Special advisers and civil servants

Danny Finkelstein in The Times sticks up for Special Advisers.  Alex Evans, who was a Special Adviser in DFID, tells a funny story about being put at the end of a corridor

I returned from leave to discover that my office had halved in size: the wall had been moved six feet.  To create a new meeting room for the Permanent Secretary on the other side.

For the first time I can remember, I agree with Danny Finkelstein (and, less unusually, with Alex).  We need special advisers; and if anything we need more of them, not fewer; and we need to give them proper power and authority.

I say this partly for the reasons that Danny gives: we should be glad to have a diversity of ideas and advice to Ministers.  If civil servants can’t stand that heat of competition, they should get out the kitchen.  And as Danny says, the special adviser network can actally enhance effective Cabinet Government, by maintaining political conversations between government departments that do not work as well through the civil service networks.

But there is one other reason why civil servants should be in favour of having more special advisers: they help to prevent politicisation of the civil service.  For as long as we have sufficient, high qality special advisers, they can write speeches, brief journalists, write political strategies, liaise with MPs and the more political lobby groups – which prevents Ministers from having to ask civil servants to perform tasks which brings them into the gray areas at the margins of political neutrality.  So a greater number of Special Advisers does not imply an increasing politicisation of the civil service, as is sometimes claimed, but rather a protection against it.

I have worked closely with many special advisers, some of whom are now quite well known (whatever happened to David Cameron, John Bercow, David Milliband and James Purnell, I wonder?) and I found most of them to be extremely smart, productive, and responsible. Working with special advisers helps civil servants to understand the political context of their advice better.  A good partnership between civil servants and special advisers enables them to design policies and explain them in ways that are politically attractive, helping to introduce better policies which might otherwise be ruled out on political grounds.

I’d like to think that the Yes, Minister days are behind us, but Alex’s recollections suggest that, at least unconsciously, those civil service attitudes are not yet entirely in the past.

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