In praise of Special Advisers

Street sign showing Parliament Street and Whitehall

From the Financial Times comes news that David Cameron and Nick Clegg are planning to employ more political special advisers than the previous government; while the media and public try to work out whether there is anything improper about the Defence Secretary’s working relationship with Adam Werritty.   The role of Special Adviser was invented by Harold Wilson to address the need for Ministers to have access to explicitly political advice alongside the civil service.

Norman Lamont and his Special Adviser, David Cameron

Norman Lamont and his Special Adviser, David Cameron

It is a shame that an increase in the number of special adviser posts is treated as an indicator of either profligacy or politicization of the civil service.  Special advisers have played an important role which has helped the civil service and protected it from being drawn into party politics.  In my civil service experience over 25 years, I worked with some excellent special advisers. Some of them, such as David Cameron, John Bercow, Ed Miliband and James Purnell, have gone on to other jobs in politics. Others have returned to jobs in business, think-tanks or public relations.  I worked with some duds too: that’s when you really came to appreciate the advantages of having good one.

A good special adviser plays an important role in government by helping the civil service to think about the political implications of policy options – which is an essential perspective if policy is to be well-designed and implemented.  They work with civil servants to identify the political questions that ministers are likely to ask, and to provide satisfactory answers, helping to smooth the policy-making process. They deal with party political issues – such as writing speeches for party events and dealing with party processes.  Without special advisers, civil servants in Ministers’ offices would inevitably end up being drawn into these party issues.  Special advisers also play an important role in helping to break down the silos across Whitehall – they often do at least as good a job as the civil service at identifying issues requiring cross-departmental discussion, and helping to broker agreements across government.  All this is provided within a reasonably well-regulated structure which helps to avoid accusations of improper influence by outsiders.

The total cost to government of all this is about £7 million a year – in other words, negligible, relative to the institutional benefits of having a transparent arrangement which ensures that Ministers have access to alternative sources of advice from a political perspective.  The Institute for Government recently recommended the appointment of additional special advisers to strengthen the functioning of the coalition government.

Michael White asks in today’s Guardian why Liam Fox didn’t make Adam Werrity a Special Adviser.  I don’t know the answer, but a possible explanation is that each minister has a quota, in an attempt to keep the numbers down.  Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, got round this by appointing a “Council of Economic Advisers” instead. It is sad to see a cheap political tail (a fetish about the number of Special Advisers) wag an important institutional dog (having a structured mechanism for Ministers to draw on political advice if they wish).

The political establishment has become absurdly fastidious about the idea of Ministers getting advice from a variety of different sources.  There is no principle – nor should there be – which prevents Ministers from listening to the opinions of a wide range of people from outside the ranks of the civil service and special advisers. We should welcome a diversity of opinion, especially from people who are well-informed in an issue, which almost always means they have some sort of interest in it. These interests may be financial, institutional or simply a matter of doing something in which the person believes.  There is no requirement that a civil servant must always be present when Ministers meet other people: the civil service is not there to police a Minister’s interaction with the outside world (and nor does the civil service wish to do so, though sometimes they may wish they had). It is up to Ministers to choose which advice they wish to heed, and they are accountable to Parliament for those decisions. The civil service already has privileged access to decision-making: it should not (and in my experience does not) aspire to have a monopoly.

So can we please embrace the role of Special Advisers in government; not impose too tight a cap on their numbers; and ensure that they are properly paid and supported? They play an important role in the strange ecosystem of government.

5 thoughts on “In praise of Special Advisers”

  1. Sounds like an argument for jobs for the boys to me. £7 million for how many special advisers? How are they chosen and, if they are doing a political job, why don’t the parties pay for them?

    Francis: for about 80 SpAds. It works out at a cost of £85K each. The job they are doing is helping government work better: that’s why it makes sense for them to be paid for by taxpayers.

  2. Dear Owen,

    This is so wrong.

    Before you know this on first sight bright idea has descended into a shadow administration where all expertise resides, and a civil service relegated to the role of pushing paper while our boys, “friendly” experts unchallenged in their expertise, set out the direction.

    I know, I have seen it in action.

    It is like having all the Project Management Units concentrated around the top, sucking all talent away form the col face. It would be way better to give the administration easier access to expertise, or even assure that new blood (with strict rules about patronage) can get into the administration at a higher level.


  3. I too had a very good experience with a Special Adviser in the FCO many years ago. I found him an invaluable source of discreet advice on how my ideas for possible policy initiatives were likely to play with the Secretary of State and on ways to tweak them to make them more politically acceptable. The Secretary of State in question happened to be congenitally suspicious of his departmental officials, such as me, and the Spad (not that that ugly word had been invented then) played an extremely useful role in allaying his suspicions and encouraging a more trusting relationship, all of which was very much in the interests of good government. He certainly made the Secretary of State much more effective than he would otherwise have been.

    I’m struck by your reminder that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ministers listening to policy advice from sources outside government and Spads, even if those sources are lobbyists for commercial or other interests. But if a minister does maintain systematic contacts with outside sources of policy advice, it’s surely essential that they must be transparent: known to (but not necessarily monitored by) his officials, recorded, and not kept secret. The trouble with Dr Fox’s relationship with Mr Werrity (lovely Dickensian name) was, in my view, that it was apparently being used to promote the interests not only of shadowy commercial and financial interests but also of foreign governments, all effectively in unaccountable secrecy. We don’t yet know whether William Hague and/or the FCO knew what Fox was up to with Werrity but if he was virtually running a private foreign policy in parallel with that of the government, that seems to me an unacceptable activity on the part of a Secretary of State for Defence (or indeed any other member of the government). To be so closely and constantly associated with a private lobbyist who was receiving quite large sums of money which are alleged to have been used in some cases for purposes other than those which the donors intended comes too close to sleaze for comfort.

  4. I have no opinion on Special Advisers, but this post did make me wonder if you are Owen Abroad anymore.

    Maybe you can be “Owen Homebody”. Or “Owen the Feisty Bulldog”. Or “Mr. Owen’s Neighborhood”? So many options…

  5. While I do agree with much you say, Mr. Owen, there is a fair set of counter questions that can be asked.
    Like this increases a nation’s democratic deficit by widening the gulf between the state and population.
    Decisions made will be made even more autocratically. The fact the S-A may provide accurate advice doesn’t justify the decision being made because 2 people in a nation of millions agree.
    The public can’t hold such people to account. They’re appointed unilaterally and secretly. Public lists of names isn’t enough. They can refrain from answering questions from the press and tell someone in the public “I don’t care what you think, I don’t report to you.”
    From top to bottom, surely what we need in the UK(and elsewhere) is reducing the democratic deficit? Special advisers don’t do that. You don’t need to employ someone to hear what a person says. That’s obscene.
    This isn’t me dismissing the issue out of hand, or individual people whom I’m sure provide invaluable assistance to people and a nation broadly. But it is troubling that you argue that when a S-A is hired, that’s the person seeking a ‘wider’ range of sources. All that person has to do is walk outside and ask the next person they meet in the street! Or go onto websites of activist groups, or what have you.

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