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Guest blog: In defence of special advisers

They exist for a reason.

The case for special advisers, known as spads, is a strong one. As a former spad, I would say that. But I really do believe they strengthen democracy by supporting a government’s mandate, explaining policy and insulating the regular civil service from inappropriate political tasks. Many countries feel the need to have political advisers working alongside regular civil servants, and the UK actually has comparatively few of them.

That doesn’t mean spads are a popular part of government. Andrew Blick’s excellent history of the position, People Who Live in the Dark, is peppered with the insults levelled at spads over the years, including ‘the sand in the machine’, ‘a huge menace to democracy’ and even ‘the rent boys of politics’. Perhaps such abuse is understandable, given the scandals involving spads like Jo Moore, Damian McBride, Andy Coulson and Adam Smith – not to mention the most well-known special adviser of all, Alastair Campbell. But it also reflects a lack of understanding about the position. It is tricky for a spad to be useful and famous at the same time, so most spads ignore the noise and simply get on with trying to do a good job out of the limelight. As Michael Jacobs, a spad to Gordon Brown, told the Public Administration Committee: ‘You have not heard of most special advisers, and nor should you. They operate within the system.’ In a new essay for the Institute for Government, In Defence of Special Advisers: Lessons from Personal Experience, I shed some light on the role and argue that spads need a champion whose job is to explain what they do to the world beyond Whitehall and Westminster. On its own, that would be a small change. But I also argue that it is time for the spad position itself needs to be reconsidered, as it has been growing haphazardly for half a century. Using my own personal experience as a special adviser to David Willetts, I recommend changes that would embed the spad position more deeply within Whitehall. These include proper training for spads, a better definition of the boundaries in which they work and a clearer career path. I consider but reject some of the other proposals for change that have been made, such as paying spads out of party political funds. That would have done nothing to avoid any of the recent scandals concerning special advisers. Indeed, treating special advisers a little bit less like civil servants and a little bit more like party political staff is the exact opposite of what is needed. I am very lucky to have been a special adviser for so long and I left the role with a heightened respect for politicians and civil servants. Of course, I would say that too. But, as I worked for a Conservative Minister in an economic department with a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State that has achieved a huge amount over the past few years, there was never a dull moment. It proved to me that government is messy, its work is never completed and there are always new lessons to learn.
Institute for Government

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