19 December 2014

An erupting row about the number of special advisers reveals that debate about political appointments is riddled with stereotype and misunderstanding. It’s time for a grown up discussion.

Yesterday saw the great pre-Christmas ‘data dump’ where a number of government departments published their final set of statistics and releases before the holidays. One of the items, a list of special advisers and how much they are paid, has received some media attention and in the process become something of a political football.

The number and the cost of special advisers (spads) has risen over the last year, with the pay bill coming in at £8.4 million. Critics accuse the government of breaking their commitment not to increase the number of special advisers and of paying them too much while other parts of the public sector face staff reductions and budget cuts.

Like so many debates about spads, this one suffers from a few misunderstandings.

First, ‘spads’ is a catch-all term and those in the role get rather unfairly caricatured. The popular image is of the media bruiser, the spinner – in short it’s Malcolm Tucker. In truth, and as former spads Nick Hillman and Giles Wilkes make clear in their respective assessments of doing the job (both published recently by the Institute for Government), there are a variety of roles spads can play.

Spads do cover media work, rightly keeping party political communications out of the hands of permanent, neutral communications officials.  But they also help to drive through policy, provide support to ministers and act as a vital cog in the machinery of government, helping to translate their minister’s priorities into action, provide a political perspective on official policy advice, and facilitate relationships across the coalition divide.

Second, the numbers game is a distraction. It’s true that the Conservatives had pledged not to increase numbers of special advisers before the 2010 election and in the Coalition’s Programme for Government. Once in government though, they realised that this was an impractical suggestion, primarily because working in coalition meant a different way of working. The Liberal Democrats had too few advisers and this hampered the flow of information and communication across government. So the pledge was reversed.

Yet even now the UK government has few special advisers compared to some other countries including Australia and Canada, with most secretaries of state having just two. More direct support for ministers is needed, though not necessarily more spads. That’s why all parties have committed to the idea of ‘Extended Ministerial Offices’, as the Institute for Government advocated in 2012. This type of structure would give ministers more access to expert policy advisers that they have been involved in selecting, but who are not party political. Of course it’s important that these appointments are managed professionally and transparently, and that there is clear guidance about their roles.

The row over these figures has shown that the debate about spads lacks understanding and nuance, relying more on stereotypes than on facts. Nearly all of the literature on special advisers, including the recent comprehensive research by the Constitution Unit at UCL , concludes that they perform a useful, important and necessary role in government.

Spads are an essential part of government, so let’s make this a proper debate instead of scrap about numbers.

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Ministers do need the right kind of help to cope with the overload that I and others have identified. That was why I called my 2009 article in Political Quarterly "Swimming for their lives: waving or drowning?"

But numbers do matter. If there are too many advisers around there is a legitimate fear that access to Ministers might be restricted from both civil service and outside advisers and "coterie government" would pose the same perils as so-called "sofa government".

We are a long way from that situation currently, however, and few would argue that two per Cabinet Minister is sufficient for today's challenges, especially if as seems logical their advice should be shared when appropriate with other departmental Ministers.

But if more advisers are to be appointed they do need more help themselves, as Nick Hillman and Giles Wilkes have illustrated (and helped to provide through their thought provoking insights.) That is why some of us working at the Constitution Unit have produced a cache of material including videos which are now available on its website. The reflections of former Ministers, officials and special advisers should give future advisers for new Ministers an even better chance of hitting the ground running, to everyone's advantage.