The ‘Revolving Door’ of Special Advisers?

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A recent article in the Telegraph 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.

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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.

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/.

‘The Politics of Coalition’ by Robert Hazell & Ben Yong is shortlisted for Political Book of the Year

Congratulations to Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong. Their book ‘The Politics of Coalition’ (Hart Publishing) has been shortlisted for Political Book of the Year in The Paddy Power and Total Politics Political Book Awards, which has been set up to celebrate and reward excellence across all areas of political publishing. The awards ceremony will take place at the BFI IMAX cinema on the 6th February 2013.

See Professor Hazell and Dr Yong discuss the book at our October 2012 seminar: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/events/public-seminars/201213/politics-of-coalition

For more information on the Coalition Government project: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/coalition-government

For more information on the awards and the shortlisting: http://politicalbookawards.com/#totalpolitics

 

Video: The Politics of Coalition

Robert Hazell and Ben Yong

Date and Time: Wednesday 10 October, 1.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The Politics of Coalition is authored by the Constitution Unit’s Prof Hazell and Dr Yong and was published in June. It is the tale of two parties struggling to maintain the first coalition government at Westminster for over 60 years, and asks what the major challenges were in the first 15 months, and how have they were managed.

With the authorisation of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, Robert Hazell and Ben Yong interviewed over 140 ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition and what impact two-party government has had upon Westminster and Whitehall.

The Politics of Coalition tells how the Coalition has fared in the different arenas of the British political system: at the Centre; within the Departments; in Parliament; in the parties outside Parliament, and in the media.

As the coalition approaches the half-way point of its five-year term, Hazell and Yong will discuss how the findings of the book are likely to play out.