Taking special advisers seriously

6th November 20103

Special advisers (spads) are in the news again. The Coalition government has finally (and belatedly) released its annual report on numbers and cost: there are now 98 spads in post—30 more than when the Coalition started, breaking the Coalition pledge to keep numbers down and topping the former high of 83 (in 2001) under Tony Blair.

But so what? Why the obsession with the number and cost of spads anyway? They have a peculiar reputation: they are spinners, intriguers, bag carriers, policy wonks; they are exercise great power, being more influential than officials and junior ministers. They are young, inexperienced, politicians-in-waiting. We’ve all seen The Thick of It. Contrary to their stereotype as political mischief makers, we have found strong support for our conclusion that spads have become accepted as indispensable to government.

The Constitution Unit has been carrying out an 18 month project on special advisers. It involves the construction of a database of all known spads between 1979 and 2012; surveys of former spads; and we have carried out over 100 interviews with former and current spads, ministers, officials and external stakeholders (interest groups, political parties) in order to understand what it is spads do and how they go about it.

The first obvious point is that if numbers are rising, it is because ministers keep appointing them. That’s a banal statement, but it needs to be said. Ministers appoint spads, so the real question is, why do ministers need them? A key reason is ministerial overload: ministers are now simply too busy, and the governing of Britain too complex. And it is not just about the volume and complexity of work, but also the pace at which ministers are expected to respond. Ministers need support, and they must often act through others.

That doesn’t answer the question entirely. After all, ministers have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of officials to support them. But there are various reasons why spads are still necessary. Part of it is about the civil service: Ministers can choose very few of the career officials with whom they work; career officials are often generalists; and they are expected to remain neutral. Part of it is about British government, which is fragmented, being divided into departmental silos.

Ministers require support from outside the civil service to help them achieve their objectives. Being personal appointments, spads  serve the political interest of their ministers first, and that of their party in government next (in that order). They are not as bound by departments as officials are, and can take account the overall strategy of the government. The Coalition has also complicated matters: with two parties in government, spads are also needed to ensure intra-government or bipartisan support within government.

Spads have become indispensable. They began as a useful resource supplementing the work of the civil service, but as one former Cabinet minister said to us, ‘I couldn’t have done the job without them.’ Almost all of those we interviewed—ministers, officials and external stakeholders—saw spads as an established institution within British government. Parliamentary committees in various reports—from the Treasury and Civil Service Committee in 1985 to the Public Administration Committee in 2012—have consistently acknowledged the importance of spads to the process of governing. Spads, along with the permanent civil service, are now recognised in legislation.

Yet spads receive little support. They have no job description of merit. They receive minimal induction or training; and their performance is not systematically evaluated. There is little time for them to stop and reflect because of the pace of the job and the long gruelling hours; and there is zero job security—their contract terminates when their minister leaves, when there is an election, or at the whim of their minister. Generally speaking a spad’s time in government is short-lived and frenetic. About half of all spads between 1979 and 2010 have a tenure of about three years or less in government (unsurprising, given the low tenures of ministers); but a quarter of them have a tenure of six or more years (indeed, some spads commented that they had effectively became the institutional memory of the department because of the rapid turnaround within the senior civil service).

If this description of a spad’s life sounds ad hoc and chaotic, that’s not surprising. What they are able to do depends almost entirely on their minister. There is no job description for ministers or MPs either (see Lord O’Donnell on this, here and here). Politics is still thought best for amateurs—and professionalisation discouraged. Given these conditions it is surprising there are not more blunders involving spads. But the vast majority (there have been over 600 since 1979) do their job competently, and without fuss.

So it is time to start taking spads seriously: they are an established part of government. There needs to be greater professionalisation: more systematic recruitment, better induction and training, at the very least. The current job description of special advisers dates from the 1970s; there needs to be more about what spads can do rather than listing prohibitions on their conduct. Professionalisation means greater control from the centre; but the alternative is to keep ‘muddling through’.

The focus on numbers is misguided. Spads are here to stay. We need to ask how they can be more effective in government. These are issues we develop further in the book we are writing about special advisers, as the main output of our 18 month project. It is to be called Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter and will be published next summer.

Ben Yong and Professor Robert Hazell lead on the Special Advisers project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. This post is cross-posted at the PSA Blog.

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