Special advisers (spads) occupy a distinct role in government: providing advice to ministers that is more political than the impartial permanent civil service can provide. They are recruited and managed very differently from permanent officials. Some spads come into their crucial role with little or no understanding of how Whitehall works. 

At the same time, as our research shows, ministers feel they get inadequate direct support from the traditional private office structure and the limited number of spads they can recruit. In response, there have been moves to reform the support available to ministers, in particular through the introduction of Extended Ministerial Offices.

Our research

Our research includes reports by two former special advisers:

  • Giles Wilkes, a former adviser to Vince Cable, discusses the specific role of the policy spad, using examples of policies he worked on at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The report, The Unelected Lynchpin: Why Government Needs Special Advisers, emphasises the need for spads to make workable deals if ministers are to get things done.
  • Nick Hillman’s In Defence of Special Advisers argues for a more professional approach to special advisers, including more training and a clearer definition of their role. Hillman was formerly a special adviser to David Willetts.

Learning and Development

The Institute has provided induction sessions for new special advisers that cover:

  • the role of special advisers
  • the key skills a spad needs to operate effectively
  • how to work effectively with Whitehall and get things done
  • the key do's and don'ts
  • managing crises and potential pitfalls.

Project contacts

Senior Fellow