16 October 2012

The recent Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report highlights many of the issues and concerns that have developed around special advisers and their role in government.

First of all, special advisers play a vital role in government including helping to protect the impartiality of the civil service. As we highlighted in The Challenges of Being a Minister, ministers can be isolated and lonely. Special advisers can help as loyal, informed and politically sympathetic colleagues. An environment of openness, confidence and clarity, where there is trust between ministers, officials and advisers is crucial for the effective leadership in Government.

This is why the debate around the numbers of special advisers misses the point. What we have argued, both in giving evidence to PASC and in our own research, is that the number of special advisers should be based on departmental needs rather than on some arbitrary limit. Most special advisers are hardworking and do a thoroughly professional job. However an image has grown up of them as shadowy figures operating at the edge of probity. The select committee was therefore right to look at how the system could be improved. The good news is that where there is a need for change it can easily be made.

Special advisers should operate within a framework comparable to that available to most employees in large organisations. Like any boss, a minister should have clear responsibility for deciding what his or her special adviser does, managing their work and ensuring that they have regular feedback and appraisal.  It is also crucial that special advisers go through a proper induction and training process and are given real clarity about the jobs they have to do – something I emphasised to the select committee. While most special advisers will have politics in their blood, they will have had little or no experience of working within the government machine.

Any training programme should therefore include guidance on their constitutional role and probity issues, how Whitehall operates, how to work well with the Civil Service, other departments and No.10; the management of Parliament and the legislative process, how to get the messages across effectively, how to plan and prioritise and, in what will be an everyday occurrence for special advisers, how to deal with the unexpected.

Making sure this training takes place is, again, the responsibility of the minister with the permanent secretary providing strong back up on proprietary issues and ensuring that any problems and issues are dealt with straightaway. This will not necessarily come easily to ministers, many of whom will have had little experience of managing people. And, when people are under constant pressure, as ministers invariably are, these ‘softer’ issues can be neglected, regardless of how important they are.

The PASC report should be a wake up call to ministers that action is needed now. The report mirrors our own research and shows that ministers need help to get the most out of their special advisers – help that our new guide for ministers and special advisers is designed to provide.