18 December 2015

Yesterday, the Cabinet Office released new data on special advisers (spads), the political appointees who help ministers navigate government. Nicola Hughes and Emily Andrews examine the figures and explore the views expressed on spads from our Ministers Reflect interview archive.

The overall number of special advisers (spads) in government is 92, down from 107 just before the May election. Of the 92, 40 are based at the centre of government – No 10, HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

The post-election drop is largely thanks to the absence of a coalition partner; partway through the last Parliament, a number of additional Liberal Democrat spads were appointed to support the Deputy Prime Minister and beef up the Liberal Democrat presence in Conservative-led departments; clearly there is no need to directly replace their posts.

David Cameron had, at the start of his tenure, pledged to limit the amount of political appointees and as my colleague Dr Hannah White explores, is still seeking to "cut the cost of politics" in various ways.

Immediately following the 2010 election, there was an initial drop in numbers from the New Labour years. As the chart shows, the numbers have crept up since then, showing an increase of nearly 50% since 2010. These figures will no doubt provoke criticism from some quarters, but as we’ve previously argued, the debate about spads needs to go beyond numbers and pay bills.

Are spads necessary?

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were critical of spads while in opposition, but warmed to the idea once in government. This change of heart might explain some of the rise in numbers. It was “one of the things we got wrong” said Andrew Mitchell in our recent series of interviews with former government ministers.

Vince Cable’s view was also fairly typical: “I was a bit sceptical of special advisers. I think having been in government they are absolutely essential, acting as a kind of interface with the political parties and with other government departments and your political opposite numbers.”

The Ministers Reflect interviews also provided fresh insight into why ministers appreciate spads. It’s not that ministers find spads useful because they don’t value their civil servants. Indeed, nearly all of the ministers we spoke to were delighted with the quality of policy advice they received from officials and found civil servants to be "high-grade" and "extremely committed" individuals who could deliver results when given direction.

Rather, ministers get something from spads that they can’t get from officials – including political nous and ability to set policy in a broader political context. As Mark Hoban explained: …the media spad was very helpful because of that very clear distinction that having a sort of media side where civil servants would talk about policy but not the politics of it and actually, I think the media spad is very good in thinking through the politics and working through what the right messages would be and the language we might want to use. No, I think spads are hugely under-valued, actually. Good spads are fantastic.”

Other ministers were less enthusiastic. Take Alan Duncan, the former International Development Minister: “Look, special advisers can be a curse or a blessing. They have a unique capacity to corrode government by souring relations between ministers and by feeding the newspapers. And so there is a fundamental issue about whether a special adviser should ever tell a minister what to do. And a lot of them think they can… they are a bad breed in many cases.”

Some feared that the Extended Ministerial Office (EMO) model would – if adopted more widely – lead to more politicisation of government and isolate ministers from the rest of their departments. This is something to keep an eye on as these new structures develop. There are, officially at least, four EMOs currently operating. It’s an emergent model that still feels a little ad hoc and opaque.

Where next?

Direct political appointments, whether traditional departmental special advisers, Number 10 policy staff or the expert policy advisers ministers can appoint to EMOs, seem to be here to stay. What’s crucial now is to ensure that the process for appointing and managing them is transparent and professional. Codes of ethics and behaviour must be clear and properly enforced, in particular the lines of accountability between ministers, officials and advisers. Ministers need to find ways of making these teams work effectively together and all pull in the same direction.

Finally, spads have little induction or support in how to do their jobs well; they can come into senior roles with very little understanding of how government works and how to get things done in Whitehall. While the role has always been seen as fluid, personal to the minister and not well-suited to formal management processes, much more could be done to help spads perform in their role, including providing proper induction.

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