Looking back at the Special Advisers book launch

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Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government.

Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened with a summation of the main findings and recommendations from the Constitution Unit’s eighteen-month study on the role of special advisers.

As Robert Hazell noted at the start of the event, Special Advisers – or ‘spads’ – deserve recognition as a mini profession. However, this recognition demands a better understanding of how to strengthen and develop this resource that ministers and Number 10 have come to rely upon. Through their research, the authors articulate three specific responses for making spads more effective: better recruitment, increased support and skills development.

Spads clearly matter to those who seek their counsel, establishing why and identifying their role within the mechanisms of government, party politics and policy development has been an under-researched area. Mapping the impact of spads can be difficult given their behind-the-scenes nature, but the use of interviews and surveys of former spads across governments from 1979 to today to inform the findings of Special Advisers, making the book a distinctive and important contribution to the field.

Three former spads also took part in the panel, each underscoring the complex balancing of roles spads face in their position. Jo Foster, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Nick Clegg, remarked that when starting out, spads often have ‘zero comprehension of the breadth of the machine and how to navigate it’. However, it is from this starting position that spads would have to emerge as gatekeepers, navigating competing demands. Rather than being drawn into ‘meltdown crises’, for example, Foster noted how she focused on caring on the ‘front of house’ and ‘keeping the show on the road’.

Stewart Wood, Labour peer and adviser to Ed Miliband, emphasised that when spads do the job well, they serve the general interest and assist ministers who are overstretched and overloaded. However, he noted that there is no such thing as a spad – Special Advisers take on a variety of roles, ranging from policy experts and in-house innovation teams for ministers to spark new ideas, to ‘elephant trap’ spotters with an eye to the representation of ideas and press representation of ministers. In addition, ministers can bring in people who share their policy goals, but do not necessarily share the same party-political goals. Acknowledging the ongoing struggle with understanding the interplay of parties and technocrats, Wood affirmed that there is a role for people in Whitehall outside the civil service. Contrary to the popular narrative, Wood did not see the relationship between spads and the civil service as being fraught with tension – for him, it should not be a question of whether spads are political or impartial as a whole, but of looking at the contribution of individuals themselves.

Nick Hillman, former Chief of Staff and Special Adviser to the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, quickly dispatched the common perception of spads – including as the ‘rent boys of politics’ and conniving unprincipled zealots. Reflecting upon the shared experiences of spads across party lines and roles, Hillman emphasized the role of spads as acting a link to Parliament, bringing external intelligence for their minister and offering a source of policy intelligence. Concluding the panel discussion, he outlined the challenge ahead – spads need to be professional, but the conundrum is how to accomplish this without losing the benefits of the current informality.

Even though they stand outside the frame and avoid the spotlight, spads are indispensable in the day-to-day workings of governance. However, the time has come to understand what spads do with a more cognisant lens, and to use that understanding to craft concrete responses to the challenges spads face. To make them more effective is to make the people and the system that depends on them more effective as well. The ball is now in Westminster’s court.

Michelle Silongan was the summer research intern for the Constitution Unit Parliamentary Candidates project and is a former Legislative Assistant in the Canadian House of Commons.

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