Time is on your side, so make the right decisions when you’re ready.

Build the right team

You’ll drown quickly without the right team of lifeguards around you. Find the right, trustworthy team of advisers specialising in the three key skillsets you need – a policy expert in your new brief, an established MP handler and a seasoned media operator. These people have the potential to be your only true friends as they truly share in the responsibility to make your time in office a blazing success. You need all three, but it’s unlikely they will always live well in harmony and competition among them for your attention will start quickly.

Set priorities to deliver your legacy

Start with your own legacy and work backwards. Set the right priorities for the department to deliver. Ask the permanent secretary to list everything that is being done. Each task usurps the bandwidth, time and money available and now you are responsible for the government delivering its priorities for the electors – it cannot all be done, so be clear about what needs to progress.

Don’t say no to MPs

Some of the most successful ministers never said no to MPs. One famously had only two answers for parliamentary colleagues; either “yes and we’re doing that”, or “that is really interesting and I will look into it”.  Most MPs hearing ‘that’s interesting’ actually heard ‘yes’ even though the minister meant “definitely not”. If you say the word “no” you will create enemies who will plot to undermine you and then go elsewhere to achieve their own goals, while damaging yours.

Test advice – especially from civil servants

Don’t accept anything as read. Decision making can be a minefield especially when juggling advice from officials. If it goes against your gut instincts, trust yourself and test the advice by putting forward the complete opposite view. Challenge your civil servants to be transparent in their thinking and share the alternatives they have already considered but not included in their advice.

Manage your boxes your way

Every minister approaches red boxes in their own way. Some are assiduous in working through every page and others rarely make any progress in the jenga-like stack that is transported to and fro without being opened. Managing the tsunami of paperwork can be easier if your private office produces a short advice note explaining the contents, the priorities and the basics like where each paper or policy came from, its history and progress, and what it is ultimately trying to achieve.

Remember you’re in the firing line (others are not!)

When you find yourself at the Despatch Box for your first departmental questions, remember that you’re the only one in the firing line. Not only do you have to sound on top of your brief, be an expert in all matters and demonstrate a detailed understanding of the inner-most workings of your department, but you have to apply the right judgement to everything. Sometimes advisers just don’t see how poorly something might play out in parliament, the party or indeed across the country. Use your sense of humour wisely and be kind and understanding to both sides of the house.

Know who to listen to – and make sure they are in the room

Don’t just listen to the senior people around you but find your way to the real experts who might be at the more junior levels of your department or from the real world. They’re not usually in key meetings with you, leaving their directors to translate their advice third hand after reading their briefing note five minutes before the meeting. Layers of management within the civil service and endless rewrites of policy often dilutes the message as it travels through the labyrinth. Always get to the people who have a strong and unique insight into the issue at hand – both inside and out of the department.

Private Office rules

Never underestimate the importance of this team of people sitting in your outer office providing the first line of defence 24/7. Get to know them as they will provide help and assistance in all avenues of work and life. Their approach and experience will shape the advice you receive, and they will speak for you to a range of internal and external stakeholders, so they need to understand and share your voice.

Walk the floors – don’t be detached

Your new department might have thousands of people working across hundreds of offices. Get out and show yourself to them. Get to know them. Show you care.  Walk the floors unannounced.  Sir Humphrey won’t like it, the individuals will be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll benefit from developing wide ranging relationships at every level – and they might just help you to survive.

The next months will not be easy.  There will be industrial unrest, a cost-of-living crisis and spiralling inflation. It will be challenging but remember to enjoy the role. It is a privilege to be appointed and you can now make a difference. Don’t waste your opportunity.


Simon Jones was a senior special adviser in 10 Downing Street and the Department for Transport working under three Prime Ministers. He is now Partner at Headland Communications.