The Constitution Unit


Special Advisers

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 HazellBen YongPeter WallerDavid LaughrinBrian WalkerHilary Jackson and a research assistant, Max Goplerud.

If you are interested in any aspect of this project, please contact either Professor Robert Hazell or Dr Ben Yong.

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-).

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