Working to make government more effective


The questions about advisers that must follow the Matt Hancock affair

Dr Catherine Haddon says the problems of how publicly funded government advisers are appointed is not a matter the government can consider closed

Whether or not Matt Hancock broke Covid rules may yet determine his future, but Dr Catherine Haddon says the problems of how publicly funded government advisers are appointed – and the access they get – is not a matter the government can consider closed

Just as with the Lex Greensill controversy, Gina Coladangelo’s appointment as an ‘unpaid adviser’ at the Department of Health and Social Care raises the question of how personal relationships determine access to government. And, just like Greensill, the role she was playing in government is hard to define. Matt Hancock will hope his public apology – and the prime minister’s declaration of support – means today’s excruciating front-page revelations don’t derail his career. But to many people waking up to The Sun front page, the health secretary’s appointment of an old university friend – let alone the romantic liaison that followed – to a publicly funded role will look distinctly unedifying.

Whatever the short-term fallout, the Matt Hancock affair is a reminder that ministers should always have a compelling case for appointing advisers, and be sure that it will avoid glaring conflict of interests. For this to happen, roles need defining – and rules need to change.

Unpaid or vaguely-appointed adviser roles require greater clarity and accountability

Gina Coladangelo seems to have first been appointed as an ‘unpaid adviser’ in government. At no point was she listed among department special advisers, suggesting she was not given a role under the SpAd contract and code of conduct. This matters. It means we have little idea what she was then doing in government.

SpAds are explicitly political roles, appointed on the personal preference of the minister. While improvements to their role are needed, the way they are contracted and the code of conduct that applies provide clear parameters to what they can and can’t do and deals with potential conflicts of interest.

None of this is true for unpaid or vaguely appointed advisers. We don’t know what access they have to meetings and papers or where they sit in a department’s hierarchy. Civil servants don’t know whether or on what terms they should work with them. Parliament cannot easily hold them to account. There needs to be more transparency around what they do, on what basis they are appointed and who is accountable for their conduct. There is no reason why this added clarity should prevent good people from being brought into government.

Non-executive directors should not be a workaround for political advice

Following her ‘unpaid adviser’ role, Coladangelo became a non-executive director (NED) in Hancock’s department. As with her previous role, we don’t know what rationale was given other than it being Hancock’s wish. Like special advisers, NEDs can be incredibly helpful to government. Like unpaid advisers, it is also a role that is too often unhelpfully murky.  

Government departments have had a few non-executive members on their boards for many years. But reforms since 2010 have considerably bolstered their role, particularly around bringing in people with more commercial experience. Their remit is supposed to be about performance, delivery and the "strategic leadership of the department", with the Ministerial Code saying that they should be "largely drawn from the commercial private sector".

However, recent NED appointments, such as former Labour MP Gisela Stuart and former special adviser Henry De Zoete in the Cabinet Office, and former Conservative and UKIP MP Douglas Carswell at the Department for International Trade, all suggest a move away from predominantly commercial expertise towards extra political or policy expertise. There may be value in extra understanding of politics or policy in these boards. But there needs to be a clear rationale that the appointment has merit, beyond being someone the minister likes to turn to for advice. 

Coladangelo’s appointment shows the NED recruitment process requires a rethink. They are supposed to be appointed following a ‘fair and transparent competition’, but the lack of transparency means we have little idea if it is fair. The list of who is appointed is published, and NEDs must declare any financial or non-financial interests that may conflict with their duties as a board member.[1] But private relationships (including any political, let alone romantic, relationship), including how they got the job, are usually skirted over, and appointments are not overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who probes the recruitment process and credentials for the job of other public appointees. This should change.

Greater restrictions are needed for relationships between ministers and advisers

It might be overly prudish to ban ministers, whether they are married to someone else or not, from having relationships at work – though Australia does ban ministers from having relationships with their aides after a similar scandal in 2015. But there are good arguments for greater restrictions. One issue, particularly for SpAds, is that the minister is the person accountable for their conduct. Being in a relationship undermines that and risks making it hard for civil servants to raise concerns.

But the wider question is whether a romantic relationship with anyone appointed to a paid or unpaid role in government could potentially give the ‘appearance’ of undue influence. Both the Ministerial Code and that for non-executive directors place emphasis on whether the public will see it as a conflict. Hancock will be judged on whether that is true in this case. The government should be judged on whether it recognises that this problem goes beyond an embarrassing front-page splash.


  1. Cabinet Office, Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies June 2019,

Related content

01 DEC 2020 Online event
1 December 2020

Where next for special advisers?

Dominic Cummings’s departure from Downing Street gives the government an opportunity to reassess how it uses special advisers.