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.

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:




Frith, Emily

Norman Lamb


Gallagher, Will

Chris Grayling


Jones, Ed

Jeremy Hunt


King, Nick

Maria Miller


Masser, Alastair

Lord Hill

Leader of the Lords

O’Brien, Neil

George Osborne


Parkinson, Stephen

Theresa May

Home Office

Rogers, Thea

George Osborne


Talbot-Rice, Sam

Jeremy Hunt


Wild, James

Michael Fallon


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.


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:


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


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

Former special advisers in Cabinet 1979-2013

As part of our project on special advisers the Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note looking at special advisers who went on to become Cabinet Ministers. This blog post picks out some key findings and offers some thoughts about what the findings tell us about special advisers and wider concern with the professionalisation of politics.

In this project, we are building an evidence base that will provide the most detailed description yet of who special advisers are. We are therefore interested in what special advisers go on to do after their time in government.

Among the many destinations for special advisers later in their careers are the most senior posts in British politics. The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition were both special advisers and the speed of their ascent to the head of their parties has been noted by Phil Cowley as exceptional in post-war British politics. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have experience as Cabinet ministers but that is relatively rare among their fellow special advisers.

As the Unit’s research makes clear, just 16 Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers. To provide some context: Cabinet usually has 22 full members at any time; and there have been over 500 individuals who were special advisers before May 2010. Less than 5% of special advisers go on to become Cabinet ministers. This suggests that the widespread perception of special advisers as simply politicians in training is mistaken.


British Cabinets are still largely made up of people who have not served as special advisers to Ministers. The Labour government more than doubled the number of special advisers in post at any time, and it is associated with a handful of high profile special advisers turned Ministers. Under Gordon Brown,four former special advisers were brought into the Cabinet. From 2007-2010, former special advisers made up nearly one third of the Cabinet: the highest ever proportion in British political history, though this seems low for the supposed age of the professional politician Whether such levels will be reached or surpassed again is a matter for speculation.

Lord Adonis is on record as praising the experience of being a special adviser as an excellent apprenticeship for future Ministers. He says he benefitted from it. Nowhere else does one get the opportunity to experience life at the top of government as a political actor, learning how Whitehall responds to your requests. Nowhere else can one see the difficulties, pitfalls and routes to success for a Cabinet Minister so closely. Like all apprenticeships, taking this experience on board and putting it into practice when your turn comes round can surely aid performance.

The fact that only a minority of Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers serves to remind us that there is no one route to the highest offices in government. That will come as a relief to critics concerned about the professionalisation of politics and as a disappointment to Adonis and his ilk. In relation to the special advisers project, this information helps us to think clearly about the sort of skills, experience and other benefits that special advisers receive from their job. How much of the success of Cameron, Miliband et al., is due to the skills and political networks they developed during their time as a special adviser?


The research note contains more detailed information than this blog post and we encourage you to download it here.


Video: In the thick of It: What do special advisers do – and does it make government better or worse?

Duncan Brack and Michael Jacobs

Venue: Archaeology Lecture Theatre G6, Gordon House

Special Advisers are now an established feature of British government: there are currently over 80 of them in Whitehall. But what do they actually do? What relations do they have with ministers and civil servants? Are they – as some have claimed – a threat to the impartiality of the civil service? Or are they essential to make democratic government work well?

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and in the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE.  He was a Special Adviser to Gordon Brown at the Treasury (2004-07) and at 10 Downing St (2007-10).  His major field of responsibility was energy, climate change and environment policy, but he also worked at the Treasury on health, public service reform and the third sector.  Beginning his career as a community worker and adult educator Michael has variously been an economic and environment consultant, an academic environmental economist at Lancaster University and the LSE and (from 1997-2003) General Secretary of the Fabian Society.  His books include The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development and the Politics of the Future (Pluto Press, 1991), Greening the Millennium? The New Politics of the Environment (ed, Blackwell, 1997), The Politics of the Real World (Earthscan 1996) and Paying for Progress: A New Politics of Tax for Public Spending (Fabian Society 2000).

Duncan Brack is a freelance environmental policy researcher. He is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) and an Associate of Green Alliance. From 2010 to 2012 he was special adviser to Chris Huhne at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, focusing mainly on UK, European and global climate policy and low-carbon investment. Before that he worked for Chatham House, and from 1998 to 2003 was head of its Sustainable Development Programme; his work included international environmental regimes and institutions, the interaction between environmental regulation and international trade rules, and international environmental crime, particularly illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber. He was also a specialist adviser to the House of Commons Environment Select Committee and Environmental Audit Committee. From 1988 to 1994 he was Director of Policy for the Liberal Democrats.

Find out more about the Constitution Unit’s special advisers project or the SPP seminars 

The latest special adviser reshuffle

The full breakdown of special adviser movement.
Note: an asterisk denotes change due to Lena Pietsch’s return from maternity leave; SSoS refers to ‘Senior Secretary of State’.

Last Friday, the Cabinet Office published the first list of special advisers (spads) in post since the September 2012 reshuffle.

It appears they were uploaded at 7.08pm that night. An hour earlier, Andrew Mitchell had resigned his post as Chief Whip. Mitchell had only just appointed a new spad, Meg Powell-Chandler, and he may have been planning to appoint another. Since spads’ appointments are technically terminated when their appointing Minister leaves office, Powell-Chandler’s tenure was abruptly cut short.

Andrew Mitchell’s replacement as Chief Whip is Sir George Young, who left the Cabinet only six weeks earlier. His return brings the possibility that Robert Riddell, his spad as Leader of the House (2010-12), will make a return to government. Young is unlikely to keep on Powell-Chandler or appoint anyone else, because the Chief Whip under Coalition has so far only taken on one on spad, giving the other ‘slot’ to their deputy from the partner party.

Since the reshuffle, a couple of significant appointments have been made at the centre of government, with Oliver Dowden and Ryan Coetzee being brought in to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s offices, Dowden as Deputy Chief of Staff And Coetzee as Clegg’s chief strategy spad.

Some line departments now have more than two spads. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith now have three spads each. Another impending appointment means that BIS will now have four spads in the department: two for Vince Cable, two for the Conservative ‘junior’ ministers, Michael Fallon and David Willetts.

Jeremy Hunt has kept one of his spads from DCMS, Sue Beeby, and has agreed to appoint a second spad, Sam Talbot-Rice. Talbot-Rice is not included on Friday’s release because he had not started in his post. The Constitution Unit understands that he will take up his post on November 19 and will act as Hunt’s ‘policy special adviser’. Chris Grayling (MOJ) and Maria Miller (DCMS) are two Secretaries of State likely to hire a second spad soon.

Both of Andrew Lansley’s spads at DH have left the government, unique among spads with reshuffled ministers. The only spad to leave their post without their minister being reshuffled was Bridget Harris. She was one of the six Lib Dem ‘departmental’ spads appointed to monitor developments across government, reporting to Nick Clegg.

Three spads have moved to work for different ministers in different departments. Amy Fisher has moved from Defra to MOJ; Victoria Crawford from DFT to DFID; Guy Levin from DCMS to DFID. That is unusual: spads are usually personal appointments, and move with their minister.

Jonathan Caine is unique as spad to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As predicted in a previous blog post, he is the only spad who has remained in a department in spite of a change of Secretary of State. That may be explained by his previous history: he was a spad in NIO under John Major for five years before being brought back in 2010. Arguably, he is an ‘expert’ spad.

But it is worth noting that the pending appointment in DH and BIS means that the Government will soon set a record for the number of spads in government. With fourteen joining and only ten leaving, the number of spads in post increased between July and October 2012 from 81 to 85. But the reported appointments at DBIS and DH as well as potential appointments in the Whips’ office, MoJ and DCMS mean that the number of spads can be expected to reach 87 and perhaps as high as 90, topping the previous record of 85 spads in 2004 under Labour. The rise in numbers may be brought about by the fact of coalition (and the need for greater cross party interaction); and recognition of the need for more politically committed advice and assistance to Ministers. But it is also a product of the rise in the number of ministers in the Coalition Government—especially ministers attending Cabinet.

Last weekend, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published its report ‘Special Advisers in the thick of it’. The Committee came out against a cap on the numbers of spads. That was sensible: the focus should be on the effectiveness of special advisers, not their numbers. Spads are here to stay, and the sooner we have a dispassionate and informed debate about their role, the better. But whether or not the public and Westminster observers will agree is a different matter.


[This post was edited on 23/10/12 to take account of Coalition practice in appointing spads to whips.]