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AIBU to ask for careers advice: UK Civil Service careers and experience of working in Private Offices

(23 Posts)
WellWhyNot Sat 13-Jun-20 00:06:26

Hi all,

I work in the Civil Service at the moment and am looking to move to a new CS role after 2 years in my current job.

I work in a team where we deal quite closely with colleagues in ministers’ Private Offices and am very interested in a career in a Private Office in the future. I’ve done some cover work in senior civil servants’ POs but never in a minister’s PO, although I would like to try cover work in a ministers’ PO to try out what it’s like before applying for a permanent role.

Although I’d like to go for a PO role in the future, I’m hesitant to apply for a PO as my next job as I’m still quite new and inexperienced (this role is my first full-time job and my first CS role). I’ve also heard from a few colleagues in the Civil Service that PO work can be extremely tough and stressful.

Would anyone here with experience of working in an PO mind posting about their experiences?

I’d be really interested to read about what it’s like and also to find out how you managed the pressures and stresses of working in a PO.


OP’s posts: |
Lindtnotlint Sat 13-Jun-20 00:17:01

Can be very tough but fantastic learning. (Obviously quite a bit depends on the Minister!)

bingbunnymustdie Sat 13-Jun-20 00:36:53

Not my own personal experience but DH's brother works in the private office for a perm sec and finds it really really tough. He has next to no social life as he works very very long hours and is expected to work most Saturdays. He's lasted a year and can't wait to get out, that's also a lot longer than most people last. I think if you're considering it you have to be sure it's something you really want and be willing to make sacrifices in other areas of your life.

Jangirl2018 Sat 13-Jun-20 00:54:58

I would say if you like to have a good work life balance avoid. Would also depend on the Minister, some are reasonable, some not. One of my friends works in a cabinet minister’s private office and is exhausted right now. My sister also worked in a Perm Sec’s office, and it’s very early starts and late finishes. Depends what you want out of it though, as the experience and opportunities can be great.

Isleepinahedgefund Sat 13-Jun-20 07:43:34

Definitely not a job to go for if you need work life balance of any sort. All the PSs I know work all the hours god sends (often late at night if parliament is sitting late, and definitely weekends). It's usually the young and/or childless that do the roles.

Not allowed time off unless you organise your own cover, and then only during parliamentary recess usually.

Working with a reasonable minister makes a huge difference - but in my experience the majority are difficult to work with in some way or another to varying degrees. It takes a certain type of person to get into ministerial positions, shall we say.

But a difficult minister can genuinely ruin a PS's life. I can always tell what a minister is like by how their PS interacts with me. And of course there's no guarantee that the ministerial team will stay the same, so even if you have a reasonable one to start with there's no guarantee that you won't get a really horrible one visited upon you.

Because they have to organise their own cover for leave, if you ask around PO and say you're interested you should be able to get an invaluable "try before you buy".

I've never seen being in PO do anything spectacular for anyone's career though!

WellWhyNot Sat 13-Jun-20 21:19:18

Thanks so much for your messages, everyone.

Do you think it would be best to aim to do it for up to, say, 2 years at most? So I could then approach it, knowing it’s only a temporary role that I won’t be in forever, as a way to manage how I’d cope with the stress and pressure.

I think the main reason why I’d like to try out a role in a PO is because I’m genuinely curious about what it’s like and I also wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my career completely ruling it out. I feel like it would also be useful to spend time working in a PO so I can have done a variety of roles in my career.

I also feel that working in a PO would be really useful as working with ministers and/or senior civil servants is a helpful way of seeing how the heart of the Civil Service operates - and it sounds really satisfying and rewarding to know that, by working in that environment, you have played a part in that.
I completely understand though that PO roles come with a huge amount of pressure that will probably overshadow the feeling of reward that comes with these roles.

I realise as well that people have said earlier on in this thread that working in a PO doesn’t, in itself, advance people’s careers.

Could anyone offer any tips for how they/people they know have managed the stresses and pressure of working in a PO, please? Thanks! smile

PS I’m completely ignorant of the realities of working in a PO, so please be gentle if any of my posts come across as idealistic and/or completely unaware and ignorant!

OP’s posts: |
BeanCalledPickle Sat 13-Jun-20 21:41:29

Hi OP. Echo a lot of the above. It’s a short term thing and best done by young and enthusiastic people with no other commitments. It’s a bit devil wears prada. You should do a work shadow first. To give you a flavour; I’m in at eight to prepare everything for the day, work through my inbox, confirm appointments etc. Minister in at 1130. He commutes in from Reading. He’s a good bloke (for a Tory) but relies on me heavily to keep his life straight and when I not he can be snappy but he’s a big deal. I get it. Meetings throughout the day in his departmental office. Then have to run over to his parliamentary office. I’m taking notes and making action points and asking the other PS to follow up on things.

Then we are into the committee rooms for a debate on the bill. He’s not read his briefing notes and the bill team are going nuts. This goes on until eight, if not ten. If it finishes earlier he wants to take the team to the bar which is fine but I feel I have to come too.

Then a couple of MPS approach him to discuss concessions they need to vote for the bill. I’m back to noting things down and arranging a meeting at 9am. It’s now ten. I might get away by eleven and then I need to be back and briefing for that 9am meeting.

This might be the longer end of my typical days but this can and will happen. It is my life and there isn’t much room for anything else. But that’s ok.

This was a decade ago now. I loved it. I couldn’t do it forever. He got moved on and I took the time to change back into a policy role. Which is much more settled. I did love it. I still look back at it as the most exciting and dynamic role I ever had. But my god it’s HARD

cwtchesandprosecco Sat 13-Jun-20 22:06:32

I echo everything above really. It can be super interesting, involve travel (depending on the portfolio), exposure to all sorts of things happening across government.
But, it is long hours (no matter what they tell you about work life balance!) and often quite stressful and intense. Most people do it for 12-18 months and then move onwards and up- in my experience it’s been a fantastic stepping stone to other jobs, and it always looks good on your cv.
If you’re looking for a stretching and challenging role I’d really recommend it, as long as you can cope with having a more restricted social life!

cwtchesandprosecco Sat 13-Jun-20 22:07:57

Oh, and in terms of managing the stress, the thing that made the difference to me was having a good team around you- made the world of difference

Modernstoneage Sat 13-Jun-20 22:37:00

Some would you say it the same thing as a chief of staff tile?

Modernstoneage Sat 13-Jun-20 22:37:26

*role even

AnneElliott Sat 13-Jun-20 22:47:39

PO roles and Bill teams are definitely things to do before you have kids! No work life balance at all really.

And depends on the Minister as well. Some of them can be utterly horrible.

Meanameicallmyself20 Sat 13-Jun-20 23:03:43

I’d agree with PPs, having done this role. Best job I’ve done but all consuming. I did it in my 20s when I had no responsibilities. Stressful all the time but brilliant learning experiences especially if you are interested in politics. Also depends on the Minister too. But if they’re reasonable I would go for it. You tend to get promoted when you leave PO.

WellWhyNot Sat 13-Jun-20 23:09:06

Thanks so much for all of your comments again! I really appreciate it.

I’m in my late twenties and don’t have kids, so would be very keen to go for a PO role before I have a family, as many of you have suggested here.

Thanks so much as well for the suggestion you made cwtches of having a good team to relieve stress.

On a more personal level, how would you manage stress? Due to the very long days and the pressure that comes with the role (and with working very closely with a high profile minister who can sometimes be angry/snappy), are there any methods you’ve found particularly helpful for unwinding and easing stress?

Also how do you stay organised and on gop of things in such a fast-paced and fast-changing environment?

OP’s posts: |
WellWhyNot Sat 13-Jun-20 23:09:19

*on top of things, even

OP’s posts: |
cwtchesandprosecco Sat 13-Jun-20 23:17:28

So, when I originally posted I was trying to think back about how I managed the stress, and couldn’t actually put my finger on it. I think part of it is that you learn to deal with it, and separate out the truly ‘needs to happen now’ from the ‘x wants something to happen now.’ Also, if I’m really honest I’m someone who works better under stress, I’m a bit of a dawdler when I have longer deadlines so the snappier nature of PO suited me.

And again, on the how you stay organised point, you just learn to. In most PO you have your portfolio, and the more up to speed with that you are the easier it becomes. It can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months to get to a place where you’re really adding value, and once you’re there the fact pace of the job is second nature.

Op, it sounds like something you want to try and there’s nothing holding you back, I’d apply and see where you get to smile I don’t regret it all, some of my best memories are from PO.

Wigeon Sun 14-Jun-20 09:52:41

My advice:

Go for a (virtual?) coffee with one of the PSs you work with - then you’ll find out what the different ministers in your department are really like, what it’s like being in private office there, what their typical day is like. Ask them just before recess for the coffee though, and schedule it during recess! (PSs tends to be confident types and if you are worried about even asking for a coffee with one of them you aren’t probably not cut out for PO work).

Definitely do PO cover. These opportunities tend to be during recesses. There should be an obvious way the opportunities are advertised (eg on your intranet). Check with one of the PSs or your manager if you don’t know.

I wouldn’t necessarily rule out being in PO as your next job. What grade are you? Doing a G7 PS job as your second ever PS job - no (and you’d be unlikely to get the job), but a more junior grade, definite possibility.

Do your due diligence on the specific minister you might work for. Some are horrible to their private office staff and your life will be a misery. Some are ok and some are downright nice.

Good luck!

WellWhyNot Sun 14-Jun-20 16:45:37

Thanks Wigeon (and everyone else who has posted with advice!)

I completely agree about avoiding applying for a G7 role in a PO if it’s my first PO role. I think, as you say, that it would be unlikely I’d get the role. Also, as a G7 is quite senior and a PO role is very pressurised and stressful, it would be very easy to feel out of my depth at that level in a new and fast-paced environment that I hadn’t had previous exposure to.

I’m an EO, and looking to apply for HEO-level roles for my next job.

Starting this thread has got me thinking about my next move and how I could then transfer from that to a PO role. After chatting to colleagues a few months ago on and off about my next move, a few of them said they didn’t think my personality and interests/skills were suited to PO roles (sounds quite blunt when put like that, but I could see where they were coming from).

In terms of skills, for example, I do like being very thorough over work (which is of course very important in fast-paced environments as well as in circumstances where you have more time to do the work), but my colleagues (some of whom have PO experience) explained that I’d have much less time to review documents and submissions in a PO role than in, say, a policy role. I’ve learned to be a lot quicker when doing my work, as I’ve been in my current role for 2 years and have got used to it, but I’m very aware from speaking to colleagues in PO roles that there isn’t really any time allotted in those roles to getting used to the role and you have to hit the ground running and be very high-performing in the role very quickly.

In terms of personality, I’m quite quiet and can find it hard to be assertive. I’ve been working on this a lot since realising I find it hard, but I’m aware being assertive and confident is quite important to demonstrate in a PO role.

As I still would like to work in a PO, but am also aware of the importance of working on the above skills before applying for a PO role, I thought it might be a good idea to apply for a non-PO role (a policy role, for example) as my next move, at HEO-level.

And then, if I apply successfully for that next role, the plan is to then work in that role for a couple of years, to further develop skills in that role that I’d need for a PO role, and then to apply for a sideways move to a PO role at HEO level (rather than on promotion at SEO, which I think would be too much of a challenge, given that PO roles are very stressful anyway). Now, and in my next role, I’m also aiming to get more PO cover under my belt to see if a PO role is really for me and to talk to as many PO colleagues as possible to find out about their experiences. I’ve talked to a few colleagues in POs who seem to have a similar personality to me, which I’ve found really helpful and positive, because I imagine that they’d respond to challenges in a similar way to me, and it’s been useful to have a role model in them who I can be inspired by (although these observations are just from talking to them, rather than from actually seeing how they work in their role on a day-to-day basis).

The main thing in a PO role that I’m nervous about is the pressure and stress. I’ve put together a few strategies I could use whilst in that role (which could be applied to any role, really - even my current one) to hopefully help (I find it massively helpful, personally, if I’m able to prepare for potentially stressful outcomes as much as possible):

Could anyone give any tips please on how they managed not having time to do things like have a normal social life/have time to eat healthily, sleep enough and make time for relaxing/exercise? Those things are obviously all really important to maintain resilience and perspective, but it sounds like PO roles are notorious for not allowing for any work/life balance at all. How did you cope with this? Did you just tell yourself it wouldn’t last forever, and just focus on enjoying the good bits of the role, to cope?

How to cope in stressful situations/ doing daily tasks:
- Deep breathing and concentrating fully in stressful situations (rather than letting myself think of negative outcomes, worries and doubts)
- Tell supervisor as soon as I’ve made a mistake and if I’ve thought of any solutions, so I can show I’ve reported it straightaway
- Practise doing tasks under stressful conditions to get used to this
- Before a situation that I think will be stressful, think about all of the things that I think could go wrong and then think how I can prevent them going wrong or how to minimise the damage
- Presuppose the positive: how can I most easily get this task done?

General approach to work:
- Focus fully at work and on not getting distracted, and don’t think about work when at home/outside of work
- Be proactive in getting supervision/asking for help
- Check anything I’m unsure of with a more senior colleague
- Make a template checklist for different tasks, and check it and tick off various components of each task to make sure I’ve done it correctly
- Don’t rely on memory for everything: put all important dates in email calendar and make notes of everything I need to
- Type emails in without putting anyone's address in the "to" box, to avoid unfinished/ unsuitable emails
- Distinguish between urgent and important, and don’t let important stuff become urgent

Before starting role:
- Do due diligence on the specific minister you might work for
- Contact vacancy holder, and/or someone in post, when applying for role to find out if role would be a good fit for me

General wellbeing:
- Make time for sleeping, relaxing, exercise, eating well
(can anyone give tips on how they managed this despite the long working hours, please?)
- Whenever I need to remind myself of anything work-related or think of anything work-related outside of work, send email to work address so I can deal with it in working hours rather than having it on my mind outside of work
- Think of it as CV glossing, not a ‘forever job’ and set time limit for doing it (e.g. one year, 2 years)

OP’s posts: |
WellWhyNot Sun 14-Jun-20 18:24:19

Just to ask if anyone has any further advice on what’s been mentioned above? And thanks so much for all of your help so far! smile

OP’s posts: |
Pinkdelight3 Sun 14-Jun-20 18:38:16

Just a small thought (or maybe not so small), from DH who used to do it under the previous government - that it was super demanding and took over his life, as others have said, but he at least felt like he was doing some good. Whether it would yield that satisfaction now is doubtful, depending on your politics of course. And if your motivation is other things entirely, fair enough. It's not so much of a consideration in many other CS roles, but with that level of commitment needed, it may be a factor.

WellWhyNot Sun 14-Jun-20 18:53:03

That’s such a good point - thanks Pinkdelight.

OP’s posts: |
WellWhyNot Sun 14-Jun-20 20:44:25

Just a quick bump to ask if anyone has any advice on how to make time for relaxing and general good wellbeing (having a social life as much as possible, relaxing, eating and sleeping well) whilst working in a PO role when the hours are so long and the roles are so full-on? Thanks!

OP’s posts: |
Pinkdelight3 Mon 15-Jun-20 13:35:19

Sure others will have tips, but the amount you're mentioning need for relaxing, healthy living, social life etc suggests the friends you asked might be right when you said:

"a few of them said they didn’t think my personality and interests/skills were suited to PO roles"

Of course it's good to have coping strategies for stress and the things you mention are wise for well-being, but the whole vibe of the PO gigs that everyone's saying is that there just isn't time for those things, all hours are working hours and you have to surrender to that or ideally thrive in those situations. Which you may find that you do, but it'll be by thinking on your feet - doing things instinctively and dealing with the shit as it flies at you, not by this painstaking approach that backs up that need to prepare in advance and suggests you're already worried about how you'll cope without enough sleep, relaxation etc. It's not a criticism - there is a kind of madness needed for some roles in life and I think you have to embrace it or go for something less full-on. With the emphasis on preparation and thoroughness, you may be a better fit for policy.

Either way, you sound very smart and diligent so all the best with whatever you decide to pursue.

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