Special advisers are subject to their own strict code of conduct and the ministerial code states clearly that ministers are responsible for the management and conduct of their spads and are also ‘accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.’
The lines of responsibility appear to be clear and should ensure that any problems can be dealt with quickly and effectively. But is this the case? If it was all so straightforward, surely the current row about special adviser accountability would not be taking place? David Cameron argued on the recent Andrew Marr programme that a secretary of state should not automatically resign because of the mistakes of the special adviser.
It is easy, though, amid all this noise, to lose sight of the fact that spads are now a very useful and necessary part of government and are here to stay. They can bridge the gap between ministers and the Civil Service and provide a political touchstone for the Civil Service. They can go to places where a non-political civil servant cannot.
However this does not mean that the current system works perfectly. Research at the Institute for Government, including extensive interviews with spads, shows that it does not. New spads all too often enter a world which is unstructured, unregulated and unknown where they find they virtually have to make it up as they go along. They find themselves under pressure to be jacks of all trades as well as being masters of their department’s policy agenda.
There is also a persistent debate about accountability. The Civil Service believes accountability is inadequate and muddled, while spads believe their accountability is to their secretary of state. This is important unresolved business. The dichotomy remains between spads having more specific job descriptions and the personal nature of their roles and relationships which can sit uneasily with the constraints of detailed role criteria. And last, but by no means least, there is the absence of any real preparation, training or performance evaluation for spads.
It is very easy to criticise the number of spads (the Conservatives did this themselves when they were in opposition). However in government today, particularly with the existence of the coalition, the need is for more, not fewer spads, though of different types. The classic spad who acts as a minister’s political media eyes and ears fulfils important key functions. There is, however, also a strong case for the appointment of more specialist advisers who are brought in because of their expertise and experience in specific policy areas. Both types, who would all be political appointees, would complement each other and strengthen the quality of resource available to ministers.
What is indisputable is that change is needed if the current system is to work effectively. There needs to be a much more systematic approach to the appointment of all advisers based on an assessment of the needs of all ministers in a department, and not just the secretary of state. This could lead to a clearer differentiation between political advice and the more ‘technical’ support which the Civil Service provides. Spads also need to be much better prepared for their jobs. This should include thorough pre-election training, induction into their departments and to Whitehall, underpinned by continuing evaluation and support.
Codes of conduct notwithstanding, there is an air of muddling through about spads and how they operate. The important questions of accountability and where the buck stops remain unresolved. As long as this is the case it will never be politically acceptable to have the numbers needed. This is not fair on the spads, does not make for good government and, unless addressed, is likely to lead to more of the kinds of headlines which no government wants.