Not so special? Why we need a more thought out approach to special advisers
SpAds hold an anomalous position in government departments, between their minister and the civil service. Their roles can be very demanding and crucial as a buffer against the politicisation of the civil service. They play a vital part in the functioning of modern government. But they don’t have any management structure as most employees would understand it, with clear objectives, appraisals and access to developmental opportunities. On top of that, they have little or no preparation for the job they then perform.
These messages emerge from the Institute for Government’s evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into Special Advisers. We argued that, when SpAds are appointed, far too little attention is given to the requirements of the job, how far an individual’s capabilities meet those needs, ensuring there is adequate preparation and induction ,and providing regular feedback on performance. In most cases, people are simply thrown in at the deep end and allowed to sink or swim. Many SpAds have told us (and the select committee) how much they struggled at the beginning. Not getting this right is not only demotivating for the individual, it is a waste of taxpayers’ money as Spads are less effective than they could be and in extreme cases leads to political disaster.
It should be the norm that SpAds have a proper induction, training and objectives against which they will be measured. But it should not stop there. There should be proper processes in place whereby SpAds regularly get informed feedback on their performance from heir ministers, No10, officials and outside bodies with whom they have significant contact. This could include how much they were doing to help their minister improve his/her effectiveness and to implement departmental agendas, and their relationship with the Civil Service.
The bottom line is that SpAds – like any other employee – need more help and guidance – a formal code which sets the boundaries is the starting not the end point. Since SpAds operate between the political and the departmental, both ministers and senior officials need to have a role.