Permanent Secretary

Job Description:

In many countries, a permanent secretary is the most senior civil servant in a particular government department.

Job Category:
Government & Public Services

What you will do:

In many countries, permanent secretaries, like all civil servants, are apolitical, meaning they are not affiliated with a particular political party. Instead, they work with whoever is in government.

In other countries, including the US, the equivalent role is appointed by the government. This makes it more of a political role, but the general duties and responsibilities remain the same as below.

Permanent secretaries are responsible for the day-to-day running of a government department, making sure the budget is spent appropriately and advising the government minister, who is in charge of implementing policy. A government department is like a ship: the government minister decides where to sail (in accordance with wider government policy) and the permanent secretary instructs the crew of the ship (i.e. other civil servants) to sail it there.

Typical duties include the following:

  • Managing the department, making sure staff are doing what they need to do to accomplish the minister’s goals
  • Chairing department meetings
  • Understanding and advising on relevant legislation and guidance
  • Undertaking research, gathering and analysing data
  • Preparing and writing briefings, reports, and speeches
  • Making sure the department budget is spent appropriately and not exceeded

While a permanent secretary can advise and warn against certain policies or courses of action, they must carry out the minister’s wishes once they have decided what to do. A permanent secretary that strongly disagrees with the policy may prefer to resign than implement the policy.


You’ll need:

  • to be able to use a computer and the main software packages competently

As well as:

  • numeracy skills
  • problem-solving skills and the ability to think clearly using logic and reasoning
  • management & administration skills
  • to be thorough and pay attention to detail
  • the ability to work well with others (teamwork skills)
  • to be flexible and open to change (adaptability skills)
  • excellent communication skills, including writing and speaking
  • patience and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations
  • ability to remain apolitical, carrying out your duties fairly no matter which party is in power (this doesn’t apply to political appointees)
Illustration of employee looking at workspace

Entry Requirements:

To become a Permanent Secretary, you typically need a strong educational background, relevant work experience, and a track record of leadership and management skills. While there are no specific subjects required for this role, a well-rounded education with a focus on subjects related to politics, economics, law, and public administration can be beneficial. Here are some suggested subjecys to work towards becoming a Permanent Secretary:

  1. English: Strong written and verbal communication skills are crucial for this role.
  2. Mathematics: Numerical proficiency is important for understanding and analyzing data and financial information.
  3. History or Politics: These subjects can provide a foundational understanding of government structures, policies, and political processes.
  4. Economics or Business Studies: These subjects offer insight into economic principles and business operations, which are relevant in government roles.

Post School

You’ll need to meet certain nationality rules to apply and entry requirements may vary from country to country.

In the UK, for example, you would need to be either:

  • a British or Irish national
  • another national with a right to live and work in the UK

You’ll usually need a second-class honours degree. The actual subject of your degree may or may not be important, but it might be an advantage if it is relevant to politics or government. Here are some examples:

  • Politics and international relations
  • Economics
  • Sociology
  • Philosophy
  • Anthropology

The Civil Service sometimes run graduate programmes that involve placements in various departments and result in a permanent position upon completion.

You’ll need clearance from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). You’ll also need to pass a security check.

Working Hours and Environment:

Normal working days are likely to be fairly long and involve many meetings and potentially some travelling, including overseas, depending on which department you’re working for.

Career Path & Progression:

Prospective permanent secretaries would normally work for several years in more junior civil service roles (such as working as policy adviser or civil service officer). In countries where equivalent roles are appointed by the government, extensive political experience would be necessary.

A permanent secretary may ultimately become the cabinet secretary, a very prestigious job that involves advising on and supporting the work of the cabinet directly.

After leaving the civil service, some permanent secretaries move on to work for national or international organisations in advisory or managerial roles.