Lessons for future spads

A new Government means a new crop of Special Advisers. Former adviser, Nick Hillman, has some tips

Whether the election delivers a one-party government, a two-party government or a full rainbow coalition, Whitehall will have to absorb substantial change. Ministers will be different and the Prime Minister, whoever it is, could opt to redraw departmental boundaries.

 

Amidst all this change, there will be an influx of new special advisers – or spads. They support Ministers but are neither elected politicians nor permanent civil servants. Indeed, they sit rather uneasily between the two – as my 2014 paper In Defence of Special Advisers for the Institute for Government tries to explain.

 

Although spads are not directly accountable to the electorate or the civil service, they don’t lack a master. Indeed, most of them have at least three. They work for the Prime Minister of the day (or, in the case of recent Lib Dem spads, the Deputy Prime Minister). They also serve their individual Minister and their department. Usually these forces are aligned but sometimes they are not and a wise spad considers carefully which way to bend on any issue.

 

For me, there are three episodes that encapsulate the considerable tension within the spad role.

 

At the Coalition’s first spad meeting, David Cameron went around the table to ask who we worked for. Each of us responded by stating the name of our Minister. He retorted that in fact we all worked for him. He was right because, on coming to office, the Coalition amended the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers to say they ‘are appointed to serve the government as a whole and not just their appointing minister’.

 

Just after becoming the only Conservative spad in the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, a department run by a Lib Dem Secretary of State, I was called in with my Lib Dem spad colleagues by senior departmental officials. We were warned not to throw our weight around too much on behalf of our political masters. But a new cadre of special advisers with little experience of government cannot take control of Whitehall. Within a few weeks, we were called in again and grilled on why we weren’t throwing our weight around more on behalf of the department.

 

The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers lists a dozen tasks. All but one of them (‘providing expert advice as a specialist in a particular field’) is explicitly party political. Yet the Code also bars spads from political activities, including talking to the media ‘on purely party political matters’ and from ‘national political activities’. This apparent contradiction lies behind the recent row over whether special advisers are officially barred from campaigning in parliamentary by-elections or not.

 

The new Government will doubtless face scandals involving special advisers as pretty much all administrations do. One way to limit such problems would be to formalise the spad role – for example, by providing proper training, introducing a clearer career structure and clarifying the edges of the job. But delivering the necessary improvements is easier said than done: the key challenge is finding a way to make the special adviser role more official without enfeebling it or letting the civil service machine swallow it up.

 

This top ten list sums up the advice that I would offer those appointed to be spads after the election as they navigate their way around corridors of power.

 

  1. Civil servants aren’t the enemy (most of the time), so don’t treat them as such.
  2. Get along with your Minister’s private office – your interests are usually aligned.
  3. Use your own private office, if you have one, as effectively as you can.
  4. Senior civil servants typically recognise you can help them, but watch out for more junior officials trying to bypass you.
  5. Understand the civil service obsession with hierarchy and then ignore it – look for the best people, not the most senior ones.
  6. Search out the few specialists hidden among the generalists.
  7. If it is a Coalition, engage with the spads from the other political party or parties.
  8. Accept any training on offer – for example, from the Institute for Government.
  9. Try and meet former special advisers, irrespective of their party, as they know the tricks of the trade.
  10. Enjoy it – it will almost certainly be over in a blur.