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

Expertise and policy: the rise of the government “tsars”

4th April 2013

There has been an increasing reliance in government on the use of “tsars” to assist with policy-making in Whitehall. The numbers of tsars being appointed have increased dramatically since 1997: between May 2010 and July 2012, the Coalition has made 93 appointments alone. As with special advisers, the information available on these government appointees is patchy at best and there is limited understanding as to the role they play in processes of government. Dr Ruth Levitt came from KCL to the Constitution Unit to discuss her recently completed research (carried out with William Solesbury) on these little known figures. Talking alongside Dr Levitt was Sir Stephen Boys Smith; a former civil servant and “serial tsar” (having been one of only two who have assumed the tsar role on up to four separate occasions).

“Tsars” may be defined as individuals from outside government (though not necessarily outside of politics) publicly appointed by a government minister in order to advise on policy development or delivery on the basis of their expertise. One of the main drivers of Dr Levitt and Solesbury’s research was to understand who policy tsars actually are, what it is they actually do and why this particular form of advice might be pursued over others. While the type of work policy tsars are appointed to do may vary greatly, the KCL research found that the majority of tsars (over 80%) are appointed to review policy, with the rest having a role that is to some way represent policy or to focus primarily on promoting policy. An individual may be appointed on account of being a “specialist”, possessing expertise in a relevant field for the purpose of giving informed and objective advice. Others are appointed as “generalists”; invited to apply their management expertise to a specific task. In addition, there is the “advocate” – who may have expertise but also has spoken out on a particular issue and has a committed perspective to it.

One explanation as to why this form of advice might be pursued over others is that policy tsars are flexible and low cost. They may also provide an element of authority on certain areas of policy, due to knowledge gained from within certain industries. According to Stephen Boys Smith, tsars may also be preferable to other avenues of advice due to their ability to give a task undivided attention -something, he said, that no civil servant is going to be able to achieve (given all the distractions that inevitably crop up working in government). In this way, policy tsars can be a useful and refreshing avenue for departments looking to pursue certain policies requiring specific expertise or a consistent focus.

While these advantages do exist, the KCL research also serves to highlight some of the issues involved with the way policy tsars presently function in government processes. The picture of policy tsars that has existed so far, by no means represents the paragon of diversity. Dr Levitt’s research found that over four fifths of them have been male. Furthermore, more than half of tsars have been over fifty years in age and 98% have been white.

Another concern is that of transparency. Presently, tsars do not count as external advisers and as such are “invisible” – there being no obligation for the government to publish information about them. This has helped to ensure that certain facts go widely unnoticed. Almost a quarter of tsar appointments have culminated in with an informal report or nothing at all. Out of those reports that were made available to the public, ministers responded to just over half of them. What inevitably follows alongside this issue is a lack of accountability – there are currently no mechanisms by which the work of policy tsars can be publically judged or evaluated.

While these problems exist, Levitt and Solesbury argue that these people are now considered a crucial form of support to functions of government—like special advisers. The question remains as to their effectiveness.