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Special advisers: the great cull or stealthy rise?

The Coaltion pledged to "limit" the number of special advisers in government, but those numbers have been rising.

The Coaltion pledged to "limit" the number of special advisers in government, but it will soon have to acknowledge that the number has slowly been rising. This might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Special advisers, or SpAds as they are not-so-affectionately known, seldom get good press. Gordon Brown vowed to trim their wings when he moved into No. 10, and the Conservatives' hostility to SpAds was well established in the run up to the 2010 general election. The Coalition's Programme for Government (PDF, 475KB) even made an explicit promise to 'limit' the number of advisers in government, making much of the fact that they had appointed fewer advisers than the outgoing Labour administration. However, the government will soon have to acknowledge that the number of special advisers has slowly been rising. Which raises the question, are these new SpAds being appointed to where they are most needed?

More not fewer

Even in the context of one-party government, cutting the number of special advisers was going to cause problems. But in a coalition, where political interactions and connections – between and within parties – are even more important, there is greater demand placed on SpAds (see our report United We Stand.) And while the Telegraph's Ben Brogan has hinted at a possible cull to deal with underperforming advisers, the real problem could be that they are spread too thin to effectively discharge their duties. Against this backdrop of anti-SpAd posturing, there is a curious trend in the number of special advisers. According to the most recently published list of SpAds, the number of advisers has actually increased 17%, from 66 in June 2010 to 74 as of March 2011. The graph below gives the number of special advisers by department as of June 2010, and the additional appointments made thereafter.

Number of special advisers by appointing minister

The above graph raises some questions:

  • are the additional SpAds going to the right places?
  • what consideration was given for departments that have mixed Lib Dem and Conservative ministerial teams?
  • should ministers of state in politically mixed departments be given special advisers (as is the case for David Willets)?

In some departments, Lib Dem junior ministers have taken to using their parliamentary researchers to support them in ministerial duties – a probable sign that ministers aren’t getting the political support they require in mixed departments. Finally, though not raised in the graph, there is the issue of former party employees being appointed as temporary civil servants – an apparent way to skirt the Government’s self-imposed limit.

Raising the level of debate

To date, there has been surprisingly little academic research on the role of special advisers, and informed, intelligent debate on the matter has been scant at best. Bloggers and journalists have filled the void with a largely critical narrative of special advisers. But the portrayal of SpAds as spinners and Machiavellian operators is an extremely shallow one, crowding out any sensible debate on political appointments in government. The growth in the number of SpAds should be seen as a positive development – a policy correction, and implicit recognition that when it comes to advisers, less isn’t necessarily more. The next step should be a more open and honest discussion about the role of political appointments in the civil service, how they are used, how many are required, what makes for effective special advisers, and whether the existing crop have the right balance of skills and experience. This is a debate that needs to move beyond clichés, politics and vitriol. Given the Government’s commitment to transparency, such a debate should be welcomed.

Institute for Government

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