A spad for all seasons: the reality for special advisers

2 May 2012

Special advisers (spads) have again been portrayed as shadowy agents for whom the normal rules do not apply. The reality, on paper at least, is very different.

Special advisers are subject to their own strict code of conduct and the ministerial code states clearly that ministers are responsible for the management and conduct of their spads and are also ‘accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.’

The lines of responsibility appear to be clear and should ensure that any problems can be dealt with quickly and effectively. But is this the case? If it was all so straightforward, surely the current row about special adviser accountability would not be taking place? David Cameron argued on the recent Andrew Marr programme that a secretary of state should not automatically resign because of the mistakes of the special adviser.

It is easy, though, amid all this noise, to lose sight of the fact that spads are now a very useful and necessary part of government and are here to stay. They can bridge the gap between ministers and the Civil Service and provide a political touchstone for the Civil Service. They can go to places where a non-political civil servant cannot.

However this does not mean that the current system works perfectly. Research at the Institute for Government, including extensive interviews with spads, shows that it does not. New spads all too often enter a world which is unstructured, unregulated and unknown where they find they virtually have to make it up as they go along. They find themselves under pressure to be jacks of all trades as well as being masters of their department’s policy agenda.

There is also a persistent debate about accountability. The Civil Service believes accountability is inadequate and muddled, while spads believe their accountability is to their secretary of state. This is important unresolved business. The dichotomy remains between spads having more specific job descriptions and the personal nature of their roles and relationships which can sit uneasily with the constraints of detailed role criteria. And last, but by no means least, there is the absence of any real preparation, training or performance evaluation for spads.

It is very easy to criticise the number of spads (the Conservatives did this themselves when they were in opposition). However in government today, particularly with the existence of the coalition, the need is for more, not fewer spads, though of different types. The classic spad who acts as a minister’s political media eyes and ears fulfils important key functions. There is, however, also a strong case for the appointment of more specialist advisers who are brought in because of their expertise and experience in specific policy areas. Both types, who would all be political appointees, would complement each other and strengthen the quality of resource available to ministers.

What is indisputable is that change is needed if the current system is to work effectively. There needs to be a much more systematic approach to the appointment of all advisers based on an assessment of the needs of all ministers in a department, and not just the secretary of state. This could lead to a clearer differentiation between political advice and the more ‘technical’ support which the Civil Service provides. Spads also need to be much better prepared for their jobs. This should include thorough pre-election training, induction into their departments and to Whitehall, underpinned by continuing evaluation and support.

Codes of conduct notwithstanding, there is an air of muddling through about spads and how they operate. The important questions of accountability and where the buck stops remain unresolved. As long as this is the case it will never be politically acceptable to have the numbers needed. This is not fair on the spads, does not make for good government and, unless addressed, is likely to lead to more of the kinds of headlines which no government wants.

Further information

Special adviser development

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Comments (2)

  1. David Laughrin on 4 May 2012 at 8:23 am

    I very much agree with this cogent piece. I had direct experience working with Spads, starting as long ago as the early 1970s. The Spad I worked with then firmly believed,on a bad day and despite my protestations of innocence, that I consciously omitted him from seeing correspondence he should have seen, had him fly “steerage” to the USA when the Minister was in Business Class, and had him housed in a room too far away from the Minister on purpose. He had watched too much “Yes, Minister”.

    Things are, I think, better now, but the valuable role played by good Spads is not as well understood as it should be, and the risks of having an ineffective Spad are similarly underplayed.

    In recent research I did for Ashridge Business School one former Cabinet Minister told me:

    ” I firmly believed that support could cosiderably be improved by having effective special advisers in post who can add a political dimension to official advice and deliberations. Their effectiveness is enhanced if they can establish strong working relations with civil servants and work in constructive harmony with private offices.”

    Many do, but some do not – and this is partly determined by the sink or swim nature of their induction, and partly by their brief and their degree of expertise at what they do.

  2. zoe gruhn on 4 May 2012 at 11:24 am

    Thank you very much for your comments. It is interesting that you have focused on the issue of induction. From the work we have done, it is clear that this is one of the biggest issues impacting on spads’ performance and which urgently needs to be addressed. The case for spads and the added value they provide is indisputable. However this can be badly undermined if the right people are not selected and if they are given little or no preparation for their roles and the environments in which they will work. An ineffective spad could cause more problems than having no spad at all

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