May 2012 - September 2014
Special Advisers - who they are what they do and why they matter
Special advisers (‘spads’) are popularly seen as malign figures— ‘people who live in the dark’. The focus remains on well-publicised controversies, on a single role (’spin’) and on a tiny number of special advisers (eg. Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson). But in fact we know very little about special advisers: who they are and what they do has not been documented. Since 1997 there have been over 70 special advisers working in government in any one year.
So this project asks: who are special advisers; how are they appointed; what do they do; and how can their role and effectiveness be improved? It is very difficult to talk about the role of special advisers in government and the impact they have without having an evidence base from which to work. We aim to remedy this through the construction of a database and semi-structured interviews with special advisers, their ministers and civil servants.
We hope to move the policy debate on from a largely negative attitude to accepting the presence of special advisers in government and to discussing how to improve their effectiveness. Special advisers exist for a reason: Ministers need them. Ministers may feel overwhelmed by the civil service and the information overload. That is why, in spite of calls for a cap, the number of special advisers has continued to rise. And so we wish to examine how special advisers could become a more effective resource in supporting ministers and ensuring the democratic responsiveness to the British public.
We recognise, however, there is a dual critique: many spads are ineffective; but some are seen as too powerful and yet unaccountable. Where we find that special advisers exercise more power than appropriate, we need to ask how this might be remedied.
Our primary research questions are:
- Why do ministers appoint special advisers?
- Who are the special advisers, and what are their characteristics? (age, skills and experience) How are they recruited? What are their subsequent careers?
- What are the roles and functions of special advisers?
- What has been their impact on the workings of government? How can their role and effectiveness be improved?
This project is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. We will begin this project in May 2012 and propose to complete it by July 2013. The project team consists of Robert Hazell, Ben Yong, Peter Waller, David Laughrin, Brian Walker, Hilary Jackson and a research assistant, Max Goplerud.
2013: We have now extended our research so that we will now look at special advisers under three different government 'eras': the Conservative governments of 1979-97; the Labour governments of 1997-2010; and the current Coalition Government (2010-).
5 January 2015
The latest product of our Special Advisers project is a package of online resource materials for Special Adviser. During our research on Special Advisers, one heartfelt plea was for better induction and training materials. This cache of resource material aims to help meet that demand. Link
19 September 2014
This searchable database contains a list of all special advisers working in Whitehall between 1979 and 2013. The data comes from Hansard, Cabinet Office data releases, and key periodicals. It is searchable by special adviser, minister, department, date and premier Link
8 August 2014
The new book 'Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter' Link
The Constitution Unit has produced a new Handbook, Being a Special Adviser, which is an invaluable guide for Special Advisers on how to operate: Link
17 December 2013
Max Goplerud's article 'The First Time is (Mostly) the Charm: Special Advisers as Parliamentary Candidates and Members of Parliament': Link
31 May 2013
Daniella Lock 'Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997- 2013': link
30 January 2013
Matthew Honeyman 'Research Note: Former Special Advisers in Cabinet, 1979-2013':link
29 May 2012
Robert Hazell, Ben Yong, Peter Waller and Brian Walker 'Constitution Unit submission to the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry on special advisers': submission
Special Adviser Online Resources
The latest product of our Special Advisers project is a package of online resource materials for Special Adviser. During our research on Special Advisers, one heartfelt plea was for better induction and training materials. This cache of resource material aims to help meet that demand.
Database of Special Advisers (Excel file)
This searchable database contains a list of all special advisers working in Whitehall between 1979 and 2013. The data comes from Hansard, Cabinet Office data releases, and key periodicals. It is searchable by special adviser, minister, department, date and premier.
Constitution Unit Handbook: Being a Special Adviser
The Constitution Unit has produced a Handbook, Being a Special Adviser, which is an invaluable guide for Special Advisers on how to operate.
Institute for Government report: InsideOut: In Defence of Special Advisers
This report by Nick Hillman attempts to explain the job of a departmental special adviser
Cabinet Office webpage
The official site of the Cabinet Office. Lists of spads are published here.
House of Commons Library Standard Note Special Advisers 2013
Looks at the background, numbers and status of spads.
House of Commons Public Administration Committee: Special Advisers in the Thick of It
The report of the most recent inquiry into the work of special advisers.
Guide to lobbying, PR and Government. Published an (incomplete) list of spads.
Covers the role of spads in the British political system.
Institute for Government
Link to the IfG’s research into the role of special advisers.
Blogs and online articles on or by special advisors
'Being a special adviser under the coalition' Total Politics (8 May 2012)
'Farewell to my life as Jack Straw's special adviser' Guardian (18 May 2010)
'The rise and fall of the spin doctor' Personal blog (23 April 2009)
Spads-u-like? Why British politics needs its special advisers' Guardian (20 September 2011)
- Book Launch
Special Advisers Book Launch
11th Sept 2014
- VIDEO: Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter
- PRESS RELEASE: Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell
- Pre-order a copy of the new book 'Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter' by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong (August 2014)
- Press release: Special Advisers need better support and supervision, says new study from Constitution Unit (June 2014)
- In the Thick of It: What do Special Advisers do - and does it make government better or worse? (Nov 2011)
- Press release: Project launch: the role of special advisors (May 2011)
- Interim report leads to Nick Clegg appointing new Spads (Oct 2011)
- Are Westminster & Whitehall coping with the Coalition? Michael White in the Guardian (Jun 2011)
- BBC Politics Show highlights Unit research on coalition government(May 2011)
- VIDEO: Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter
- SPADs on the Blog
The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the […]
Tuesday, 09 February 2016
In 2015 the Conservative government has approved the creation of five Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs), enabling ministers to recruit more special advisers and temporary civil servants. This development, which has gone unreported by the media, was unearthed by Athanassios Gouglas. In this post he and Marleen Brans explain the background to these developments and put […]
Monday, 06 October 2014
Michelle Silongan rounds up the recent launch of Ben Yong and Robert Hazell’s book on Special Advisers at the Institute for Government. Last month the Institute for Government hosted the launch for the new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell. This well-attended event opened […]
Thursday, 11 September 2014
A new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell is to be launched tonight at the Institute for Government. In this post, Ben Yong draws on the research conducted for the book to analyse the latest Spads reshuffle. ‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said […]
Wednesday, 20 August 2014
A recent article in the Telegraph was critical of a ‘revolving door’ of special advisers (spads) from the last Labour government into charities or think tanks. As outlined in the forthcoming book on spads by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell, this blog post wishes to point out that the Telegraph article tells only an incomplete story; […]
Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder
Monday, 10 March 2014
Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. […]
Tuesday, 03 December 2013
Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO. Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July. Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261358/November_-_EMO_Guidance_to_Departments.pdf EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees. The […]
Wednesday, 06 November 2013
6th November 20103 Special advisers (spads) are in the news again. The Coalition government has finally (and belatedly) released its annual report on numbers and cost: there are now 98 spads in post—30 more than when the Coalition started, breaking the Coalition pledge to keep numbers down and topping the former high of 83 (in […]
Thursday, 11 July 2013
11th July 2013 The government released its response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s report on special advisers (spads) yesterday. The more anorak-minded of us focused on Paragraph 8 where the government said something that is certainly misleading if not simply false: “This Government has already significantly increased the transparency around all special advisers. The […]
Monday, 10 June 2013
10th June 2013 Posted on behalf of Ruth Levitt This week’s news about Nick Clegg’s appointment of businessman James Caan to launch the Open Doors awards, an initiative intended to help tackle the barriers facing young people in getting jobs, again reveals the pitfalls that can arise when ministers choose too casually to appoint high-profile […]