The 'loose chicken test': The PM's private secretary explains what it takes to do his job

Written by SA Mathieson on 17 July 2017 in Feature
Feature

Alastair Whitehead, Theresa May's private secretary for home affairs, also shares how he draws on his policing experience for life in Whitehall

 

Good private secretaries must "act with humility in everything they do", according to one of No. 10’s top civil service staffers. 

Addressing a session at Civil Service Live, the prime minister's private secretary for home affairs Alastair Whitehead said of his role: "You are not a senior decision maker. You are there to function as a gearing mechanism between the ministerial team – or the senior official team if you’re working on the official side – and the wider system that sits underneath them.” 


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Whitehead, who also worked as a private secretary for Theresa May when she was home secretary, said that he has to decide what to bring to the attention of ministers and other senior staff and what he can get involved in himself, given the breadth of a private sectary’s portfolio and the sheer volume of information he receives day to day.

“You cannot get involved in everything the department does,” he said. 

He added that working out what ministers did and didn't need to know about was tricky, but “you tend to learn very quickly where your boundaries are".
 
Discussing the characteristics needed of a PS, Whitehead joked that a good test for potential private secretaries would involve letting a chicken into the room during their interview. 
 
“If they run around after the chicken, trying to catch the chicken and flapping about, they’re probably not going to make a great private secretary. If they observe the chicken and say ‘do we have lines to take on the chicken’ then they might make a good private secretary.” 
 
Whitehead also offered an insight into how he draws on his experience as a volunteer police officer in handling conflicts. 
 
The senior official – who worked as a special chief inspector in Islington until last year – said: “What the police teaches you to do is how to deal with people who actually are in a very difficult situation and maybe really don’t want to do the thing that you want them to do, and how to get them to do that. That very classic influencing and negotiating was the thing that I took away from it.” 
 
Whitehead added that his experience of operational work, both from the Metropolitan Police and his earlier civil service career, is also useful at Number 10. “You can sit in a room, you can intellectualise a problem as much as you want, but out on the ground it might not practically work. Having that clear line of sight to what is going to work in an operational environment is really, really valuable.” 

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