Why special advisers are more than cabinet apprentices

27 May 2011

The Institute's latest report, The Challenge of Being a Minister, has produced a number of sensible and straightforward insights and ideas for addressing issues relevant to ministerial effectiveness. But weaved amongst them were two arguments that inevitably invite contention: the rise of career politicians and the impact of special advisers (SpAds).

In the foreword of The Challenge of Being a Minister, the Institute for Government’s Director Andrew Adonis perhaps goes against the grain of the perceived commentariat wisdom. He argues that his own stint as a special adviser – which he compares to an apprenticeship – meant he was much better prepared to face the challenges of a ministerial post.

The rise of career politicians

While some lament the rise of the SpAd-turned-minister  (or even Prime Minister in David Cameron’s case), the authors of the new report argue that there is a considerable upside to ministers having served as SpAds.

While an increasing number of MPs boast politically-heavy CVs, having worked as local councillors, parliamentary researchers, union officials or journalists, only former SpAds have the advantage of having worked hand-in-glove with a minister. This gives them an insider’s knowledge of the Whitehall machine, as well as the benefit of having observed where and why their minister succeeded or failed.

It must be said, however, that cabinet ministers who were formerly SpAds are notable in their prominence, rather than their number. While the Prime Minister and Chancellor were both SpAds, they are the only two among members of the full Cabinet to have served as special advisers before entering Government. The previous Labour Government also saw the rise of a few prominent SpAds-turned-ministers including Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Andrew Adonis.

The impact of special advisers

Of course, SpAds are more than cabinet apprentices – they are also a key factor in the effectiveness of their minister. Interviews conducted as part of the research on ministerial effectiveness showed that SpAd performance is seen as a determining factor in the performance of a secretary of state.

The graph below shows the responses to the open question: What makes an effective Minister?

Responses to the open question: What makes an effective minister?

Responses to the open question: What makes an effective minister?

The use of special advisers was the fourth most frequently identified factor in ministerial effectiveness, having been mentioned by just over 40% of interviewees. This is especially noteworthy given that the question was open-ended.

As the Institute has argued before, the debate on the role of SpAds in government is woefully deficient in evidence and understanding on what makes SpAds effective. All too often, the debate on SpAds is shaped by the question of their number, not their quality.

That another Institute report has raised the issue of SpAd effectiveness – albeit in the context of impacting ministerial performance – highlights the need for a more nuanced debate on the role of SpAds. Moreover it should be seen as a call for more research into how special advisers should be deployed, and the factors that determine their overall effectiveness.

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One Response

  1. Jill Rutter on 27 May 2011 at 12:51 pm

    What was really interesting was the distinction Michael Heseltine raised at the launch event on the difference between political advisers…who may be on the route up…and specialIST advisers — of whom he thought there should be more. Making it easier for Ministers to bring in their own expert advisers to enable them to challenge departments is a recommendation in our Making Policy Better report.

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