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: