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.

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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?

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

MH

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.

MH

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

NHS Reform Under the X-Ray

“The person I trust most for my health, number one, is my GP. And I’ve always seen him or her as a kind of a gateway to any other services. And it’s his judgment, ultimately, or her judgment, that I would back.”  That’s what Eric Pickles told The Telegraph last Saturday. There’s something bucolic about the government’s attempt to put commissioning power into the hands of local GPs, and take it away from “faceless bureaucrats”  in the Primary Care Trusts; it comes from the England of Cameron’s mother, the Berkshire Magistrate, from John Major’s England of “cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion”.  But, the government are also, as Hague once put it, “Thatcher’s children”. Andrew Lansley wants to empower patients, and by empower them, he means increase their choices, and by increase their choices, he means create a market, and by create a market, he means promote efficiency and cut NHS costs, and by cut NHS costs he means offset the effect of the £20 billion of savings required by 2015.

The leaked account of the Strategic Risk Register, which lists the potential pitfalls of the reforms, suggests it challenges both horns of the government’s approach. GPs, it is alleged to say, may lack the experience and skills to manage funds efficiently. Equally, the introduction of a market may lead to private companies failing to do more with less, and simply siphoning away public funds in profit. Consequently, the NHS could eventually prove “unaffordable”.If this is an accurate report of the contents of the Strategic Risk Register – if it seriously moots the possibility of the reforms rendering the National Health Service prohibitively expensive – then it is not surprising that Andrew Lansley does not want to publish the report until after the Health and Social Care Bill is enacted.

The government is appealing an Information Commission order that they should release the full document. The Department of Health has pointed out that Risk Registers express the dangers of policies in “worst case” scenario terms and so can be open to misinterpretation if read out of context. It suggests that Risk Registers in their current form could not be produced if they were subject to FOI requests, for fear of giving the public the wrong impression.This is a version of the chilling effect argument, which Blair put like this:

“Governments, like any other organisations, need to be able to debate, discuss and decide issues with a reasonable level of confidentiality. This is not mildly important. It is of essence. Without the confidentiality, people are inhibited and the consideration of options is limited in a way that isn’t conducive to good decision-making. In every system that goes down this path [FOI] what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper…’

The Information Commissioner recognises the danger of FOI causing a chilling effect.  However, in this case it emphasised the fact that, whatever information is released vis-a-vis health reform, officials will still be required to be fully frank when they produce Risk Registers. The Commissioner felt that publishing information about NHS reform might make officials less forthright on that particular subject during the current process, but that there would not be a chilling effect on the record of risk across the policy spectrum.

The appeal will be heard by the Information Tribunal on 5 and 6 March, which may or may not be before the third reading of the Health Bill in the House of Lords – the last chance to substantially amend it. However, Labour propose to discuss the publication of the Risk Register  in an opposition day debate on 22 February. It is possible that this move will prove more effective than the Freedom of Information Act in getting the Strategic Risk Register into the public domain.

Open Data Consultation Launched

The government has launched a consultation today on Open Data and how to move forward the transparency agenda by encouraging ‘push’ (pro-active release) and ‘pull’ (stronger rights for access to data). The consultation covers a wide range of areas

  • Proactive: how to ensure ICTs systems can publish data easily and make pro-active publication a ‘default’ setting
  • Costs: possibly raising the cost ceiling for FOI requests (a ceiling of £1000, instead of £600 is suggested)
  • Changing mechanisms: giving the ICO more power, creating a new right to appeal for datasets and limiting internal review times

The paper also contains two interesting annexes on evidence of impact and draft principles.

For a brief summary see here and a discussion thread here. This appears to form part of a further push of the transparency agenda, alongside other initiatives. David Cameron recently said the reforms had now moved to ‘phase two’ from publishing core data to publishing more about public services and how they perform.

‘If our transparency focus over the past 12 months has been to open up core central government data in areas such as spending, our priority over the next year will be to release new data on the performance of public services. This revolution in government transparency will make it easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold government to account for the performance of key public services’.

Patience and Time? FOI and Trust

The issue of FOI and trust looks simple but isn’t. Politicians and others point out, quite rightly, that the more open you are the more you will be trusted.  This is true but it depends entirely on what information you are being open about.

The issue of if, why and how the public trust government is hotly debated. Trust may be based on experiences, emotions, gut instinct or all three. There is a question over whether trust is actually declining in the developed world. Many believe it has been falling since the mid-1960s blaming politicians, television, a more complex society, a lack of deference, the Vietnam War, the Beatles and Lyndon Johnson. Others have pointed out that, from what little we know, government has only ever been trusted by a few of the people a little of the time. Politics, they say, is not an occupation for the trustworthy.

So where does FOI fit? It is hoped that the more open you are the more the public will trust you. This is because they will understand more about what you do and also because, quite simply, you will be less secretive.

Our projects have all looked into this. Our central government project concluded that FOI did not increase trust. This was because most people find out about FOI through stories which rightly (see MPs’ expenses said journalists) or wrongly (just open a newspaper said politicians) are about government failure. But it isn’t fair to blame FOI. This never ending battle is much bigger than FOI, which just gets caught up in it. The government spins, the media attacks. The more interesting point is that both requesters and officials felt their own requests were in some senses ‘motivated by mistrust’. But again this isn’t FOI’s fault.

Our local project has found different results. Local government is, generally more trusted than central government anyway. Here it can be very variable. In some areas the local press use FOI often, in others never. It is also used to find out about lots of non-local government issues that don’t necessarily reflect on the council such as violence in public libraries (more than you think in answer to your unspoken question) and dirty restaurants. Requesters are also divided-some say it has increased their trust, others say it has not. Local politicians have pointed out that they can do things that central government can’t to build ‘local trust’. They can improve their services (taking bins out, repairing roads) and try to be more ‘visible’ in the community. Opening fetes and judging vegetables may have more effect than any FOI.

This last point highlights the difficulty. How you measure trust depends, as ever, on what you ask and how you ask it. Some recent studies about E-government point to the fact that people trust more if they see their actions make a difference. It also may dependent on what attitudes and ideas they bring with them (here some members of the public were disappointed by the messiness of how politics really worked).

There is probably no definitive way of answering this. The real answer to ‘does FOI improve trust?’ is ‘it depends’.  It is unrealistic and naïve to hope FOI on its own, caught between a spinning government and a hostile press, could improve things. It may also be early days. For openness to make a difference it could take time, a whole lot of precious time, patience and time, the two things politicians don’t have.