The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

max-gopleud A recent article in the Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11037088/Half-of-Gordon-Browns-spads-work-for-charities-clobbying-Coalition-as-Tories-condemn-revolving-door.html) was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks.

As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story;[1] first, a ‘revolving door’ implies not merely that spads go to work in a given sector after leaving office but that they also did so before. Second, the article does not examine where Conservative spads head after their time in Whitehall.

On the idea of a revolving door, our project coded the careers of special advisers before and after their time in Whitehall. The data suggest that the idea of a ‘revolving door’ with respect to the non-profit sector is overblown. Rather, of those who worked in the non-profit sector at some point in their career (32% of Labour and 15% of Conservative spads), the vast majority (74%) only joined that sector after leaving Whitehall.

When looking at think tanks, the claims in the Telegraph article are on stronger ground. Labour advisers were again more likely to work in a think tank after leaving Whitehall (15% vs 8% for the Conservatives). Moreover, of those who worked for a think tank at any point in their career, around 30% of Labour did so both before and after their time as a special adviser (the definition of a ‘revolving door’) whilst only 6% of Conservative ones did so.

Yet, when looking at the careers of Conservative advisers more broadly, a parallel picture emerges; a greater proportion (50% vs 38%) entered the ‘business’ world (broadly defined) after leaving Whitehall. And, again fitting with the idea of a revolving door, around 30% of those who worked in business did so before and after their time as a spad (compared to only 16% of Labour advisers).

What this data shows is perhaps simply a partisan difference; Labour has stronger connections to the third sector and think tanks whilst the Conservatives have stronger links to business. Both are more likely to draw their advisers from those sectors, and those advisers return there in greater numbers after leaving Whitehall. This is not inherently inappropriate and, whilst there are perhaps legitimate concerns about the ‘revolving door’ in some instances, it is important to be even-handed when analysing the issue and look at the entire picture of special advisers’ careers—rather than focusing on one party and one sector in isolation.

As a final comment on the role of IPPR, the broader evidence does support the claim of a strong link between the IPPR and Labour. However, it is worth noting that the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) had a similar relationship with the previous Conservative governments. Whilst the absolute number of Labour advisers going to work for the IPPR was larger, the proportions are roughly the same; in each party group, around 1/3rd of special advisers who worked for think tanks after leaving Whitehall went to the IPPR or CPS.

[1] Appendix 3 of the book, written by Anna Sellers who also provided much of the data on this question, examines special advisers’ post-Whitehall careers and the issue of the revolving door in detail.

Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. 

The notion that Special Advisers (“spads”) turned-MPs dominate the Government and Opposition frontbenches appears periodically in the media as exemplifying the rise of ‘career politicians’ and the ‘professionalisation of politics’. A forthcoming book on Special Advisers by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit explores the profession from 1979 to the present government and provides a detailed look into who they are, what they do, and their relationships and interactions with other actors in the political system.

My recent article for Parliamentary Affairs explores the ‘myth’ outlined above: Is it actually the case that Special Advisers invariably go into politics and rise to the top? The answer, in short, is no. Those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are not particularly representative of the wider profession.

Despite the presence of some high profile MPs who were previously Special Advisers (most prominently David Cameron and Ed Miliband), the reality is less straightforward. While it is clear that the Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are generally successful (both in terms of their electoral success and subsequently in being promoted), they are not representative of the wider “spad” group. A more satisfactory explanation is that underlying factors drive a certain type of ambitious, politically minded individual to both become a Special Adviser and stand for Parliament. Those individuals are then in a strong position to draw upon the skills and connections they amassed during their time in Whitehall to further advance their political careers.

Special Advisers as Candidates

In total, around 25% of Conservative (1979-1997) and 10% of Labour (1997-2010) Special Advisers ran for Parliament at some point, with most of them doing so after leaving Whitehall. Whilst high compared to the proportion of other groups in the population, it is not so high in absolute terms. These individuals are somewhat younger than the ‘normal’ Special Adviser, with around 40%  of those standing for Parliament aged under 30 on their on their appointment as a special adviser. Conversely, only 25% of ‘ordinary’ Special Advisers are that young.

Figure 1: Number of special adviser candidates by general election

Coloured-SpAd-map

 

This difference might be uninteresting if these ex-Special Advisers took a number of tries to get into Parliament or contested unwinnable seats. However, that is resoundingly not the case; 80% of “spads” (46 individuals) who stood after leaving Whitehall became MPs at some point. For Labour, 18 out of the 21 former Special Advisers who stood for Parliament have won every General Election they contested.

Special Advisers as MPs

Of those Special Advisers-turned-MPs, nearly half have achieved high office as a Secretary of State (or Shadow Secretary of State) at some point in their parliamentary career, with a full 80% achieving the rank of at least Minister of State. This is very different compared to the great mass of MPs who generally remain on the backbenches.

Special Advisers who become MPs tend to skip the established ‘career ladder’ and head straight to the frontbenches; many become Ministers of State without having first served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other comparable junior role. They also tend to be very young upon entering government. The data suggest that 17 ex-Special Advisers became (Shadow) Minister of State before their 40th birthday. Compare this to the median parliamentary candidate who is still attempting to be elected to Parliament at that age. This is also not only a Labour phenomenon—rapid promotion of Special Advisers also occurred under Conservative governments. For at least the last thirty years, Special Advisers-turned-MPs have experienced ‘super-charged’ careers in Parliament, outstripping even other types of ‘career politicians’.

On balance, there is clearly some credibility to the dominant narrative about Special Advisers becoming ministers insofar as those who have ministerial office as their goal seem to be quite successful at achieving it. The evidence suggests that having been a Special Adviser is a good signal that an individual is;

  • loyal to the party, and
  • has valuable prior experience with how government works.

Key actors, particularly selection bodies for parliamentary candidates and the party leadership (who may well be their former boss!) may see this as desirable and therefore push for these ex-Special Advisers to be placed in safe seats and promoted rapidly.

Yet, we should be careful to distinguish between those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament from those who do not. It is possible to be critical of the advancement of the first group whilst making a different evaluation about the desirability of the profession of “spads” more broadly. If one thinks this rapid promotion is normatively undesirable, it is a problem for the political parties to solve rather than an issue with Special Advisers writ large.

Note: this post represents the views of the author. It is based upon an article for Parliamentary Affairs which can be found here. It was originally posted on Democratic Audit: http://buff.ly/1frMuPI

Will Ministers want an EMO?

Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO.  Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July.  Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261358/November_-_EMO_Guidance_to_Departments.pdf

EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees.  The main expansion is likely to be in the third category, and the Civil Service Commission have created a new exception to allow recruitment without competition of chosen individuals as temporary civil servants for up to five years.  The previous maximum was two years: the new exception will allow outsiders to be recruited for the whole of a Parliament.

Ministers who want an EMO will need first to agree the mix of staff and the budget with their Permanent Secretary, before seeking the approval of the Prime Minister.  The budget must come within the department’s overall allocation.  The main quality control will come from Cabinet Office and the PM’s Chief of Staff in scrutinising EMO proposals: the PM is unlikely to give this his personal attention.  A few Ministers may go up from two Special Advisers to three.  But the main test will lie with the external appointees: will they be additional cheerleaders, or serious policy experts?  No 10 will be alert to negative headlines (eg The Times 19 November) and may be tight in what they allow through.

There are two twists in the tail for Ministers who want an EMO.  The first is that at least one member of the EMO must focus on implementation, reporting to the Head of the Cabinet Office Implementation Unit. So there is a direct line reporting line from the EMO to the centre on whether the department is meeting its targets.  The second is that requests must include ‘specific proposals for strengthening the offices of junior Ministers … of a different party’.  Where no EMO is planned, junior ministers can put forward their own proposals.  This is primarily to strengthen the support for the dozen Lib Dem junior ministers scattered round Whitehall, who feel isolated and outgunned. But it will require courage for them to go it alone: they must discuss their proposals first with their Secretary of State, who may not want to give the Lib Dems additional firepower.

Will many Ministers want an EMO?  In the remainder of this Parliament that seems unlikely.  Maude will have to have one, to set an example; but only a handful of colleagues may follow.  Energetic Ministers like Gove have already found ways of recruiting additional advisers, and may not want to seek approval from the centre.  And outsiders may be reluctant to sign up for an 18 month passage when the ship is beginning to run out of steam and they may be paid off in 2015.  So the real test will be in the next Parliament.  In an interview with Civil Service World Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office  spokesman Jon Trickett said that he supported the government’s plans for EMOs [link - http://www.civilserviceworld.com/trickett-civil-service-reforms-ad-hoc-with-hectoring-tone/].  But that was off the cuff, in the margins of the Labour party conference; we don’t know Miliband’s views.   If we have another hung Parliament, the future of EMOs might depend not on Francis Maude, but on the Lib Dems carrying his idea into the next government if they hold the balance of power.

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.

Policy tsars: flexibility and accountability should be compatible

18th October 2013

Posted on behalf of Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury. Visiting Senior Research Fellows, King’s College London 

On 15 October we launched a short and simple code of practice to secure propriety and effectiveness in the appointment and conduct of ‘tsars’ – the independent policy advisers whom ministers appoint.

Until now tsars have been exempt from anything resembling  the arrangements that govern every other source of expert advice to Ministers, including spads, scientific advisers, consultants, advisory committees, inquiries or consultations. ‘Tsars’ are not even obliged to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life, although they are public appointments.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments seem willing to take responsibility for addressing this anomaly. To encourage them to do so we have drafted a simple code ourselves, advised by a number of former tsars, civil servants who worked with them, journalists and academics who observe the ways of Whitehall.

The code won’t add cost or tie anyone up in red tape. Instead, it will clarify the minimal rules that should apply and will help to achieve greater effectiveness, transparency and diversity in these appointments.

The Cabinet Office has so far issued a statement, which reveals the shaky ground it has chosen to stand on. It says: “It is entirely appropriate, and in the public interest, for Government to draw on a wide range of advice. Successive administrations have chosen to bring in external expertise in various ways to provide an additional resource to Ministers in considering difficult and complex issues. We think it’s important to maintain a degree of flexibility in such appointments particularly since they may be required to made at short notice”.

Why should flexibility and accountability be incompatible? Flexibility is rightly highly valued and has nothing to fear from being transparent and upholding  good standards of propriety. The code contains nothing that will undermine  principled flexibility.

It proposes more transparent and accountable selection and appointment processes, supervised by a senior responsible official; a clear statement about payment; examining potential or actual conflicts of interest; terms of reference in writing. Also, drawing candidates from a more diverse pool; prompt publicity about the appointment; publication of tsars’ reports and of ministers’ responses formal responses.

The code supports greater effectiveness in the proposal that job and person specifications are carefully thought through, to identify people who do possess the appropriate experience and expertise; also that tsars conduct their work in an open manner wherever possible, and that they prepare a report that shows the evidence on which they base their analysis and advice. Also that departments include informative details of the work of tsars in their Annual Reports, and consolidate the learning about good practice.

We all know that “ministerial idiosyncrasy” can lead to problems, as recent examples of misbehaviour or lax standards of accountability have shown very publicly (James Caan, Emma Harrison, Adrian Beecroft, Mary Portas). Ministers, opposition politicians and civil servants need to learn the lessons from the public’s mistrust of politicians who misbehave, and the public’s deep dismay at policy making that is ill-considered and ill-informed.

Return to the dark: the continuing lack of transparency over spads

11th July 2013

The government released its response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s report on special advisers (spads) yesterday[1]. The more anorak-minded of us focused on Paragraph 8 where the government said something that is certainly misleading if not simply false:

“This Government has already significantly increased the transparency around all special advisers. The names and salary paybands of all special advisers are now published on a quarterly basis.”

Whilst the second sentence used to be true, nothing has been published since a report on 19 October 2012[2]. It is unclear why they would assert something to the contrary in an official publication.

It is only through relying on second-hand and unofficial sources that we are able to examine the number of spads, but it appears that about ten new spads have started working for the government who have not been named in any data release.

As this is about 10% of the total number who have worked for the Coalition at any point, this shows that the lack of clear data limits transparency and hampers data collection, whilst privileging those with pre-existing connections to the government (and frustrating researchers!).

Moreover, some of these spads have quite interesting backgrounds (e.g. the Lib Dem PPC who stood down to become a special adviser[3] or the Conservative spad assigned to a Minister of State who does not attend Cabinet[4]) and not all appointments have been noticed (even by bloggers who are normally quite watchful of these things, e.g. Guido Fawkes[5]).

Unfortunately, these secondary sources do not list information how much individual spads earn (or their collective pay bill), and thus that information will remain sadly in the dark until an eager MP asks a parliamentary question (as was normally the case until Tony Blair began releasing annual lists around 2003) or the government releases its next “eagerly” awaited list.

For those who are interested, information on the new spads is listed below:

Name

Minister

Department

Frith, Emily

Norman Lamb

Health

Gallagher, Will

Chris Grayling

Justice

Jones, Ed

Jeremy Hunt

Health

King, Nick

Maria Miller

DCMS

Masser, Alastair

Lord Hill

Leader of the Lords

O’Brien, Neil

George Osborne

Treasury

Parkinson, Stephen

Theresa May

Home Office

Rogers, Thea

George Osborne

Treasury

Talbot-Rice, Sam

Jeremy Hunt

Health

Wild, James

Michael Fallon

Business

Also, as far as our data shows, there are 89 spads in post (as of May-June 2013), a number which is certainly quite near the numbers reached during the New Labour governments.


Tsars: the need for better appointment practices and greater transparency

10th June 2013

Posted on behalf of Ruth Levitt

This week’s news about Nick Clegg’s appointment of businessman James Caan to launch the Open Doors awards, an initiative intended to help tackle the barriers facing young people in getting jobs, again reveals the pitfalls that can arise when ministers choose too casually to appoint high-profile individuals as expert advisers. These appointments tend to attract media attention whenever there is a suspicion that the high standards and conduct required of all public appointments seem at risk.

Our research (here and here) found that expert advisers (so-called tsars) are usually appointed quite informally by or on behalf of ministers, without the posts being advertised. The terms and conditions for the work also may be quite imprecise. Several ministers, civil servants and former expert advisers themselves told us they do value having that high degree of flexibility in the arrangements for making the appointments and managing the work. They regards this as working well. They definitely would not want to see a regulator imposing greater formality or requiring a ‘heavily bureaucratic’ procedure to be observed.

Nevertheless in the absence of an appropriate degree of regulation and accountability, the propriety and effectiveness of these appointments clearly may be compromised. The James Caan example illustrates one way in which the informality can lead to problems. Other recent controversial appointments have included Mary Portas (to advise on high streets), Adrian Beecroft (employment legislation), Emma Harrison (on back to work schemes), and Lord Young (enterprise adviser).

In the case of other sources of external expertise, including ministers’ special advisers, non-executive directors on departmental boards, scientific advisers and consultants, there are codes of practice which aim to ensure propriety and maximise effectiveness. Ministers, civil servants, special advisers and MPs each have codes of conduct too. That system is totally lacking for ‘tsar’ appointments.

And yet, the Seven Principles of Public Life (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership) as defined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life are meant to be observed and upheld by people in all of those roles, and by all other holders of public office. We found that the principles of Objectivity, Accountability and Honesty were vulnerable in relation to the appointment of expert advisers to ministers and in how their work was managed and used.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor individual departments keep a record of appointments of expert advisers to ministers. Select committees are not regularly informed about the work that the experts undertake and do not often scrutinise their work. Departments have not developed a cadre of experienced staff to work with such appointees, and the experts’ work is not evaluated post hoc. Furthermore, neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments appear willing to look into this state of affairs or to take responsibility for addressing the risks. The result is that the public interest is neglected

Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury are developing a draft code and guidance to govern the appointment and arrangements for the work of Expert Advisers to Ministers. This takes forward their research, published in November 2012, which critically examined the UK government’s use of so-called policy tsars: Policy tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed.

ruth.levitt@gmail.com
wsolesbury@gmail.com

Spads gone bad: public allegations of special adviser misconduct

The Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note, as part of our project on special advisers, on public allegations of misconduct from 1997 to 2013. Laid out below we present the key findings and thoughts on how such findings may subsequently shed light on these apparent creatures of  darkness.

As well as attempting to ascertain how special advisers function within government, a large concern of our current project is the means by which their effectiveness may be improved;  in order to understand how a special adviser may function without hindrance, it is crucial to examine the times at which special advisers may have been seen to have slipped up. A better idea of the types of behaviour by special advisers that have historically precipitated public scandal may take us some way in devising appropriate strategies to avoid common pitfalls of the job.

So what was found? For a start, we collected evidence of 26 separate cases where a special adviser had been publicly accused of specific behaviour constituting misconduct (between 1997 and 2013). Out of these 26 cases, 15 involved special advisers based in a department outside the centre of government, while less than half of cases involved those at No. 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. We found that it is the special adviser more prone to media relations (media SpAds) who tend to have been on the receiving ends of accusations of misbehaviour. Furthermore,  in recent years there seems to have been an increase in the regularity of public accusations of special adviser misconduct – see below.

Spad graph

While there clearly has been a rise in the number of public allegations of misconduct, this does not necessarily hold any bearing on the extent to which the behaviour of special advisers might have changed for the worse. One potential explanatory factor of such an increase in cases may be due to intensified media coverage  – 24 hour news, the increasing prevalence of political blogging and the like.

In regards to situations where spads are faced with public criticism, it was circumstances in which some sort of personal attack was involved that were the most common. Another cause for criticism that seemingly tripped up many a spad was the use of government resources  for work considered party political; for example, using departmental e-mail addresses for party leadership campaigns.

What might these findings mean for special advisers? One thing that seems clear is that there is much more to be explored in relation to the interaction of the special adviser with the media. It is interesting that it is special advisers who deal with the media who are prone to accusations of bad behaviour – for example, some of the cases where special advisers had been accused of personal attacks were a direct result of feuds with specific journalists. What also might be looked into is the impact of the current format of regulation of special advisers. There are now at least four separate legal documents that special advisers are bound by. This means rather than their being subject to coherent, easy-to-understand limitations, special advisers are currently faced with a rather disjointed jumble of directions: not so easy-to-follow and more likely to provide scope for falling flat on one’s face.  The increasing lack of coherence when it comes to spad regulation may also help to explain the increase in the number of cases of alleged misconduct in the last few years.

The note can be read in full by clicking on the following link:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/special-advisers/special_advisers_and_public_allegations_of_misconduct_1997_-_2013.pdf

Ed Balls Ed Balls Ed Balls: Spad, Official or Both? The Joys of Research and Government Transparency

10th May 2013

It is occasionally suggested by Whitehall veterans that Ed Balls began as a spad and ended as a civil servant. We have no such evidence that this happened. The confusion seems to lie in the fact that the previous person with the title ‘Chief Economic Adviser’ was a civil servant—Sir Alan Budd), as is the current one (David Ramsden).

But in the period that Balls was ‘Chief Economic Adviser’ he was also a special adviser. He was clearly stated as such in parliamentary questions between 1997 and 2001.[1] The records are not clear for 2001-3 (Balls is not named in the records we have seen),[2] but the Chief Economic Adviser in this period is specified as a special adviser in Hansard. We’re presuming that person is still Ed Balls. So the story seems to be that Gordon Brown as Chancellor decided to appoint Balls to a role which was conventionally held by a civil servant or formal employment terms. But Balls remained a spad.[3] That is our understanding. But we would welcome—indeed, encourage—corrections.[4]

This is nerdy stuff, but it’s important. This is what research is all about: grappling with imperfect information. It’s assumed that everything in government is always perfectly recorded, but it is not. For instance, there is an expectation of regular, annual data releases on numbers and names of special advisers. And for the first two years of the Coalition numbers and names were released at regular intervals—roughly, every four months. There has not been a new release since October 2012—seven months.[5]

Does this matter? It matters to researchers like us. Imperfect or faulty information means we may make faulty inferences. So for instance the lack of up to date data on special advisers means it is difficult to determine tenure of spads with consistency. Data releases on spad numbers never talk about spads leaving, only entering government—so we have to infer from their absence that they have left.[6] Tenure is important because it would help us understand the nature of the work that spads do: for example, if tenure is short, it may suggest short-termism; if tenure is changing, it may suggest the nature of the job is changing.

But there is a deeper point here: government transparency.[7] Some people have already taken office in the period since October 2012 as special advisers, but they are not listed anywhere. Would it not be advisable to list their names and details so that people with relevant interests and concerns might be in contact with these advisers? More generally, if spad numbers have dropped or risen, that might also be useful so that the public to know, so that they can appraise the current government’s use of special advisers, and their numbers.


[1] See, eg., HC Deb 28 July 2000 vol 354 cc972-4W.

[2] See, eg., HC Deb 16 July 2003, cc328-9W. In fact there is generally very little Hansard coverage of special advisers in that period.

[3] Brown had a way of doing such things: he had a ‘Council of Economic Advisers’ which was for all intents and purposes simply another group of special advisers—if one looks at the annual data releases on special advisers, those ‘sitting’ on the Council of Economic advisers were included, oddly, as a footnote, as if to suggest they were not special advisers. Needless to say the Cabinet Office continues to follow this obfuscatory practice.

[4] Tweet us!

[5] To be exact: there was a (poorly edited) release on 19 October 2012—see Matt Honeyman’s spellbinding post on this. But there has since been a revised version of those special advisers employed as of October 19 2012 published 17 February 2013. But all that did was revise the earlier release: it does not tell us who was a spad as of 17 February 2013.

[6] Of course we can work this out in other ways, but they are less authoritative than government statements.

[7] Liz Fisher from Oxford University is similarly critical of the transparency agenda: see

http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2013/05/09/liz-fisher-gov-uk/.

Times Campaign for New Breed of Mandarins Off-Target?

21st Febuary 2013

By David Laughrin, Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL Constitution Unit and former Senior Civil Servant

A recent run of articles in The Times has intrigued me. The latest  shot is “New breed of experts takes on the mandarins” (20 February). This suggests that “Ministers have appointed a string of ‘expert advisers’ from outside Whitehall in a first step to politicise the Civil Service.”  Despite the rather small string described and the reported (and rather over-dramatic) alleged fears about politicisation, the accompanying Times leader suggests that “The American system, whereby whole administrations change upon election, has much to be said for it.” This echoes the thrust of a recent three day Times series.  But it ends with a less dramatic conclusion that bringing in expert advisers is a good thing provided their roles and responsibilities are made clear.

What all this unexpectedly prominent and not wholly coherent news coverage fails to make clear itself is that the process of bringing outsiders into Whitehall is not new. Some of us are old enough to remember the business team brought into Whitehall by Edward Heath under Sir Richard Meyjes[1] in the early 1970s, in an echo of those brought in by Churchill during the Second World War.  There have been lots of others since, some successful – like Sir Derek Rayner for Mrs Thatcher – and some less so. There has also been a large rise in external recruitment to the Senior Civil Service.

But more importantly the article also fails to address the central issue of how better decision-making in government is best encouraged. Is it by the kind of politicisation that The Times seems to want to promote, albeit a bit half-heartedly? Or is it, as I would argue, through policies that get the right blend between challenge and support, driving through necessary change while ensuring proper expert scrutiny and risk assessment?

Good decision-making in Government is not easy, and is probably often more difficult than in many private sector situations. (I have argued this more fully in a booklet called Searching for the X-Factors[2].) The best climate for good decisions seems to come from situations where right until late in the day there is provision for challenge – of pre-conceptions, of analysis, of evidence, of conclusions, of implementation plans.

As top decision-makers in the private sector said to me, we need people who can kick the tyres and properly stress-test proposed solutions. As Professor Philip Tetlock has suggested in “Expert Political Judgment” [3] we ideally also need a mixture of styles of decision-maker. We need those blessed with certainty that they know the right answers and can drive through transformational change – the “hedgehogs”. We also need those with less certainty and more willingness to try incremental change, pilot new ideas and adapt or modify their schemes in the light of experience and new evidence – the “foxes”.

Does that scenario best emerge from a situation where the majority of people surrounding the top decision-maker are political appointees chosen personally by the senior Minister? My hunch is probably not.

Equally, however, there is also evidence that giving too much weight to the status quo is also likely to inhibit the best decisions. So that does support the idea that in amongst those who have developed departmental strategies over the years there should be sufficient newcomers. They can bring fresh ideas and challenge to the official machine.

In the UK this has been delivered, often successfully, through a mix of permanent and temporary appointments. Some temporary appointments have been primarily political through the Special Adviser (Spad) appointments made by Ministers alone. Some have been primarily expert, through short term appointments as temporary civil servants, whose expertise is validated independently by the Civil Service Commissioners.

So the UK has brought in enthusiasts with political networks and antennae to drive forward controversial new policies. It has also allowed experts to contribute their specialist knowledge to complex debates on what are often defined as the “wicked issues” that beset political challenges. (These are those where no obvious solutions exist and all options are beset by potential unintended consequences.)

Why then do mid-term Governments get afflicted by jitters about whether this blend is delivering the right decisions and outcomes? Why do they fret so whether they might need more commissars to bludgeon through their preferred solutions against tight political timescales?  I suspect this is a product of the beleaguered lifestyles of so many Ministers in a world where so much is demanded of them in the short term. It is also a world of a 24/7 news agenda and where the overload is such that, as one former Minister said to me, ”people were trying to have meetings with me in the lift as I left the building.”

So I sympathise with the idea that Ministers need all the help that they can get to make their lives tolerable and their decisions properly implemented. But I think it is also important that they get the right blend of support to make sure that those decisions are good ones and they are capable of effective implementation. Like Peter Riddell, the respected Director of the Institute for Government (whose letter was published in The Times  on 21 February) I don’t see that coming from wholesale moves to a US-style system. I do see it coming from some sensible development of the blend developed in the UK for more years than The Times appears to acknowledge. But then I always was more of a fox than a hedgehog by nature.


[1]  Sir Richard Meyjes, a former senior businessman from Shell was brought into Whitehall by Prime Minister Edward Heath to head a team of businessmen appointed to review the machinery of government and assist departments in pursuing the then government’s agenda. The team worked from 1970 to 1972.

[2]  Searching for the X-Factors: Decision-Making in Government and Business published jointly by the Whitehall and Industry Group and Ashridge Business School, October 2011.

[3]  Expert Political Judgment  Philip Tetlock, Princeton University Press, 2005